A Very Polish Christmas Down Under
Christmas. For some, it is the most joyous time of the year and for others, it can be very stress-inducing. What should be an end of year celebration, a chance to take stock, relax and enjoy with family can turn into turmoil over how much to spend on presents and how on earth will the credit card be paid back?
The average Aussie credit card debt after Christmas is $1,666 with a whopping 82% of people taking up to 6 months to pay it off and 18% taking even longer!
If you are stressing out leading up to Christmas and aren’t sure how to go about having a fabulous time and not getting credit card hangover, look no further. 6 Aussie bloggers tell how they celebrate Christmas in a frugal and fun way.
Whether it is traditional family time, fabulously frugal food, or neat savings ideas to take the stress out of your holiday season –you’ll find some great reading here.
The Money Meet Mind Way of Doing Christmas
I’d love to tell you there is a Money Meet Mind way to do Christmas if you’re in hot pursuit of financial independence. But that just wouldn’t be true. While I can control how my household spends our money, invests or avoids clutter, Christmas is out of my control.
The way we celebrate is based layers of tradition, cultural influences and years of negotiation. For example, the rest of my family doesn’t share my dim view of presents.
Despite this being our largest Christmas expense and the greatest opportunity for introducing clutter into our lives, presents in my family are a tradition that is here to stay. But like many traditions, even this has evolved over the years.
The Real Meaning of Christmas For Me
I immigrated to Australia with my family as a child. We left behind our extended family in Europe. In the early years, every Christmas we’d load up the boot with camping gear and put at least a few hundred kilometres between us and home, settling in for a traditional Christmas in some wild part of Australia.
Our Christmas Eve celebration would take place at sunset on a deserted, sandy beach, or at a mountain top campsite.
As a kid I didn’t really understand why we didn’t stay home, put up the Christmas tree and spare ourselves the trouble of carting around traditional ‘fish in jelly’ in the esky, which would inevitably leak and stink out the car in the middle of summer.
The reason was family. Without them, Christmas at home couldn’t be the same.
This hit home a few years ago when my husband and I planned to spend a white Christmas in Poland with my extended family. I was so excited for him! Finally, he would get to experience a ‘real’ Christmas. Except that as white and festive as it was and as lovely as it was to see my grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins, we both missed our closest family in Australia.
And it turned out, that the most real part of celebrating Christmas, was spending it with them.
So I’m grateful for how much my family has grown. We now have so many people to share it with that each year it’s a frantic race to leave one meal and arrive at the next one with enough room for another round of dessert.
Traditional Polish Wigilia Down Under
As a kid, being Polish was the best thing ever. As in many European countries, the main family celebration takes place on Christmas Eve and that’s when we got to open our presents.
A full sleep less than my Australian friends! Isn’t it funny how things change?
So what does our Polish Christmas or Wigilia Down Under look like?
Apart from frantic last minute cooking and gift wrapping, our Christmas tree is decorated during the day, a full three weeks later than our Australian friends.
We would traditionally sit down to Wigilia by the light of the first star. In Poland, in the dead of winter, that would be around 3:30pm. In Australia, around the longest day of the year, it’s much, much later so we skip that bit and light a candle instead. Hey, sometimes you have to be flexible with your traditions!
It all starts with a short prayer and breaking bread. Opłatek, a thin crispy wafer (like communion) is shared amongst each guest as we wish each other all the best for Christmas and the upcoming year. We then sit down to supper which consists of:
– Barszcz (Polish version of borscht) which is fermented beetroot soup served with uszka a form of mushroom filled tortellini. This is the culinary highlight for me. It’s amazing for the taste buds and your gut. Trust me.
– Next comes the fish. Traditionally this would be carp, that destructive fresh water pest that no Australian actually eats. In Poland these are still sold live in the market and left to swim in the home bathtub until they meet their fate in the kitchen. But in Australia, nobody in their right mind actually eats them, so our Christmas fish is of the salt water variety. We have rainbow trout served in jelly, cold fish balls also in jelly and a traditional Portuguese fish dish usually from salted cod, the specifics of which vary from year to year. But that provides a refreshing alternative to fish jelly!
– Finally out come the pierogi, little dumplings stuffed with potatoes and cheese, served with sour cream and melted butter.
When the Angel Arrives
It’s now time for a break in the feasting and the children are sent off to play, somewhere as far away from the Christmas tree as possible. While distracted, the Christmas Angel appears and drops the presents under the tree.
As the Angel leaves, they ring their bells and the kids run in to find the Christmas tree surrounded by gifts. Of course the Angel leaves just before the kids get to the tree.
As a kid, this moment was totally magical. Even after I was told by a friend that Santa wasn’t real, I couldn’t believe it was true, since the logistics were so flawlessly executed. One minute I was playing, next minute I heard the bells and there were the presents! How could that heist be carried out by my parents?
Now, I get to watch my nieces and nephew’s eyes light up in joy and wonderment and it might just be one of the best parts of Christmas.
Traditionally, distributing the presents to the rest of the family is a job for the youngest child. Which was always me. Now my nieces, nephews and daughter help me do this very important job.
After an orgy of food and gifts, the whole family goes for an early evening stroll, taking in the glorious colour of the local Christmas lights competition. Again, not quite a Wigilia tradition, but a good way to work up an appetite for dessert and get the youngest kids to sleep.
Don’t Forget Dessert
Finally, the evening ends with dessert. Baked cheesecake with a chocolate topping, layered gingerbread cake, poppy seed and rose petal rolled cakes and Portuguese orange roll are all on the menu.
By all rights, that should be the end of our Christmas celebrations. But no, in the morning my family meets up for a sumptuous continental breakfast full of deli meats, salads, herring and of course dessert!
While they rest, we head off to a traditional Christmas lunch at my in-laws. And the following evening, we reconvene for dinner.
Managing Christmas Spending
If this sounds like an excessive amount of food, you’d be right. Luckily, the costs don’t tend to add up, as all of the cooking in my family is shared.
Each year, every household pitches in and makes a selection of the dishes to be shared at the various meals. Realistically, the greatest saving is in time, as the dishes are relatively inexpensive but the time to prepare them is huge.
Hand making 120 dumplings and another 80 uszka is one of my jobs each year and takes half the day, so I’m thankful to be off the hook for the rest of the cooking.
The much more significant portion of our Christmas spending is gifts. With 16 of us across the two families, I reckon our budget is pretty much in line with the average spend.
This has been the most contentious issue over the years. Contrary to my childhood ways, I favour the less is better approach for the sake of money and clutter while other members (on both sides of the family) take the polar opposite view.
As far as I’m concerned, the most challenging part of gift giving is that we already have everything we need. Ask most people what they would like for Christmas and few can answer the question, because most of us buy stuff throughout the year as we need or want it.
Christmas Wish Lists
That’s speaking from experience. For a few years we tried good old fashioned Christmas wish lists. Everyone enthusiastically agreed – we’d be getting each other useful gifts that were truly wanted and not too expensive. Brilliant.
But it turned out that getting these out of each family member was like pulling teeth.
We ended up scraping that plan and agreed to give each other useful consumables like chocolate and homemade items like soap and also give donations to our favourite charities! And it’s sort of worked for those willing to stick to the agreement.
In the end everyone does what they feel comfortable with and the presents are far less extravagant than the few years where they cost severl hundred dollars per couple.
Ultimately the biggest change in our families’ gift giving habits has come with the birth of children. It’s now all about the kids having a magical Christmas experience.
Or falling into a crazed frenzy surrounded by little scraps of colourful wrapping paper.
They honestly get so much stuff, they don’t know what to do with themselves and end up trying to tear open all the boxes, dump the contents and play with everything, all at once.
Is this the way to teach them about giving in the spirit of Christmas I wonder?
My strategy for staying away from giving them stuff is to give them experiences. We do this for birthdays as well and in the past have taken them on a steam train ride, to the theatre, a kid’s dance party and an animal park.
I much prefer these experiences which I think have brought us closer, than buying toys that may or may not ever get played with.
My husband’s family has this year decided to try a Secret Santa. This will definitely limit spending as it’s now one gift per adult with an agreed limit of $50. The kids will of course still be showered with gifts.
Will one gift per person be enough to maintain the Christmas cheer? I’m all for it, so it will be interesting to see.
No Gifts For Partners
My husband and I haven’t given each other gifts for any special occasion in the last 10 years. Unless you count the new vacuum cleaner he bought shortly after the birth of our daughter as a ‘push present’!
He tells me each time he sees it (rarely!) that I’m the luckiest wife in the world because I get to use that vacuum cleaner!
That’s our very Polish Christmas! Don’t forget to check the other awesome bloggers who are participating in Christmas Around Australia:
How do you “do” Christmas in your house?