Ben Aitken tells about Christmas customs, including the Polish habit of preparing for a stranger

December 19, 2019

Ben Aitken’s excerpt from his book “A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland “. 

Christmas can be awkward. In Venezuela one is expected to roller-skate to church. In Finland one is expected to enjoy a long, naked session in the sauna with one’s dead ancestors. In South Africa fried caterpillars are par for the course, while in Catalonia children are encouraged to dress up and feed a hollow log in the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, and then beat it with a stick and demand it poops candy and cheese. (Sounds like Catalonia needs its independence, to say nothing of deserving it.)

In 2016 I had an awkward Christmas in Poland. (A bit of context: I’d moved to Poznan on a whim and had found a job in a fish and chip shop.) I’d heard about the local tradition of setting an extra place at the table in case a stranger turned up for the festive feast. Everybody I knew honoured this tradition, but not a single person knew of an occasion when a stranger had actually turned up. And so, with the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve (when the Poles traditionally start to eat), I approached a house at random and rang the bell. Several children ran excitedly to the front window, saw me, then withdrew sheepishly. A woman answered the door. She looked at me as though I was an unusual parcel. I delivered my rehearsed lines in Polish: ‘Merry Christmas Sir/Madam. I am a foreigner called Benjamin. You know that tradition of setting a place for a stranger? Well here I am.’ She looked me up and down, then said: ‘You’re a bit late, but come in.’

I ate and drank with the family for two hours. I tried each of the customary twelve dishes (one for each time Poland has been invaded), enjoyed a light grilling from the matriarch of the house Agnieszka regarding my life choices (‘But of all the places in the world – why Poland?’), and was introduced to the family pet – a rat called Tomek, who relieved himself on me after the fish course.

The whole thing was at once awkward and wonderful, odd and brilliant – it was my year in Poland writ small. When I excused myself and made to leave, the paternal grandfather, who over the previous two hours had said nothing except to complain about my unscheduled appearance in Polish to his son, rose to his feet and said: ‘Nice to meet you.’ I shook his hand and said: ‘Do zobaczenia w przyszłym roku.’ (I’ll see you next year.)

Ben Aitken, author of the book “A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland” 

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