Polish Christmas traditions
Christmas is coming…
We haven’t done any research on the matter, but we’d dare to claim that Poland really loves Christmas. You can feel the holiday spirit throughout the whole month of December, and we do not mean just shopping. In Poland, Christmas is a serious matter. Don’t believe us? Let’s have a look at some of the things that happen in Poland in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
As in other cities across Europe, towards the end of November, Christmas markets are organised in many Polish cities, such as Krakow, Wroclaw or Poznan. Here you can buy handmade souvenirs, a Christmas tree, warm food or mulled wine. Of course, that last one tastes the best in the winter.
6th of December— time for some treats
In Poland, it is common to celebrate St Nicholas’ Day on the 6th of December. On the morning of St Nicholas’ day, kids expect to find a little gift in their shoe or stocking. No wonder many kids try their hardest to keep their eyes open all night in hopes of seeing Santa tiptoeing into their room!
Turning the house upside down
Weeks leading up to Christmas Eve in Polish homes are characterised by thorough cleaning in every corner of the house. And we do mean every corner. Everything, from the tops of the cupboards to the windows, has to be squeaky clean and absolutely spotless for the arrival of baby Jesus… and the family. This is also the time for dusting off all the Christmas lights and other decorations like millions of bombki (baubles).
Putting up a Christmas tree
Since we’re on the subject of baubles, a Christmas tree is a must in every Polish house. Although each year more and more people decide on a plastic Christmas tree, many households cannot imagine Christmas without a real tree and its lovely scent. When it comes to decorations, colourful glass balls are not the only things hanging on the tree. In some houses, it is decorated with gingerbreads, candies and/or dried fruit.
The big bake-off
Christmas in Poland is nothing without food and Christmas dishes are usually on the Polish table just once a year. In some families, preparing some of these dishes starts weeks in advance. For example, some people start to bake gingerbreads in early December. Some of the more traditional recipes require the gingerbread dough to sit for a week or more before baking. Apart from gingerbreads, a popular Christmas dessert in Poland is makowiec, a poppy seed cake.
Christmas Eve — the most important day of the Polish Christmas
Unlike in many other countries, in Poland, Christmas Eve (Polish: Wigilia) is the most important day of the holiday. All the preparations like cleaning, decorating and cooking have to be done before Christmas Eve dinner. So, on the 24th of December, all members of the household are actively involved in the preparations from early hours. You can often feel a nervous atmosphere in the air as everyone is trying to get things ready on time.
Waiting for the first star in the sky
Depending on the family, Christmas Eve dinner starts either late afternoon or early evening. However, traditionally, it should begin only after the first star appears in the sky. This tradition is a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. The kids are usually the eager ones searching for the first star. Don’t be mistaken though, it’s not just food they are waiting for, but the gifts.
The Christmas table and an extra seat
Decorating the table is as important as decorating the tree and there are some rules to be followed. In many Polish households, the tablecloth has to be as white as snow. It is also common to put a bit of hay beneath the tablecloth. This is supposed to be a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable. In addition, in most Polish homes the tradition of leaving an empty seat/plate at the table is still followed. Christmastime for many is about spending time with family and being kind to each other. This extra seat is meant to remind us about others. The expression “Gość w dom, Bóg w dom” which can be translated to “A guest in the house is God in the house” is very popular in Poland. Thus, the extra seat is for an unexpected guest in need of shelter.
Sharing the Christmas wafer
Before starting the Christmas Eve supper, it is mandatory to share the Christmas wafer (Polish: opłatek). This tradition is one of the most popular and is still followed in the vast majority of Polish homes. Opłatek is a thin piece of wafer made of flour and water. Its presence at the table is associated with the breaking of bread at the Last Supper. Each person at the table receives it before digging into the meal and shares it with others while making wishes. By the way, Polish pets also receive their own pink wafers in some houses. Why? Supposedly, Christmas Eve is the only time of the year when animals are graced with the ability of human speech. In line with this tradition, you can be certain that many children try to talk with their pets on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve feast with 12 dishes
A traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Poland should have 12 dishes. Why 12? This depends on who you ask. Some say it’s because of the number of Apostles, others that it’s for the number of months in the year. Either way, many people do their best to prepare 12 delicious dishes. Of course, it is expected that guests try a bit of everything. This is not only to express gratitude to the chef but also to ensure prosperity for each month of the year. Following the old catholic tradition, Polish Christmas dishes are meat-free and include a lot of fish (in particular carp). Dishes vary depending on the region, but there are some classics that you’ll find in most houses across the country. Most prominent are kapusta z grzybami (cabbage with mushrooms), pierogi (Polish dumplings) and barszcz (red beetroot soup).
Ho Ho Ho: the moment kids have been waiting for
Finally, after dinner comes the time all kids have been waiting for — gifts. As you can see, Christmas Eve in Poland is a big day. These days, gifts are brought by Santa Claus in most of Poland. However, there are some regions of the country where the gift bearer is someone other than Santa. Dziadek Mróz (Grandfather Frost), Dzieciątko (the Baby Jesus) and Aniołek (Little Angel) are just some of them. By the way, it’s not rare to have one of the family members dress up as Santa Claus to surprise the kids. The challenge of that is making sure the kids don’t notice the uncle strangely disappearing and missing out on Santa’s visit…
Singing Christmas Carols
Once the tummies are full and kids overjoyed with their gifts, it’s time to sing some kolędy (traditional songs about the birth of Jesus). Sitting around the Christmas tree and singing Christmas carols is to this day one of the most important traditions for many families. There are countless Polish Christmas carols. Want to hear some of them? The most popular ones include “Bóg się rodzi” (God is born), “Dzisiaj w Betlejem” (Today in Bethlehem), as well as “Cicha noc” (Polish version of Silent Night).
Going to Pasterka
Poland is a predominantly Catholic country and many people still cultivate the Polish tradition of going to the midnight mass. This is a special mass, usually longer than a Sunday mass, that celebrates the birth of Jesus.
Time to rest and visit the family
After a busy and exciting Polish Christmas Eve, Christmas day is all about enjoying time with close ones, eating food and singing Christmas carols. If you have the chance to attend a Polish Christmas Eve, remember to wear nice clothes and arrive with your stomach empty. We hope you enjoyed getting a tiny look into our Polish Christmas traditions. Did any of them surprise you? Let us know! Wesołych Świąt (Merry Christmas)!