18 Facts about Christmas traditions in Poland
18 Facts about Christmas traditions in Poland
Understand the basics
When is the main celebration: 24th December (Wigilia)
Main dish: fried carp
Main decorations: Christmas tree, nativity scene (szopka)
Who brings the presents: Baby Jesus (Dzieciątko), Angel, Star, Starman (Gwiazdor) – depending on the region.
How to say “Merry Christmas”: Wesołych Świąt (vess–OH–wikh shvyont)
Christmas Traditions in Poland
1. Christmas celebrations start in Poland on the night of Christmas Eve (24th December, Wigilia in Polish).
2. Families sit to the Christmas table as soon as they spot the first star on the winter sky (which in Poland is around 6-7 p.m.). As a child it was one of my few duties on Christmas Eve to spot the star and proclaim the official beginning of Christmas!
3. Christmas culinary traditions differ depending on the region, but in almost every Polish house you are bound to eat fried carp. The fish can be bought alive or already prepared for cooking.
When I was a child, we used to buy a live carp that would swim in the bath for a couple of days before it would be put on the Christmas table. Then my mum’s aunt would come with a big cooking axe and chop the poor bugger’s head off.
Read also: Christmas traditions around the world
4. There is a superstition that if you put the carp’s scale in your wallet, you will be lucky and rich in the forthcoming year.
5. It’s important to serve 12 dishes on your Christmas table which is linked to the number of Apostles. It is believed that you should try all of them; otherwise the next year food will be less abundant.
6. Many Poles say that “Jaka Wigilia, taki cały rok” which means that the forthcoming year will be the same as Christmas Eve, so if you are happy on that day, your next year will be happy too. If you are arguing with your loved ones, you should expect the next year to be the same, etc…
7. It’s customary to leave one empty seat with a set of plates and cutlery for an errant wanderer who might knock on your door and need something warm to eat. On Christmas Eve you shouldn’t refuse anything to the ones who might need your help.
8. Before you start your Christmas supper, Polish people share Christmas wafers (opłatek) and wish each other happy holidays. Opłatek is a white, thin as paper wafer made of flour and water. You can buy it at a local church for a small donation for the poor.
9. Among the 12 Christmas dishes you will always find some soup (the majority of Polish families eat soup every day). Its kind depends on the region but the most popular ones are: beetroot soup (barszcz) with “uszka” (a kind of ravioli), forest mushroom soup and fish or almond soup.
10. Other traditional dishes include: sauerkraut with forest mushrooms, sauerkraut with peas, pierogi (stuffed dumplings) with sauerkraut, jellied fish, kutia (wheatberry, poppy seed honey and nuts), herring in oil, moczka (gingerbread, beer, raisins and nuts) and makówki (poppy seed, honey and nuts).
11. Poles rarely drink alcohol to their Christmas supper. Instead, it is customary to drink compote made of dried fruit (such as prunes, apricots, pears etc.).
12. After dinner it’s the present time! Adults give each other gifts (or put them directly under the Christmas tree) and children, who had been absorbed by their food, find their presents hidden under the tree (or on the balcony, as it was in my house).
13. The Santa Claus figure is utterly confusing in Poland. According to the Polish tradition, St. Nickolas (św. Mikołaj), who is dressed as a bishop, rather than a fatty with red coat and a beard, comes on 6th December. On Christmas Eve, it’s the Baby Jesus, Starman, Star or an Angel who brings the gifts. It’s disputable and highly regional.
14. In many Polish houses (especially in the countryside) it is customary to put some hay underneath the table cloth. After the food, family members would draw a hay-stalk each. A green one would symbolize fortune in the forthcoming year, a yellow one means that nothing would seriously change, a broken blade brings bad luck and a bent one – health problems.
15. Apart from the Christmas tree, a common decorative object in Polish houses and churches is a nativity scene (szopka). The most distinctive and decorative nativity scenes are to be found in Kraków. The biggest clockwork nativity scene in Europe, built inside a church, is located in my hometown, Katowice (Panewniki).
16. After the Christmas feast, many Polish houses will reverberate with Christmas carols. Polish Christmas songs are rather serious and religious, not the kind of cheerful sing-songy types you are likely to hear in England or the States.
17. The best way to burn heavy Christmas food is to go for a walk. The more religious Poles attend the Midnight Mass (Pasterka), whilst the less religious or younger ones tend to go to a pub to wish happy holidays to their friends.
18. Christmas Day and Boxing Day (called the First Holiday and the Second Holiday respectively) is the time to visit other relatives, eat the leftovers from the Christmas supper, sing carols and play with your gifts.