18 Facts about Christmas traditions in Poland

Polish gingerbread - header

18 Facts about Christmas traditions in Poland

 

Christmas tree - Wikipedia

image: Wikipedia

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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)

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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 rokwhich 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.

Polish Christmas table - photo by wrota-swietokrzyskie

photo by wrota-swietokrzyskie.pl

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.

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Read also: 16 Facts about Christmas traditions in Britain

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.).

Read also: 11 Facts about Christmas traditions in Catalonia

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.

St. Nickolas - św. Mikołaj
image: parafia-bolechowo.pl

See also: Christmas decorations in cities around the world [YOUR PHOTOS]

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.

written by: Ania

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18 comments

  • The carp-killing tradition is horrible, I couldn’t stand it even as a child. I said to my parents that if they did that, I wasn’t eating the carp. They gave up and started buying frozen carp instead.

  • I think I will adopt some of the Polish traditions in my household. Instead of trying to do all festive feasts, visiting, present conundrums in one day, Christmas Eve seems like a better enjoyable start. Faith seems very centred in the traditions quite rightly so. Thank you for a lovely blog.
    Merry Christmas

  • Looks as if there are some lovely and festive traditions, but I wouldn’t do well with the Christmas feast as I’m not a fish eater or mushrooms or herring or… Ha! Ha! Thanks for reading over at One Road at a Time! p.s. I’ve liked your FB page from my personal page. Nice to connect!

  • I love traditions, these look like beautiful traditions. I can just imaging being a kid and waiting for the first start so Christmas can officially begin. Great post !

  • I went to Catholic school heavily influenced by Polish Heritage in the 1950s. They had of course the yearly Christmas party, but just before Santa came out, there was someone dressed up in a devil type costume all In black with a whip. It would run around and whip and scare kids. I asked my mother who it was who was dressed up but she wouldn’t tell me. Does anyone know anything about this custom?

    • I think you are talking about so-called “turoń” :) This creature was to punish badly hevaing kids, or show the good ones what may happen if they are not obedient :)

    • Never heard of the “turoń” before but have vivid memories of the Festive Polish
      Christmas gathering.

  • I remember when I was young, the mean Devilish Santa visiting, we would have to be able to say our prayers. (Raised Catholic) I believe my mother finally put an end to that, tradition or no tradition, in our household, with children being terrified of visiting Santa in public. I recently showed a picture to my daughter of what our Santa looked like in our household in the late ’60’s. she was a little surprised herself. But we did always celebrate Christmas Eve, and passed the wafer at the dinner table. Nice memories of our traditions.

  • thats a cool thing. I’m doing research on Poland for a school project and that really helped me!!!

  • Tracy Lewandowski

    My Aunt just turned 91 and grew up in Chicago during the depression. She just told us about their Christmas tradition: the sound of bells ringing let the children know Christmas celebrations were starting. All the children would run and hide from their grandmother who would be dressed in all black and chase them with a whip. They would then have to kneel & say their prayers and then get whipped. After that they would have dinner and receive gifts. Because it was the depression the gifts would be an apple or an orange. My Aunt said that my grandmother (who was Baptist) put an end to that after several years because she was tired of her kids getting whipped on Christmas!

    For years my aunt has shared stories of our family history. This was the first time she casually mentioned this tradition. Naturally we were shocked & took to Google to confirm she wasn’t making crap up! Thanks for sharing!