Before we write about Christmas traditions we need to mark the special 4 week period before, called Advent. For those for whom Christmas is a religious festival Advent is a very important time with special meaning and customs. It is the time for special prayers in churches for the coming of the Savior. Essentially for Christians this is a time for peace, self introspection and prayer. A time to quietly prepare body and mind for this special event called Christmas. Generally during Advent parties are frowned upon.
Advent takes a break, however, a rather festive one, particularly loved by children when it is difficult to calm them, but tradition is tradition. This is the 6th December, Mikołaj Day, which is more or less the celebration of Santa Claus Day. As everywhere in the world, but on different days, Poland's Santa comes with a bag full of presents for all the children who have been polite and good all year round and with a twig for those who have been naughty and bad. So when your Polish Santa Claus brings you a twig instead of a present think about your attitude! You still have a few days to improve it, as Santa Claus comes to Polish children twice! The second time children get presents is not so easy to determine. Most of them get presents from Santa Claus just after the first star appears in the sky on Christmas Eve but we also know that there are families who find their presents under the Christmas Tree on Christmas Day in the morning. Anyway, be good. You should get a present at least on one of these days.
We know it may sound a bit controversial but seems that for a large group of Polish people the most important day of Christmas is... Christmas Eve (Wigilia). Of course, from a religious point of view Christmas Eve is an important day, the day of waiting for the Savior to be born. The origin of the Polish word ‘Wigilia' comes from the Italian, "vigiliare", and means watching out, waiting, be ready. For that special night there are a number of traditions and singular celebrations but the most important and certainly the one that makes this day so different is meeting our closest family in the evening around the table. For many in this modern, fast world it is one of the few days when families meet, often traveling from different parts of Poland and lately from around the world to be with their families. There are hundreds of customs on that day, impossible to write about them all, but here are the most important to know and follow if you are invited to a Polish Christmas Eve supper.
Polish people traditionally gather at the table when the first star appears in the sky. Not all of them, of course. The table is set with special Christmas Eve food which is made only for this evening. Up until recently there were no meat dishes, but a few years ago this strong tradition was changed by the Pope and now it is not obligatory. But this tradition is so strong in Poland that it is difficult to find families with meat dishes on the Christmas Eve table.
There is always one extra place set. This is for the symbolic, unexpected guest as on that evening no one should stay alone and hungry. Some say this setting is also to remind those who are no longer with us.
The dinner is started by sharing a piece of blessed unleavened bread. Everyone goes around and shares with all the guests wishing everybody the best. (This traditional bread sharing also takes place at work on the last day before Christmas break, between politicians, and at all meetings that take place just before Christmas.)
The table should be set with 12 different dishes to remind us of the 12 Apostles. Tradition has it that you must try each one. The most important are the carp dishes served in hundreds of ways - most often fried or served cold in jelly. A very important dish is red borsch soup served with homemade dumplings filled with cabbage or mushrooms. As a drink there is a special dried fruit compote that tastes very good and is unique to that day. You will always find herring on the Polish Christmas Eve table as well as mushrooms (served cold in vinegar), cabbage dishes, a number of vegetable salads and many other delicacies unique to Poland and local ethnic groups. Dessert is obligatory and made from poppy seeds. Usually it is mixed with raisins and pasta. Delicious.
Poland has many different regions and each has their traditions and customs on that day. No one knows them all. Some unfortunately are being forgotten and can only be remembered by the oldest family members but the most important – the gathering of all the family at the table in an atmosphere of reunion, putting aside the bad things said and done and sharing wishes for the fortune with health and prosperity for everyone has remained unchanged and we hope it will never be forgotten.
At midnight Mass is held to declare to the world that Christ has been born to the world. We call it ‘pasterka'. It brings together many believers and even though it lasts till 1 a.m. or longer, entire families will be present to celebrate this exceptional night together.
There are also other beliefs on this day. It is said that at night animals talk like humans. In the countryside it is also the custom to share blessed unleavened bread with animals. And this is not a sacrilege as special coloured breads for animals can be officially purchased at village churches. People also believe that the way you spend this day will affect your entire year. So beware of being angry as you might end up being angry all year!
But the most symbolic part of Christmas is, of course, the Christmas tree. Usually it is dressed on Christmas Eve (or a few days before) and kept in the house till the 6th January, to the day when the Three Kings arrive at the manger. Many people who love the special charm of this tree keep it till mid January. Today many Polish Christmas trees are made of plastic but their quality is getting better every year and often these artificial ones look nicer than the real ones. Of course there is no special pine scent as from a real tree but one plastic tree over many, many years seems more ecological for some people.
Christmas is celebrated over two days in Polish church tradition. The first day is one of the most important holy days in the Christian world and has been celebrated since the 4th century. Families go to Masses and after Christmas dinner walk from one church to another to see displays that represent the Holy Family and the new born Christ. It is a day spent with families and the closest relatives. They meet, have dinner, and sing popular Polish Carols.
The second day of Christmas is also a holiday in Poland to remind us of Saint Stephen who is considered the first martyr in the Christian world. He was stoned to death for his belief. Many of the traditions celebrated on that day are now forgotten and today it is a most popular time for weddings as Advent was not really suited for a wedding party so many couples wait for a second Christmas day to make this very special ceremony unforgettable. This day is also often set aside to meet friends or to just enjoy and relax in the Christmas spirit in the quiet of our own home.
Many Poles start their Christmas - New Year trips on this day as well. More and more escape for a few days to the mountains to ski and relax. Every 4 years the dates get rather out of the ordinary like in 2012: taking three days off (24, 27 and 28 of December) it is an opportunity to have a Christmas break lasting 9 days (or even 11 days - with 31 December included.) We are certain that many people took advantage of this quirk in the calendar that is why it was such a busy time on the roads and an `active` season in all Polish winter centers during those days!
Books have been written about Christmas traditions and customs. We know that this little chapter will not cover the entire subject but we hope it has raised some interest and made you eager to learn more about our rich Polish traditions and to take part in them as well. It is a wonderful time of the year and being here with Polish people at Polish tables will be an extraordinary experience.
Last updated February 2012