Christmas in Poland: traditions, family, and… food
Christmas Eve in Poland (Wigilia), December 24
Christmas Eve Dinner – kolacja wigilijna – is the most important Christmas celebration in Poland.
- Christmas Eve Dinner starts in the late afternoon or in the evening, depending on a family (some people visit 2 or even more families during Christmas Eve, having 2 or more dinners). The tradition requires that the dinner can start only after the first star is visible in the sky. Kids keep looking out the window waiting for the first star (children want to start dinner as soon as possible to proceed after to the next part – Christmas gifts).
- Dinner starts with sharing the Christmas wafer (opłatek – baked from wheat flour and water, usually rectangular). Each guest receives a piece of a wafer and then people share it with one another eating a piece of a wafer and making wishes (wishes usually refer to the previous and next year). There is also a special pink wafer for animals. The tradition says that animals are endowed with the power of human speech on Christmas Eve.
- Another tradition is to have an extra seat at the table (including a plate and cutlery) for an unexpected guest – someone in need, poor, lost, lonely or without family – since nobody should be alone during Christmas.
- Under the tablecloth, Polish people put some hay to remind guests that Jesus was born in a stable.
- In some families, the dinner starts with reading a fragment of the Gospel according to St. Luke about the birth of Jesus Christ.
- The tradition requires that the Christmas Eve Dinner includes 12 courses (all dishes must be meat-free). Typically, the dinner includes carp fish (karp), beetroot soup (barszcz czerwony), mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa) or fish soup (zupa rybna), dumplings with mushroom or cabbage filling (pierogi), cooked cabbage with mushrooms (kapusta z grzybami), herring salad (sałatka śledziowa), cooked vegetable salad with mayonnaise dressing (sałatka jarzynowa). Desserts are included in 12 courses: noodles with poppy seeds, honey, nuts, and dry fruits (kluski z makiem, makiełki), a dry fruit compote (kompot z suszu), poppy seeds cake (makowiec), gingerbread cookies (pierniczki), cheesecake (sernik).
- Once the dinner is finished, it’s time to unwrap the gifts. Gifts are either under the Christmas tree or there is a Santa Claus (Mikołaj) home visit.
- On Christmas Eve and during the next days of Christmas season, people sing carols (kolędy) – traditional songs about the birth of Jesus, some of them originate in the 15th century and are still very popular.
- Besides Christmas Tree which is richly decorated with colorful glass balls / baubles (bombki) and lights, houses can be decorated with mistletoe (jemioła), poinsettia (gwiazda betlejemska) and spruce twigs (gałązki świerku).
- After dinner, people attend a special midnight mass (pasterka) which ends the period of fasting and celebrates the birth of Jesus. Some families in Poland, after they come back home from church (the mass is very long, so usually it’s about 2 in the morning), start another dinner – this time meat is allowed.
Christmas Day (Boże Narodzenie) and the Second Day of Christmas, December 25-26 (bank holidays)
- People visit family and friends to celebrate together, they go to church, sing carols (kolędy), spend long hours at the table.
- Unlike Christmas Eve dinner when meat dishes cannot be served, meals on Christmas Day and the Second Day of Christmas are usually packed with meat dishes, e.g. hunter’s stew (bigos), sausage (kiełbasa), pate (pasztet).
- It is worth visiting churches in Poland during the Christmas season – each church builds its own unique nativity scene (szopka). Sometimes they are modern and metaphorical, sometimes with lots of details that children will love, eg. animals, angels, different figures, ornaments. Churches in Poland are usually open during the day. In some families, there is a tradition (usually on Christmas Day and the Second Day of Christmas) to visit several churches admiring and comparing nativity scenes in each one.