Christmas has a special significance in Catholic Poland. Just like in other countries, the whole family comes together and one celebrates the feast in contemplative company. The customs that are cultivated here are partly of Christian origin, but some of them also originate from the superstition of many people. In this article we would like to introduce you to the most beautiful, funny and bizarre customs at Christmas in Poland. We will also give you some practical tips, because there are a few quirks that have to be avoided in Poland at Christmas. If you are interested in Easter, by the way, you can get to the corresponding article here.
Alcohol-free Christmas in Poland
Anyone who has ever been to a Polish wedding or a Polish birthday party knows that a lot of vodka can flow. But at Christmas it is different. At least on Christmas Eve, people traditionally don’t drink alcohol so that they can concentrate fully on the birth of Jesus. Moreover, traditionally not even meat is eaten. And that in a country where a lot of meat is eaten.
A star in the sky
While in Western countries people traditionally meet for dinner at a certain time of day, Christmas in Poland is a little more complicated. Just as the star is said to have shown the Three Kings the way to the crib of Jesus, here too people wait for the first star. Of course, this is not seen so closely, but there are said to be people who stand in the cold under a cloudy sky, eagerly waiting to be able to finally start eating. Incidentally, because of this custom, many people also refer to Christmas Eve as “Gwiazdka”, a small star.
The wafer breaking
Once the star has been sighted, people gather in the house or apartment, say several prayers and share a wafer that is meant to remind us of the Christian communion. Afterwards people hug each other and each one looks deeply into the other’s eyes and tells him or her what he or she means to him and why he or she is such a precious person to him or her. A very emotional and beautiful moment! By the way, in the countryside the farm animals also get a wafer, because ox and donkey were also involved in the birth of Jesus. But the animals get colorful wafers, while those of humans are white and therefore pure.
What is being served?
The food at Christmas in Poland is really great! Because even if there is no meat, there is still a lot of dishes. There must be exactly twelve dishes, because the year has so many months and Jesus gathered so many disciples around Him.
What exactly is cooked varies from family to family. But there are a few classics, for example a delicious beetroot soup, the Barszcz with small dumplings. Pierogi are available all year round, but at Christmas they are a must have. They are traditionally filled with mushrooms on Wigilia, as Christmas Eve is called besides Gwiazdka as well.
But the Christmas classic par excellence is Bigos, one of the three Polish national dishes along with Barszcz and Pierogi. Actually, meat goes into the stew of cabbage, mushrooms and bay leaves, but at Christmas it remains vegetarian. By the way, a real Christmas Bigos is cooked for seven days (not continuously) before it is ready. As you can see, Christmas preparations in Poland have to be planned carefully.
Stuffed fish and Karp
In order to replace the meat, which is otherwise almost ubiquitous in Polish cuisine, fish is mainly served. Whether rollmops, herring or the Jewish dish “Gefilte Fisch” (Filled Fish), there is a always a lot to eat. Carp is also often eaten. The custom of eating carp at Christmas also exists in Germany, by the way. It was probably brought to Poland’s Western neighbour by refugees and displaced persons from the former German territories of Pomerania and East Prussia. Since in the former socialist Poland one sometimes could not be sure that the carp in the store was still fresh, one often got a live one, which then swam in the bathtub for days.
After such a dinner, nobody can possibly be hungry anymore, but of course there is dessert too. Poppy seed cakes are especially popular. Kompot, a sweet drink made from boiled fruits, goes well with them. Dried fruit is also often served.
If you want to cook a meal like Christmas in Poland yourself, you will find some recipes here.
Scales bring luck
Now it becomes bizarre: Many Poles keep a scale of the eaten fish in their purse, since this is supposed to “attract” money all year long. This has nothing to do with the Christian tradition, but it is a funny custom and for many in Poland at Christmas is part of it.
The mysterious guest
For me it is clearly the most beautiful custom: No matter how big the Christmas table, a chair and a place setting always remain free. Because just as Mary and Joseph found shelter in a stable, the needy in Poland should be offered a roof over their heads in case of an emergency. By the way, if you are the mysterious guest, remember not to greet the Poles on the doorstep. They would simply refuse to shake your hand and say “Nigdy przez próg! (“Never over the threshold”). Supposedly this brings bad luck. However, this is no longer a Christian custom, but pure superstition …
Christmas carols and gifts
After the meal, Polish Christmas carols will be sung, the so-called Kolędy. As a foreign guest you will not know most of them, but at least you can hum along. However, whistling along would not be a good idea, because whistling in closed rooms in Poland brings bad luck to the house. Another superstition …
A popular Christmas carol is Pójdźmy wszyscy do stajenki (“Let’s all go to the manger”). Here is a traditional interpretation:
Enough singing, now there are finally presents! In Poland they usually turn out more modest than in the west. Shopping orgies in the pre-Christmas period do not yet exist to the same extent as in Western Europe. The focus is on the Christian core of the festivities and being together with the family. But who actually brings the little ones their presents? In Poland, the traditional gift is the Christ Child, but in Poland, depending on the region, others are responsible for this. Usually an ominous angel is responsible for the procurement of gifts. In Silesia, however, it is often also the Christ Child and in western Poland a male star, and in southern Poland a female star. Poland is a big country, so a division of labor makes sense …
The church service
As already described, Poland is a catholic country. Traditionally, people go to church at least once every Christmas day. The most important mass, however, takes place on Christmas Eve at midnight. The so-called shepherd’s mass is always well attended and even in the often cold weather, queues form in front of the church. An important part is the Christmas carol “Bóg się rodzi” (“God is born”), which is similarly popular in Poland as “Jingle Bells” or “Joy to the world”. Here is an interpretation by the National Philharmonic Orchestra:
The team from Wildeast.blog wishes You Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia – Merry Christmas!
Do you know any other Polish Christmas customs or have you ever been to Poland at Christmas? feel free to write us a comment!