Christmas Traditions in Poland
Poland may be more than 4,000 miles from New York, but an American child visiting the Eastern European country over the Christmas holiday would be heartened to discover that many traditions and customs bridge the distance.
In Poland, Christmas is second only to Easter in terms of celebration and significance – and for good reason. About 90 percent of Poland’s 38 million residents are Roman Catholic, so the four activities that guide the holiday – celebrating history, worshipping with family, sharing a hearty meal and exchanging gifts – are steeped in religious meaning.
Poland’s ubiquitous red and white flag sets the proper and festive tone early in December, when families celebrate St. Nicholas Day on the sixth. Children receive gifts to reward their good behavior – or twigs to remind them of poor behavior for which they must make amends.
Thousands of Poles – and American tourists – make a pilgrimage to Krakow on the first Thursday in December to see colorful Nativity scenes produced by artisans and novices alike. Since 1937, the Krakow Market Square has teemed with people who come to admire dozens of “Christmas cribs” and szopkas, or stables that are made to look like churches. Both represent poignant symbols of the season, or the birth of Christ.
In the weeks before Christmas – or Boze Narodzenie, as the Poles call it – families decorate their homes in anticipation of Christmas Eve, known as wigilia. The focal point in most homes, as in America, is a Christmas tree that might be decorated with dried apples, oranges, candies and nuts wrapped in colorful paper, hand-blown glass ornaments, lights and thin strips of clear paper, representing angel hair.
Many older Poles continue to decorate their homes with sprigs of wheat, rye, hay and straw, which serves as a reminder of the humble environment in which Jesus was born. Today, many Polish families pay homage to this tradition by placing hay under the tablecloth of the wigilia dinner.
After weeks of careful planning and cooking a vast array of Polish dishes for Christmas Eve dinner, the Poles can be forgiven if they insist that everyone remains on their best behavior throughout this important meal. In fact, many Poles still believe that if something negative occurs on Christmas Eve, the event portends negative consequences for the year ahead. This is one reason why many Poles hang a branch of mistletoe outside their front door: to help keep negative influences at bay.
Just as the Three Wise Men were guided by a star in the night sky to find the baby Jesus in his cradle, so too does wigilia begin in many Polish homes when the first star appears in the sky. Families often open the feast with a prayer and then share oplateks, or wafers that symbolize holy bread. As they break off and pass around pieces of a wafer, family members wish each other love, peace, happiness, prosperity and good health before enjoying a 12-course meal, representing the fact that Jesus had 12 apostles.
If anyone inquires about the empty seat with a place setting and cutlery set before it, it is reserved for the unknown but always welcome guest – another Polish tradition of hospitality and goodwill.
Polish people are known to love soup, and so they often begin their wigilia feast with mushroom soup or barszcz beetroot soup with mushrooms. Other common wigilia fare includes a cabbage dish – plain cabbage with mushrooms or pierogi with cabbage and mushrooms – sweet dumplings with poppy seeds and a compote drink made from stewed prunes, dried pears and apples. The main – and usually meatless – course is fish. It might be fish with sauce; baked, fried or boiled fish; or – a particular Polish favorite – carp or pike set atop a rich sauce with steaming vegetables.
Polish homes are no different from American ones when it comes to the influence of dessert; the main course may barely be cleared away before the scrumptious flavors of fruit and gingerbread beckon Polish families back to the table. Favorite Polish desserts include poppy seed twists, honey gingerbread, crisp tarts known as łamańce or kruchalce and kutia, which is made of poppy seeds and boiled wheat with honey.
After this hearty dinner and dessert, many Polish families sing carols before attending Pasterka, “the shepherds’ Mass” that many Roman Catholic Americans call Midnight Mass.
On Christmas Day, many Polish families come together again and enjoy the leftovers from their wigilia feast and exchange gifts, just as many of their Polish counterparts in America do, too.
While many Poles continue to bask in the food, family and fellowship of the Boze Narodzenie holiday, the season culminates as it begins – with an acknowledgement of its religious significance. The Three Magi (Wise Men) parade – a huge event in the streets of Warsaw’s Castle Square – takes place in many towns throughout Poland and often ends with a prayer to baby Jesus in a small stable.
In these ways and others, Poland demonstrates that when it comes to Christmas traditions, the distance between countries – especially America – is not nearly as great as one might think. In fact, many second- and third-generation Poles have brought their traditions to America, thereby enriching both cultures.
Call it Christmas or Boze Narodzenie; the underscoring importance of celebrating heritage, religion and family bind the countries together.