I really enjoy the traditions of Christmas in Poland because they are very unique, incorporating Christian, pagan and Slavic traditions. Even though Easter is the biggest Christian celebration, I think children are most excited for Christmas in Poland because of the gifts and the special food. Even though our Christmas is slightly different, here you will find a more traditional Christmas, as it is celebrated my many Polish families.
Christmas in Poland traditions
1) Adwent (Advent) – starts approximately 4 weeks before Christmas in Poland. Especially Sundays are celebrated, and while this is more of a German tradition, many Polish families use Advent calendars that start from December 1st and counts down to Christmas Eve. Advent wreaths- where families would light a candle for every Sunday of Advent- are also very popular. In Church, it is a special time of waiting for the birth of Jesus, and special masses are held at this time.
2) Koliada (in Polish “Kolęda”- the “ę” sound is a nasal “e”, like you hear in French). Originally a pagan tradition that celebrated the triumph of light over darkness, it was later incorporated into Christmas in Poland. Kolęda can mean two things: a Christmas carol and the act of dressing up and going from house to house to receive money and some small food items in return for wishes and blessings. Popular costumes include: Jew, Devil, Death, Ram, Policemen. People would dress up in such costumes and go from house to house, singing and playing musical instruments. This tradition is mostly alive in smaller villages. In cities, the priest also comes and blesses the family and receives some money in return.
3) Mikołajki (or Santa Claus Day, the “ł” sound is pronounced like the English “w”) is celebrated on December 6th as pretty much everywhere. The children are given little gifts. In schools, every child would randomly choose another child and buy a gift for him. To keep things fair, you would never know who bought a present for you. Unlike his Dutch, Belgian or French counterparts, the Polish Święty Mikołaj (Santa Claus) doesn’t have any helpers. December 6th is also nameday of Mikołaj– and namedays are still celebrated in Poland.
4) Wigilia (the Polish “w” is pronounced like “v”) is Christmas Eve. I think that this day is very special for the Polish people, and I believe even more so that the actual Christmas day. It is on this day that children get their presents, and the food and the way it is served is very special. Because of its atmosphere of expectation and waiting for Christ to be born, it is a rather silent day. Meat is not consumed. However, this doesn’t mean that people don’t eat. They eat a lot.
The Christmas Eve meal should start when somebody notices the first star in the sky. A little bit of straw is put under the table cloth as a reminder that Jesus was born in a stall. The meal cannot start before breaking of the holy wafer, a tradition that I haven’t encountered anywhere else (see the picture above of the Opłatek). For this occasion, big rectangles of wafer are baked and blessed by the church. The breaking is done as follows: everybody gets a wafer. And then you break off a piece of wafer from somebody else’s wafer, and that person breaks a little piece of your wafer in return. It is customary to wish each other Merry Christmas and fulfillment of dreams. This action is repeated until everybody break wafer with everybody else. If done in an intimate family setting, this is a great way to start the meal. If done with strangers, however, it can be a little awkward.
Then the meal can start. There should be 12 dishes on the table and they usually include grains, poppy seeds, mushrooms, beans, sauerkraut and fish. Everybody should try all of these to ensure a happy year ahead. There is soup. Red Borscht is the most famous, but other options include wild mushroom, almond or fruit soup. Dishes usually depend on the region. Fish Jewish style (karp po żydowsku)– with jelly and almonds and raisins is very popular, as is fish Greek style (ryba po grecku). It always amuses me that many of these typical traditional food are called after other nations. I am including my mom’s borscht recipe below, taken from an old Polish cook book. It is quite time consuming to make but is totally worth it!
5) Pasterka is a midnight mass celebrated in Poland and some other countries like Germany. Now the name also includes Christmas Eve masses that happen during the evening. It is the first mass on Christmas Day. People pray, read scripture and sing Christmas carols.
6) Christmas Day is the time of joy. Usually leftovers from Christmas Eve are eaten. It is a quiet, free day, time for family and being together. However, it is not celebrated the same way Christmas Eve is. My mom makes blini on that day which are not necessarily Polish but absolutely delicious! The 26th is also celebrated in a similar manner.
I think because of all this, Christmas in Poland is my favourite holiday and because of its unique traditions, I love celebrating it in Poland with my family. My eldest daughter is already looking forward to making uszka with her grandmother and uncle!
Polish Borscht (Barszcz) Recipe
First you need to start preparing the beetroot so that it gets sour: take around 1,5kg beetroot, cut into slices. Put into a huge jar and add enough lukewarm water so that the beetroots are just covered. On top, put a slice of rye bread (not necessary but it speeds up the souring process. Put a towel on top of the jar and leave it in a warm place for 4-5 days. After that time, remove the foam that may start to appear and put the clear juice into bottles. It can stay like that for a few months.
Next, make the broth: boil celery root, parsley root, carrot, leek and onion. Add 4 sliced beetroot, 10 peppercorns (black), a bit of allspice, and a bay leaf. In another pan, boil 50-80g of dried wild mushrooms. Mix together these 2 broths (the beetroot and mushroom soup). Add the beetroot concentrate (the one you made for 4-5 days). For 1,1/2 liter you may need 1/2 liter of “kwas” (sour beetroot). Bring to a boil. Add salt, you can also add some wine, a crushed garlic clove. Serve.
Polish Uszka Recipe
With borscht, we make “uszka“- little dumplings filled with mushroom and onion filling. Make a dough with 150g flour, 1 egg, water and salt. Roll out 1/4 of the dough, cut into little squares (2*2cm).
Make the filling by browning a chopped onion, adding mushroom (if using dried, soak them in water), and then when they are both soft, mix in 1 egg, salt and pepper.
Fill the dough with mushroom/onion filling. Close them diagonally and then again, until you get the right form seen in the picture.
My friend Olga Mecking graciously agreed to share traditions of Christmas in Poland. She founded The European Mama, “an award-winning blog by a Polish mother living in the Netherlands with her German husband and three children about parenting, raising global citizens and my expat life.” You can learn more about Olga, raising global kids, multilingualism, and being European on Twitter and Pinterest.