Polish people love Christmas. There are many traditions and customs going back hundreds of years that families still use today. So what is a traditional Christmas in Poland really like?
Christmas begins unofficially in Poland on the 6th of December, the day of Saint Nicholas, but true Christmas celebrations begin on the 24th of December, with the traditional Christmas Eve dinner known as Wigilia. The Christmas spirit is in the air from around the end of November when the Christmas markets open.
This is a busy day in Polish households; the tree is put up and decorated, food is prepared and chores are completed. According to Polish tradition, these tasks must be finished before the first stars appear. When the first star is seen in the night sky, this is the start of the celebration of Wigilia. This star symbolises the star of Bethlehem and is the start of a 3-day holiday.
No physical work should be done as the Christmas holiday is a rest period for everyone. It’s a time for relaxing, spending time with the family, and eating good food.
The Christmas tree is very important and no household is complete without one. The tree is decorated with delicate glass baubles, but also apples, sweets, nuts, cookies, and stars. The apples symbolise fertility and a good harvest. There are also Christmas trees outside the home, equally well decorated.
Christmas trees first appeared in Poland in the 19th century, mainly in cities, then in more rural areas in the early 20th century.
The Christmas Eve Feast
Polish families usually have 12 dishes on the table for the Christmas Eve dinner; this is to symbolise the 12 apostles, or the 12 months of the year. These dishes are very special and are cooked only for this occasion. Preparation takes many hours and involves several people to prepare and cook this big meal.
Among the most popular dishes are Christmas Eve carp, Jewish-style carp, herring, pierogi, and poppy seed cake. Polish people don’t start eating until the family has broken the Christmas wafers – known as oplatek – and exchanged good wishes for health, prosperity, and happiness for the coming year.
There is often a spare seat at the table for any neighbours who would otherwise be alone during the holiday. Polish people believe that no one should be alone at Christmas.
Once the meal is over, gifts are exchanged and carols are sung. This is a very popular tradition, as Poles have thousands of carols to choose from. Up to 80% of Poles sing carols around the table, so this is a big deal.
Many Polish people attend Christmas midnight mass. Pasterka is celebrated by Roman Catholics between the 24th and 25th of December. The name means ‘shepherds’ mass’ and is said to symbolise the shepherds in the bible, who were told of the birth of the baby Jesus by an angel.
The 12 Most Popular Dishes for Christmas Eve
As we know, there are always 12 dishes served for the traditional Christmas Eve feast. This might sound like a lot of food, but some of the dishes are side dishes, or cakes and cookies. Everyone is encouraged to try a bit of everything. Here are the top 12 dishes.
- Borscht: This traditional soup, made with beetroot, is served with dumplings, called uszka; they are said to look like ears, hence the name. Previously, there would have been boiled eggs or pieces of fish, but dumplings are more often used today
- Polish gingerbread: This originated in Torun in the 14th century, so is a well-established favourite. Piernik is made with ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg and is often coated in chocolate
- Mushroom soup: Made from dried mushrooms, and lots of fresh parsley, and served with noodles or boiled potatoes, this soup is warming and very simple to make
- Cabbage with split peas: This is made with braised or fried cabbage and is very hearty and filling. The recipe is over a thousand years old and is a typical peasant dish. Lots of this is served on the day as it’s ideal for vegetarians
- Vegetable salad: This is made not only for Christmas but also for Easter, birthdays, and anniversaries. Made from boiled eggs, potatoes, carrots, peas, and many other vegetables, this is a favourite dish for both adults and children
- Carp: Since eating meat is forbidden, carp and other fish are the main attraction on the Christmas table. Carp can be fried or set in aspic jelly. It’s a relatively inexpensive fish so even poorer families can afford it
- Herring: This oily fish is eaten all year round in Poland, but for Christmas it’s dressed up to make it a bit more special. Mixed with onions, oil, and vinegar, it makes a salad called sledzie z cebula. For a richer dish, there is the traditional Polish herring salad, made with boiled eggs, potatoes, onions, mayonnaise, and soured cream
- Pierogi: No dinner table would be complete without pierogi; unleavened dumplings filled with things like sauerkraut and fried onions, or mushrooms and cabbage, these are made even better with a topping of fried onions and butter. The Ukrainian version has a filling of potatoes and cottage cheese, which just melts in the mouth. Delicious!
- Polish cheesecake: Known as sernik, or golden dew cheesecake, this looks quite pretty and will make your mouth water just to see it. Other types of cheesecake have layers of vanilla, chocolate, or fruit on top and are equally delicious
- Kutia: This very sweet dessert is made from wheat flowers and honey and is Ukrainian in origin. It’s so sweet that you will only be able to eat a few mouthfuls – unless you have a very sweet tooth of course
- Poppy seed cake: This cake is a symbol of prosperity; it looks like a Swiss roll with a filling made from a rich mixture of fruit and poppy seeds. There is also a cheesecake with a layer of this poppy seed mixture called seromakowiec. Poppy seeds appear in pasta and noodles, but these are made with dried fruit and nuts, so they’re more of a dessert
- Kompot: This is a smoked fruit cocktail made from dried fruit and nuts, sometimes with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon added. It is drunk all year round but this is a special version made just for Christmas
I hope that you enjoyed reading this article. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.
Are you curious about how other countries celebrate Christmas? Go to American Christmas food traditions for more information.
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