In Poland, Advent is the beginning of the Christmas season. It is a time when people try to be at peace and remember the real reason for Christmas.
People try not to have excess of anything. Some people give up their favorite foods or drinks, and parties and discos are not widely celebrated. Some people also go to church quite often. There is a tradition of “roraty”, special masses (or communion services) celebrated at dawn and dedicated to Mary for receiving the good news of the angel Gabriel.
During Advent, people also prepare their homes for Christmas. There is a lot of cleanliness and people wash their windows and clean their carpets very well. Everything must be clean for Christmas day!
Before Christmas, children in schools and preschools participate in “Jasełka” (Nativity Games). They are very popular and, often, more secular than religious. The history of Christmas is also sometimes placed in modern times.
It is believed that the smell of tangerines in schools or work places means that Christmas is about to begin!
Poland is a largely Catholic country and Christmas Eve is a very important and busy day. Now, often, it is the most important day of Christmas, even if it is not a holiday, but Christmas and December 26 are holidays! Traditionally, it was the day of fasting and abstinence (not eating anything) and meat is not normally allowed to be eaten in any way.
Christmas Eve is known as Wigilia (pronounced vee-GHEE-lee-uh). Traditionally, the house is also cleaned and everyone wore their best holiday clothes. The main Christmas meal is eaten at night and called “Kolacja wigilijna” (Christmas Eve dinner). It is traditional that you do not consume food until you see the first star in the sky! So the children look at the night sky to see the first star!
At the table there are 12 dishes, they are meant to give you good luck for the next 12 months. The food is traditionally meat-free, this is to remember the animals that took the baby Jesus in the manger. Everyone has to eat or at least try one of each dish. For Catholics, the 12 plates symbolize the 12 disciples of Jesus. As in many Catholic countries, Christmas Eve is often a “fast day”, which means that some people do not eat anything until after sunset (when the day of the Church officially ends). So that’s where the custom of the first star comes from. Some people in central Poland say that at midnight the animals can talk.
One of the most important dishes is the “barszcz” (beet soup) and it is mandatory to have it. If you really hate it, you can eat mushroom soup! The barszcz can be eaten with “uszka” (balls of dough with mushrooms) or “krokiety” (pancakes with mushrooms and / or cabbage, in bread crumbs, fried in oil or butter).
The carp is usually the main dish of the meal. The fish itself is bought traditionally a few days before alive and nothing in the bathroom until it is killed by the lady of the house. Now most people simply buy a carp filet (especially if you only have a shower and not a bathroom in your house!). It is said that the scales of the tent bring luck and fortune, and some are kept throughout the year (for example, in wallets). Traditionally, some older ladies place them in their bras for dinner time and give them to the guest the next day to have good luck.
“Bigos” is a dish that can be eaten hot or cold. It is made of cabbage, bacon, sometimes dried plums, so it is saved for Christmas day or the 26th, since it has meat. It is done about a week before Christmas Eve, because with each day it improves.
Herrings are very popular and are usually served in various ways: in oil, in cream, in jelly. Every home has its own recipe that says “it’s the best in the whole world”!
In most houses there is also “kompot z suszu” which is a drink that is prepared by boiling dried fruits and fresh apples.
The most popular desserts in Kolacja wigilijna are “makowiec”, a roll of poppy seed made of sweet yeast bread, “kutia” mixed dried fruits and nuts with wheat seeds, “piernik” a moist cake made with honey (which is like gingerbread) and gingerbread (which are usually dry and very hard).
At the beginning of the meal, a large cookie called “Oplatek”, which has an image of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, is passed around the table and everyone breaks a piece and they eat it. Sometimes, a small piece can be given to any farm animal or pet that the family can have. A place is often left empty at the food table, for an unexpected guest. The Poles say that nobody should be alone or hungry, therefore, if someone unexpectedly calls at the door, it is welcome. In some houses, the empty place is to commemorate a dead relative or for a family member who was unable to come to the meal.
Sometimes straw is placed on the floor of the room, or under the table, to remind people that Jesus was born in a barn or in a cow shed. An additional empty place is usually left on the Christmas table for a ‘Niespodziewany Gość’ – an unexpected visitor.
The worst thing about the Christmas Eve dinner is that you can not open the presents before it’s over! The older members of the family (who traditionally start and finish this meal) always make it last a long time. In most houses, before the gifts are opened, the family sings Christmas carols together. Children really want to open the present and sometimes more carols are sung to annoy children!
There are many Christmas carols sung in Poland and each region has its own Christmas carols. The most popular are “Wśród nocnej ciszy” (Silent Night), “Bóg się rodzi” (God is Born), “Lulajże Jezuniu” (Dream, Child Jesus) and “Dzisiaj w Betlejem” (Today in Bethlehem). The oldest carols are from the medieval era, but the most popular are from the Baroque period.
The gifts are presented by “Święty Mikołaj” (Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus), but in some parts of Poland there are different current bearers (because during the 19th century Poland’s borders were different, so people had different traditions). In the east (Podlasie) there is “Dziadek Mróz” (Ded Moroz), in the west and north of Poland “Gwiazdor”, the Starman. The starman is not always very good: if someone was bad, you can give him “rózga”, a birch rod that must be used with a bad person!
The Christmas tree is also often bought and decorated on Christmas Eve. It is decorated with a star at the top (to represent the star of Bethlehem), gingerbread, lights (previously candles) and “bombki”, which are glass ornaments and ornaments of different shapes (although most of the time they are spheres). They are usually made by hand, painted or decorated in another way. In eastern Poland, the decorations are traditionally made of straw and are very beautiful. In some houses there is also the habit of breaking one of the decorations of the Christmas tree (for example, breaking a glass ornament) to scare the evil out of the house for the next year!
Christmas Eve ends by going to church for a Midnight Mass service.
A very popular movie to watch in Poland at Christmas in ‘Home Alone’! In Poland it is called ‘Kevin Sam w Domu’ which means ‘Kevin Alone in the House’. In 2010 it was not going to be shown, but many people complained that it had been put back on television.
The days after Christmas are often spent with family and friends.
People in Poland also like to kiss under the mistletoe!
In Polish Happy / Merry Christmas is ‘Wesołych Świąt’.
Polish children also often dress and sing Christmas carols in Epiphany on January 6.