Oh, Christmas! Who doesn’t love the atmosphere of this time of year?
Are you curious how Christmas looks like in Poland? How do we celebrate? We’ll tell you about the most important traditions without which we can’t imagine a Polish Christmas.
Why is Christmas so important for Poles?
Christmas, in Polish Boże Narodzenie, literally means the Birth Of God.
When talking about it with friends and family, we simply say święta (holidays).
Although for Christians Easter is the most important holiday, for most of us Christmas is the most precious. The magical aura that covers this time makes everything so cosy and peaceful. We usually spend Christmas with our loved ones, eating together (well… mostly this) and visiting each other. And Polish Christmas traditions and customs are very special. During this time really nobody should be alone!
How long does Christmas in Poland last?
It may be surprising but our Christmas lasts… 3 days! Everything starts in the evening on the 24th of December and the celebration ends on the 26th of December.
24th of December
The 24th of December is Christmas Eve, called Wigilia. It’s the most important day (or evening, to be precise) of the entire Christmas period. On that evening we all sit around the table, eat specially prepared dishes, and give presents to each other. Christmas Eve dinner is called kolacja wigilijna and it’s traditions are very unique. Why? You’ll find the answer below in this guide.
Important: this day isn’t a bank holiday, but most of us work shorter hours (even shopping centers and grocery stores). Some of us also take a day off and have plenty of things to prepare so it’s better not leave any important business tasks to that day.
25th of December
Boże Narodzenie is the first day of Christmas – Pierwszy Dzień Świąt. On that day we usually pay a visit to our family members. We have a special dinner that usually extends to a late evening gathering. Unlike Christmas Eve, this day is a day off for all of us.
26th of December
The 26th is the second day of Christmas and another bank holiday. Oh yes, it’s also a day off. We usually spend this day with our closest family, at home, watching a movie or playing games, eating the leftovers and regretting that we ate too much.
Santa Claus Day
Before Christmas even starts, we have one more important day, especially for kids. On the 6th of December we celebrate Santa Claus Day – Mikołajki. The Polish Santa Claus, Święty Mikołaj, comes to kids with some small gifts and sweets. Of course only for the good and polite ones. The naughty ones, according to the tradition, can expect a lump of coal.
Our Mikołaj, Saint Nicholas, was a Bishop known for helping poor people and had nothing in common with the American Santa Claus. But like many things, this tradition is also fading and the image of Mikołaj is now associated rather with Santa Claus than with St. Nicholas.
Now, let’s talk about the most important traditions without which we cannot imagine the Christmas period.
Advent is the time before Christmas that symbolises the expectation for the Holy birth. It lasts 4 Sundays before Christmas. Every Sunday of advent we light a candle until all four are lit in the Advent wreath. During that time kids get an Advent calendar filled with chocolates and they can have only one sweet a day.
In the evenings there are also special masses for kids called roraty. Kids bring their lit lanterns with them and it looks very beautiful.
Advent has its own tradition also outside of Poland, for example in Germany or Scandinavia. Maybe you’ve already heard of saffron buns prepared in Sweden?
Later in this guide we’ll tell you more about some typical dishes, but right now let us tell you about gingerbread – pierniki. These traditional cookies should be made or baked a few weeks before Christmas, as they have to age. Only then they are the best.
Many of us still bake them at home as it’s great fun for kids who help to cut them out and decorate them. The most beautiful cookies are hung on the Christmas tree or given to our friends and family. If you want to make it yourself, here you can check our favourite recipe.
Choinka is a must in every Polish home. Either a live or artificial one, according to our tradition, should only be decorated only on Christmas Eve morning. Well, the Christmas tree isn’t a Polish tradition – it came to us from Germany between the XVIII and XIX century. Before that houses were decorated with evergreen branches or mistletoe hung from the ceiling. Right now no home can be ready for Christmas without a Christmas tree.
Although the Christmas tree is set up quite late in our homes, other decorations start to blink and sparkle at the beginning of December. First glimpses of the decorations can be of course seen in the cities, but our homes (and balconies) are also decorated. We love to cover our rooftops, trees, and patios with Chrstmas lights. Christmas trees and other decorations stay up until the 2nd of February. That day the holiday of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple ends the Christmas period in Poland.
In Polish called kolędy, they are traditional Polish Christmas songs which nowadays we mostly sing only in church. We sing them only between the 24th of December and the 2nd of February. The most popular ones are: “Cicha Noc” (our Silent Night version), “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” or “Lulajże Jezuniu”. You can easily check them on YouTube with lyrics if you feel like singing along 😉
How do we celebrate Christmas Eve in Poland?
Let’s go back to the 24th of December. Wigilia is a very special day for all of us, full of warmth and goodness. We believe that on that day nobody should be alone, so major Polish cities usually organize free dinners for those in need. In our homes we can’t forget an extra plate for an unexpected guest.
Under the tablecloth we put some hay which resembles the poverty in which Jesus was born. We’re allowed to start the dinner only when the first star appears in the sky. First, we read the Bible, the story of how Jesus was born. Then we share opłatek and exchange Christmas greetings.
Let us tell you more about opłatek as this is a very special tradition for us: it’s a type of a very thin, white wafer that we buy especially for Christmas Eve. We share and break the wafer with each member of the family and share wishes. Only after everybody exchanged wishes, we can finally sit at the table and start eating. It’s truly an intimate and magical moment.
After the dinner we share presents placed under the Christmas tree.
At midnight we attend a special mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s called Pasterka and we can translate it to Midnight Mass. There are whole families attending the mass, even half asleep children. We also believe that animals start to speak after midnight, really 🙂
Oh, Christmas dishes. They’re sooo delicious! Of course they may vary in every family, but there are some staples that cannot be missed. Traditionally, there must be 12 dishes on the Christmas Eve table. What is most important, we don’t eat any meat, only fish.
The first dish we commonly have is soup. Whether zupa grzybowa – mushroom soup or barszcz z uszkami which translates as borsch – a clear beetroot soup served with small dumplings filled with mushrooms. They are called ears, uszka, as they resemble an ear shape.
Other soups we have on the Christmas table are: żurek (a sour soup made from fermented rye flour) or fish soup.
In any Polish house you can’t miss carp (in Polish it’s also karp) on a Christmas table – either fried or served cold in gelatine. We also eat some other fish, like zander, cod, bass or salmon. Many Poles like herrings marinated in vinegar or served in a cream sauce (śledzie). There absolutely must also be sauerkraut cooked with peas or with mushrooms.
On a table you can’t miss pierogi, either with cabbage, mushrooms or a mix of both. Remember pierogi is already a plural form, they are not pierogis!
In many homes we also eat gołąbki – cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and mushrooms.
When it comes to beverages, we prepare a hot drink made out of dried and smoked fruits (apples, pears, plums, oranges), spices and sugar. It’s called kompot and you either love it or hate it.
We can’t forget about sweets!
Any Polish gathering, including Christmas, can’t be celebrated without sernik – a cheesecake. Each Polish family has its own recipe to delight their guests. However, for Christmas we also have some other typical sweets and cakes, mostly with poppy seeds.
The most popular ones are kutia and makówki. Kutia is made with poppy seeds, wheat, dried fruits, nuts and honey. Makówki instead of wheat contains challah bread. We also bake cakes filled with poppy seeds in many different shapes.
And I also mentioned, Christmas without pierniki (gingerbread cookies), is not Christmas. The dough for the traditional gingerbread should be done at least 3-4 weeks earlier.
Have the Christmas traditions changed recently?
Christmas traditions, although slightly different in every house, are very important for us and are passed on from one generation to the next. However, as we all live in a globalized world influenced by the Western culture, some of them are constantly changing.
- Less and less people wait to put up and decorate the Christmas tree till Christmas Eve. We decorate our homes much earlier. In the cities and commercial spots, you can even see the decorations in November. It’s quite mad!
- Also, less and less people sing traditional Polish kolędy, they prefer to listen to American Christmas carols. On the radio you can hear kolędy only on the 24th, maybe the 25th of December. The rest of the time is filled with the sound of “Last Christmas”.
- Presents on the 24th of December were traditionally brought by Aniołek – a Little Angel, Dzieciątko – little Jesus or Gwiazdor (the Star Man). Nowadays, they are brought by Santa Claus, the American one of course, not our Saint bishop.
- Our culinary traditions are also changing. We live in a fast world and don’t have time for long preparations. Thus, more and more people decide to order the Christmas dishes with home delivery.
- Christmas, even though very cosy and magical, can be tiring!
Some people decide to use the days off in a different way. They are off skiing or escaping to a warmer place for holidays. Well, not all of us love spending their free time with the entire family.
No matter what we sing, eat or when we put up a tree. Christmas should always be a time of joy, peace, and gathering! We hope that your Christmas will also be like this!
And remember the most important thing! Better wear a looser outfit on those days. When attending a Christmas gathering at a Polish home, you can never ever refuse another piece of the cheesecake 😉