A Guide to Polish Christmas Traditions
Whether you're celebrating Christmas in Poland or your holiday celebration needs to incorporate some of this fascinating culture, there are plenty of ways to do so: Polish traditions abound. Learn about well-known and lesser-known holiday customs to help you plan your Christmas observance. The predominant religion in Poland is Catholicism, so many Polish Christmas traditions have roots in this faith.
In Poland, the four-week Advent season leading up to the Christmas holiday is in stark contrast to the typical American Christmas customs. Poles spend the Advent season fasting and praying to prepare themselves spiritually for Christmas. Holiday preparations include quiet evenings indoors making decorations out of nuts, grains, straw, and paper. Polish people also spend time making gifts to give to family and friends as well as preparing foods to give as gifts to celebrate the season. Church attendance is common, with people attending morning roraty Mass before sunrise. Roraty means "heaven, drop the morning dew," which involves asking for blessings with the arrival of a new day. Lighting candles is an important part of these services to symbolize the birth of Jesus and the light this brought to the world.
Wigilia and Christmas Eve
The Polish people consider Christmas Eve the most important day of the year. The focus of this day centers on awaiting and celebrating the birth of Jesus. In Latin, the word "vigilare" means "to wait." The word "wigilia" comes from this Latin word. Christmas Eve dinner in Poland is called Wigilia. This dinner traditionally includes 12 different meatless dishes, such as mushroom soup, fish, potatoes, cabbage, and pastries. Typically, women in the family prepare the meal and men and children decorate the Christmas tree. They may incorporate hay into the Christmas decor to symbolize the birth of Jesus in the manger. Families often set an extra place at their table to include family members not present. After sunset, the youngest child in the family has the task of spotting the first star in the night sky. With the appearance of this star, families light candles and begin their Wigilia traditions. Families partake of the meal and then exchange gifts and sing Christmas carols together. At midnight, they attend Mass.
In Poland, Christmas Day involves fewer traditions than Christmas Eve. Families generally spend time together, perhaps visiting in each other's homes. The Christmas dinner may consist of ham or kielbasa. Poles may also go house to house singing Christmas carols or sharing Nativity puppet shows.
Poles enjoy singing koledy, or Christmas carols, with family and friends. Originally, the carols were hymns sung during Mass, but over time, these songs became traditional carols sung to celebrate the holiday. Some carols are lighthearted, and others are more somber, often retelling the story of the birth of Jesus. Carolers travel door to door in neighborhoods, wearing costumes and carrying a star on a pole. Sometimes, carolers pause their singing to act out the Nativity scene.
The Poles do not combine St. Nicholas and Christmas in the same way that other countries in the world do. The Polish word for Santa Claus is "Mikolaj." St. Nicholas Day is December 6 in Poland. On this day, Santa Claus visits good children to bring them gifts. Santa Claus may arrive in secret with gifts, which he places under their pillows. In some families, Santa Claus comes in person to speak with children, hear catechism lessons, and then present gifts.
Instead of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, Father Christmas may visit children. Father Christmas rewards good children with gifts under Christmas trees.
The Christmas wafer, or optalek, is an enjoyable tradition in Poland. This thin wafer symbolizes health, wealth, and happiness for the upcoming year. Poles may bake and send these wafers to family and friends instead of sending Christmas cards. Before beginning Wigilia on Christmas Eve, a family may pass around an optalek to allow each family member to break off a small piece. Families may even pass pieces of the optalek to pets. Sometimes, Christmas scenes are embossed onto the wafers to decorate them.
- Polish Christmas Dishes (PDF)