The 4th way of Christmas
‘Wesołych Świąt!’ Could you polish off a 12 dish feast? Find out all about Christmas in Poland!
Today we’re travelling back to Europe to find out how Poland celebrates this festive time of year.
Advent marks the beginning of the Polish Christmas season and over the following weeks in the lead up to Christmas the Polish people tend to cut back on the luxuries and excess in their lives to embrace the true meaning of Christmas, a time of peace, family and worship. But a lack of excess doesn’t mean a dull season, and in fact Poland has some wonderfully weird and unique Christmas traditions.
Poland has a largely religious population and therefore has a very traditional and religious approach to Christmas including the main event in their Christmas advent calendar: Wigilia. Wigilia, which best translates as Christmas eve, is the day before Christmas and is now regarded as the most important day for Polish families as this is the busiest day of festivities. On this day families will gather together and sit down for a big feast, but there’s a catch! Before sitting down for their feast families must go through a lot of preparation and wait for a very specific event. During the run up to Wigilia and Christmas day, the whole family will start preparing the house for Christmas, which includes a lot of cleaning, tree-buying, present-buying and decorating. When Wigilia arrives the house is usually prepped, but I’m sure there are some last-minute preppers out there, I’m convinced last-minute personalities exist in every culture! Wigilia is traditionally a day of fasting although it’s not as common nowadays for people to wait until the Wigilia feast to eat. The family will be cooking and preparing the feast throughout the day and will only begin eating until the first appearance of the first star in the night sky! From my research, Polish people are very particular about this tradition, so I do hope for their sake that it’s not a really cloudy night in Poland this Christmas eve! This tradition is also homage to the religious Christmas symbol of the Bethlehem star that lead the three kings to the stable where Jesus Christ was born. So, once the first star in the night sky has been spotted everyone can start tucking into the Wigilia feast that consists of no less than twelve dishes! (The number twelve being a reference to the twelve apostles.)
Another tradition on this day is to abstain from eating meat, again this is a tradition born out of the Christmas story of nativity and is a show of respect to the farm animals thought to be present at the birth of Christ. They do however eat a lot of fish on this day. The twelve different dishes of food will differ from region to region and household to household, however some common polish dishes that can be found on the Christmas table include: herring in cream or oil or sometimes even jelly (yum?), a beetroot soup known as ‘barcasz’ (very traditional but I’m not sure how well it goes down with the kids), and the main star of the show; Carp. This lucky (or unlucky) fish is really only eaten on this day of the year in Poland and the tradition goes that the fish should be bought a few days earlier still alive and kept in the bath until the lady of the house kills it and cooks it up. Although my research suggests this is a pretty old-fashioned tradition, and as many of us don’t go running after and killing our own Christmas turkey, Polish people don’t tend to live out this tradition anymore either and instead will buy a fillet of Carp from the supermarket. But while we’re on the subject of these old-fashioned and wonderfully bizarre Polish Christmas traditions; did you know that the scales of the Carp are supposedly rumoured to bring good luck. Therefore some people guard them as keepsakes all year round, while others have a unique way of passing on the luck to their loved ones, and I bet you’ll never guess how they do it! So I’ll tell you: apparently some older women put the scales in their bras throughout the duration of their supper and then give them to their guests the next day for good luck! (Hmm I bet the grandkids love visiting nan for Christmas… I mean what would you prefer, a shiny new toy or a good luck fish scale that had been kept in your granny’s bra?) Well, it’s the thought that counts!
Another tradition which the Polish do on this day and on Christmas day too is perhaps my favourite tradition of theirs and perhaps my favourite Christmas tradition of all time! Polish families will always prepare an extra seat for an unexpected guest out of the belief that no one should be alone or hungry at Christmas, so if there is an unexpected arrival at the door then they are welcomed into the festivities. Some people also use this extra seat as a way to commemorate a family member who has sadly passed away or just for someone who wasn’t able to make it to the supper. How lovely is that!?
Christmas trees are a big part of the décor in Poland as well and they are well-decorated with a star at the top of the tree, lights and either straw or glass baubles (‘bombki’ in polish). There’s a superstitious custom in some households to break one of the glass baubles to ward off any evil in the house for the year. Alongside the Christmas tree, most Polish households also have a nativity display and fun fact incoming: Did you know that the biggest clockwork nativity scene built in a church can be found in the town of Katowice, Panewniki in Poland? Now you do!
Santa Clause again is not very prominent here but there are other gift-giving figures. The first is Saint Nick on the 6th of December, as we have seen in other European countries so far on our expedition. However, on Christmas Eve, the gift-giver can be anyone of these following figures depending largely on the region of Poland; Baby Jesus, a figure known as ‘Starman’ (really hoping he looks like David Bowie, that would be awesome!) or an angel. As afore-mentioned, the gift-bearer will depend highly on the region and there are even more different figures out there in Poland that are designated for the present delivering job, however sorry Santa, you didn’t make the cut in this country.
Going back to round up the celebrations on the 24th (and this article), Wigilia merges into Christmas day with a midnight mass at the church (or if you’re not very religious in Poland, a trip down to the pub or to friends to wish them well and spend time with each other). The festivities don’t stop on Christmas Day and the dining continues on the day that is known as the ‘First day of Christmas’. On this day and the following day, known to us as Boxing Day but to the Polish as the ‘Second day of Christmas’ it’s a time to visit other members of the family and friends, dining on the Wigilia leftovers and cooking up new dishes to make sure everyone is well-fed ad happy during these Christmas days.
On that note I shall draw our visit to Poland to a close. Although, like I say with all my other articles, I’m sure there is so much more to explore and many more traditions both regional and national that take place during this festive season, so while my article draws to a close, don’t let your wanderlust close too because there is always more to discover!