In Poland preparations for Christmas are huge. Unlike the U.S., they do not rely on excessive buying gifts for yourselves, or all of your family and friends. They do not rely on competitions of showing off how richly we are able to decorate our house and Christmas tree.
In Poland we decorate our Christmas Tree on the morning of Christmas Eve or the day before. Sometimes, the week before (which is rather a new tradition), but not earlier than that. In Poland we keep the tree up till 6th January – the day when the Three Kings arrived to Bethlehem, but in some homes it is kept longer, sometimes even till the end of the carnival.
On top of the tree Poles usually put a glass star to represent the star which led the Kings to Bethlehem.
Presents are opened after the Christmas Eve meal. It might vary in every household, but in general that’s the rule. Poles teach their kids that christmas gifts are brought by Baby Jesus, Angel, Star (we start our Christmas Eve supper when a first star lights up in the sky), Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, Saint Nicholas or simply by Santa Claus.
Preparing for Christmas is, above all, a thorough cleaning of the entire house. All the darkest and smallest corners are washed, swiped from dust, vacuumed like in any other time during the entire year. Christmas cleaning can begin two to three weeks before Christmas. The last week is focused on buying all the components of which we prepare 12 traditional dishes. Old tradition say that the number of dishes depended on how wealthy the household was. If people were poor they used to have 5-7 dishes, middle class 9 and wealthy families would have 12.
Those numbers represent:
7 – week days
9 – choirs of angels (In the Christian angelic hierarchy there are 9 choirs of angels)
12 – Jesus’ 12 Apostles
These days the number doesn’t matter in many houses. More often people make jokes about it if they have less or more dishes on the table. As a child, I clearly remember that my mom tried really hard to have all the 12 dishes. In addition, the tradition says that everybody has to try every single dish for good luck in the upcoming year. All the dishes used to be meatless.
Christmas Eve (before the Midnight Mass) is a day of fasting and abstinence. In 1983 the Code of Canon Law eliminated this fast altogether, but in Poland the church kept this tradition till 2003. Even these days during the mass before Christmas Eve, many priests encourage people to keep that fast for those following reasons:
1. in memory of the passion and death of the Lord
2. as a sharing in Christ’s suffering
3. as an expression of inner conversion
4. as a form of reparation for sin
Polish traditional dishes are mostly based on fish, mushrooms, sauerkraut and poppy seeds.
Common dishes are:
- carp (fish) – people would buy this fish alive a few days before Christmas and keep it the bathtub or some kind of huge container (if you had one). On the Christmas Eve morning one family member would have to kill it. In my family it used to be my dad, and every single year I would hate him for doing so. These days we are able to get already killed (in front of the buyer) carp.
- kutia – or Christmas Cooked Wheat Pudding, consisting of whole or cracked wheat more often rice, honey and nuts, and sometimes raisins, poppy seeds and cream
- red borscht with “uszka” (little dumplings with mushroom filling)
- mushroom or fish soups
- dried fruit compote
- pickled herring fillets called rolmopsy
- meatless cabbage rolls
- boiled or deep-fried dumplings known as pierogi with a wide variety of fillings (the most common is sauerkraut and mushroom filling)
As for dessert we have:
- makowiec (poppy seed roll or strudel)
- sztrucel migdałowy (almond roll)
- babka (something like a pound cake)
- cheesecake (it’s not like American cheesecake)
- angel wings (chrusty) – a traditional sweet crisp pastry made out of dough that has been shaped into thin twisted ribbons, deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar
- all kinds of cookies
If you’re interested in knowing more details about these Polish dishes, I found a great website about it. Feel free to check it out!)
Most of those dishes are only made for Christmas. We do not eat them at any other time during the entire year. That’s why many people during Christmas Eve are so eager to sit at the table and enjoy so many good foods that they had to wait the entire year to eat them. I would always wait for one dish called moczka. Many Poles don’t know what moczka is, as it’s a dish known only in one region of Poland. I love it, and there is no better moczka than the one my mom makes!
Before we start our Christmas Eve Supper every member of the family needs to break an opłatek (Christmas wafer) with each other and exchange wishes for good health, long life and prosperity.
Christmas Eve ends with Christmas Mass called Pasterka.
The next 3 days Poles don’t do anything else other than eat, watch tv and nap.
Since I moved to US, I’ve discovered that I really miss all those Polish traditions that I didn’t care much about while living in Poland, and I’ve grown to really dislike the American Christmas. Since I came to the US, I had no chance to have my own Christmas in my own home. For the two first years, I was an Au Pair and celebrated Christmas with the family I worked for. Both times were totally different, and both times I learned something new (for example, that for Christmas Eve dinner you can have Chinese take-out). lol
After that, I met my husband and every single year we would go to his parents house for Christmas where the common Polish saying becomes the living truth: “You look good with your family only in photographs.” And we would have to sneak out after dinner in order to go to a restaurant because I was hungry. I’m not criticising my mother-in-law’s cooking skills… just the kind of food is NOT right up my alley.
Every single year I felt like so many things are missing (including the snow), and there are so many too big and over-the-top things that I am not used to and do not feel comfortable with.
In my entire life I had never seen a child crying because she didn’t get enough gifts until I came to U.S. In my entire life I didn’t know that you could spent the Christmas morning shopping, returning and exchanging your gifts in a mall… until I came to U.S., in my entire life I hadn’t known that the most important thing on Christmas is the size and the festivity of your christmas tree and the decorations of your house…until I came to U.S.
This list of “things I didn’t know about Christmas until I came to U.S” could go on and on…
Anyway, finally, this year I hoped for a quiet Christmas spent only with my husband and my daughter (+dog) with a bottle of sparkling apple cider, watching Netflix and eating whatever we would feel up to.
…until we got a call from my husband’s parents. Now I know that this year won’t be any better than the previous ones. I’ll be stuck in the kitchen cooking and baking and stressing out about the food because I have never cooked turkey or ham or any of those dishes that are served during Christmas Eve in the U.S. before. And, to be honest with you, I don’t like to eat them, as well. I already made my list of things I’ll be cooking and baking. Checked it with my husband. Got it approved by him. Now I’m only hoping that my 6 months pregnant self will be able to make all what’s planned.
I never would have thought how much I would miss the Polish traditions and foods. As an atheistic family (both, me and my husband) I know that I would not continue many of those Polish traditions, like going to the Church, breaking the Christmas wafer, praying before the dinner, singing (and listening to) Christmas carols, and teaching my kids about Baby Jesus or angels. At the same time, I will try, as hard as it’s possible, not to let them fall into this shopaholic and commercialized attitude of spending this holiday (as any other holiday).
At least this Christmas we are not traveling through California on the busiest days of the year…we’re staying home with no christmas tree or christmas decorations at all…
I might hire our dog to be a living christmas tree to make it up for not having a tree at all…
What do you think?!
Anyway, I want to wish to all of you Merry Christmas, Yule, Noel, Winter Festivals, Hanukkah or simply whatever you’re celebrating… I hope the next year will bring you joy, happiness, fulfillment and good health!
Photo credit to the author.