With a vibrant culture deeply rooted in history and faith, Poland boasts a wealth of unique and heartfelt traditions, especially during the Christmas season. As a country where a large proportion of the population is Roman Catholic, the religious significance of Christmas is at the heart of many Polish customs. Yet beyond the church, these traditions also reflect Poland’s rich folklore, food heritage, and sense of community. So, let’s embark on a journey exploring the enchanting Polish Christmas traditions.
The Advent Period
When thinking about Polish Christmas traditions it is important to remember the Advent Period.
The Christmas season in Poland begins with Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day. During Advent, many Polish families display an Advent wreath with four candles, lighting one more each Sunday as Christmas approaches. This period is often marked by fasting, prayer, and preparations for Christmas.
Wigilia – The Christmas Eve Vigil
The high point of Polish Christmas celebrations is Christmas Eve, known as Wigilia. The term ‘Wigilia’ comes from the Latin word ‘vigilare’, meaning to watch. It’s a day of anticipation, waiting for the symbolic arrival of the Star of Bethlehem, which heralds the birth of Jesus Christ.
Tradition dictates that the main meal, called the Wigilia feast, cannot begin until the first star appears in the evening sky. The Christmas Eve meal is meatless and often includes 12 dishes, symbolizing the 12 Apostles. The feast starts with the breaking of ‘opłatek’, a thin wafer similar to the communion wafer used in Catholic mass. Family members and friends break off pieces of each other’s wafer and exchange wishes for good health and prosperity in the coming year.
Polish Christmas traditions – The Feast of Delicacies
The Wigilia meal typically includes red borscht with tiny dumplings, a variety of fish dishes (often carp), pierogi (filled dumplings), and cabbage dishes. The meal concludes with a selection of desserts such as poppy seed cake (makowiec), gingerbread, and a unique Polish creation – kutia, a sweet grain pudding.
Szopka and Midnight Mass
Another Polish Christmas tradition is the creation of Szopka, colorful nativity scenes with figurines of the Holy Family, shepherds, and Magi. These are not mere depictions; many are intricate works of art, sometimes with moving parts.
After the meal, many attend the Pasterka – the Midnight Mass, another significant part of Polish Christmas celebrations. It’s called ‘Shepherd’s Mass’, commemorating the shepherds who were the first to visit the newborn Jesus.
Christmas Day and Second Day of Christmas
Christmas Day in Poland is a time for rest, church attendance, and spending time with family. It’s a national holiday, with most businesses closed. The day is often spent enjoying leftovers from Wigilia and visiting with extended family members.
In Poland, the Christmas season extends to December 26, known as the Second Day of Christmas, or St. Stephen’s Day. This day is also a public holiday, providing a chance for more leisurely time with family, walks in the snow if the weather permits, and relaxation after the intense preparations and celebrations.
Caroling and the Feast of Three Kings – Polish Christmas traditions
Polish Christmas traditions extend into the New Year with caroling, a favorite activity for many Poles. Groups of carolers, often dressed as the characters from the nativity scene or as bears and goats, reminiscent of old pagan rituals, visit homes in their local communities.
The Christmas season officially concludes on January 6, with the Feast of Three Kings (Epiphany). In many cities, there are processions with the Three Kings’ figures, and children often participate, dressed in colourful costumes.
Polish Christmas traditions, different to Christmas traditions in France, are rich in spiritual depth, cultural significance, and festive joy. Rooted in the country’s history and faith, these customs offer a fascinating insight into Poland’s societal fabric. Whether it’s the waiting period of Advent, the sacred vigil of Wigilia, the delicious feast, or the joyous caroling, each tradition carries a unique charm, reflecting Poland’s warm spirit and bringing communities together in shared celebration.