Holiday Customs and Traditions of the Polish Christmas

The first star, the beautifully decorated Christmas tree and the breaking of the bread or wafer — these are the most important symbols of Christmas for Poles. Let us explore their meanings and history.

Christmas Eve – Wigilia

The Eve of Christmas in the Polish tradition is the most festive, significant and moving of all holidays, with origins stemming from the earliest Christian traditions. The word “wigilia” comes from the Latin word for “ watch” or “vigil“. It was customary in the early Church the day before a great feast or celebration to fast, and the faithful awaited the coming event together in prayer and devotion throughout the night. The custom of Wigilia became a permanent fixture in Poland by the 18th Century.

The main part of the celebration is the festive supper composed of an odd number of meatless dishes, in great variety and number, representing most of the foods grown and eaten throughout the year. In the countryside as well as in the estates of the nobles and the king’s court, it was the custom to place a sheaf of wheat, rye, barley and oats in each of the four corners of the hall or room. This was an offering to the Christ Child in supplication for a bountiful harvest in the coming year. The table was dressed in white linens with straw tucked underneath to represent the cloths upon which Baby Jesus lay in a manger filled with straw.

A Place at the Table

A well known and widely followed custom in Poland is leaving an empty place at the Christmas Eve table. This place is reserved for a traveler, an unexpected guest who may need to have shelter and to sit and eat on a cold winter’s night. The empty place is also a reminder of those dearest to us who are unable to be present at Christmas or can serve as a memento to those who have passed on.

The First Star

The supper begins when the first star is spotted in the evening sky. This symbolizes the star of Bethlehem which guided the Three Kings to Bethlehem.

Breaking of the Bread (Wafer)

The most important moment of the evening is the breaking of bread or a wafer known as “oplatek”. First the Gospel of the Nativity of Christ is read, then the participants break the wafer and share it while offering wishes of happiness, health and prosperity to each other in the coming year. The Christmas Eve supper tradition has come down from celebrations among earliest Christians reenacting the Last Supper. While it allows for sharing goodwill and blessings amongst the participants while teaching how to share God’s gifts with each other, this lovely custom also encourages forgiveness of transgressions and misunderstandings that may have arisen amongst people in the previous year.
An Even Number of Guests

According to tradition, an even number of people are seated at the table. An odd number has portended bad luck for someone in the group. When there was an odd number of guests in attendance, wealthier homes had a servant invited to the table. In humbler abodes, someone who had nowhere to go that evening was invited to the celebration. Seating arrangements were made according to age or representative of the guests’ status in the community with the most important person charged with beginning the supper.

An Odd Number of Dishes

According to tradition, an odd number of dishes were to be served at the supper. Alexander Bruckner in the Etymological Dictionary of the Polish Language writes that the peasant tradition had five or seven dishes served; the nobility had nine and the aristocracy, eleven. Explanations for these requirements vary, some saying seven for the days of the week, nine for the nine angelic choirs and actually, up to twelve were allowed for the twelve apostles.
An odd number of dishes were served to assure a bountiful harvest and sufficient employment for the coming year. The dishes were composed of all the crops planted to ensure plenty and prosperity in the coming year . It was also customary to at least sample each and every one of the foods prepared so that there would be no lack of them in the following year’s celebration of Christmas Eve.

The supper begins with barscz, or red beet soup with “uszka” or “little ears” ( tiny mushroom filled pierogi) or a mushroom soup. Along with fish, other foods served include an old Polish dish of peas and cabbage, dishes with dried forest mushrooms, compotes made with dried summer fruits, a poppyseed roll and the famous “kutia” from Poland’s eastern regions — a dish made of whole wheat or barley mixed with honey, poppy seeds, nuts, dried fruits and spices.

After the Supper

In the past, besides singing carols in many parts of Poland, many other customs were observed. In the Warmia and Mazury regions while they were still seated at table, the guests and family would pull straws from under the tablecloth. If one’s straw was straight, the year would go smoothly without danger; if the straw was twisted or crooked, a more difficult year of twists and turns awaited. In the Mazowszy region the remains of the feast was fed to animals for it was the belief that at midnight, at least some of the animals spoke with human voices. This was specifically attributed to cattle for they were the animals present at the birth of the Christ child and as a reward were given the gift of human voices on Christmas Eve.

Pasterka (Midnight Mass)

Midnight mass marks the end of the Christmas Eve celebrations. The mass begins at exactly midnight. According to tradition, it commemorates the coming of shepherds to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Messiah. The custom of using the Christmas liturgy on this night was already in place in the Fifth Century in the Catholic Church and quite likely arrived in Poland along with Christianity (by the Tenth Century).

Elzbieta Chalupniczak
Translated by Zofia Wisniewski

Forum, 12/2009