December is full of holiday events in Poland, beginning with St. Nicholas Day on December 6 and stretching all the way into the new year with the Epiphany one month later. The primary Christmas traditions, however, start with the coming of Advent and culminate with celebrations on December 24, 25, and 26.
Poland is a predominately Catholic nation, and many traditions revolve around church services, fasting, and other religious customs. Like in most parts of the world, food is an important part of the holiday and the dinner table is filled with traditional entrees. Town squares and most homes are decorated with Christmas trees, and special holiday markets pop-up around the country selling typical foods, gifts, and souvenirs.
Advent in Poland
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and is a time of religious observances and prayer. Special church services mark this season, and some devout Catholics may give up a favorite food, drinking alcohol, or another vice during this time. Families also begin to prepare the home for Christmas by scrubbing the carpets, washing the windows, and deep-cleaning the house. Children in school often take part in nativity plays, known as Jasełka.
Poland's Christmas Eve (Wigilia) and Christmas Day
In Poland, the traditional Christmas feast occurs on Christmas Eve, or Wigilia, a day that holds equal importance with December 25. Before the table is set, straw or hay is placed under a white tablecloth. An extra place is set for any unexpected visitor, as a reminder that the Holy family was turned away from inns in Bethlehem and that those seeking shelter are welcome on this special night.
The Polish Christmas Eve dinner consists of 12 dishes, one for each of the 12 apostles. These dishes are usually meatless, though this restriction does not exclude the preparation of fish, as carp is one of the most traditional items served. Typically, people watch for the first star to appear in the night sky before sitting down to eat, because Christmas Eve is a day for fasting. Once the first star appears, the day has ended and families can break fast. The breaking of symbolic wafers precedes the meal and everyone shares pieces of them.
It is on this day that the Christmas tree is decorated. The Polish Christmas tree can be decorated with shapes cut from gingerbread, colored wafers, cookies, fruit, candy, straw ornaments, decorations made from eggshells, or commercially produced ornaments.
Midnight mass is a part of Poland's Christmas traditions. On Christmas Day, Poles will eat a large meal, sometimes with a goose as the centerpiece.
December 26 is known as Holy Szczepan, or St. Stephen's Day. It continues the Christmas celebrations. Traditionally a day for consecrating grain crops, Holy Szczepan is now a day for church services, visiting with family, and singing kolędy, or Polish Christmas carols.
Traditional Polish Christmas Beliefs and Superstitions
Certain beliefs and superstitions surround Christmastime in Poland, though these beliefs are often only observed for fun today. One is that animals are able to speak on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is placing straw underneath the tablecloth during dinner, which can then be used for fortune-telling.
The Christmas Spider is an old Eastern European story about a family who couldn't afford to decorate their Christmas tree, and then on Christmas morning, it was decorated in golden and silver strands from a spider's web. Families in Poland often consider it good luck to find a spider in their Christmas tree, and some even place an artificial spider decoration in hopes of good fortune.
Santa Claus in Poland
Santa Claus does not appear on Christmas Eve. The appearance of Santa Claus (Mikołaj) happens instead on the night of December 5, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas. The feast day is a part of the Advent celebrations, which are an integral part of Polish Christmas traditions.
Although Mikołaj is the primary gift-giver in Poland, some children do receive presents on Christmas Eve as well, but from baby Jesus. Polish kids must wait outside the room with the gifts until they hear a bell ringing (from their parents), which means Jesus has already left the gifts and they can enter.
Christmas Markets in Poland
Poland's Christmas markets rival those of Western Europe, particularly the one in Krakow. However, markets in other cities and towns throughout the country use their central squares and historic venues well to showcase holiday ornaments, gifts, and souvenirs. Some of the best Christmas gifts from Poland can be found during this time of year when seasonal products and handicrafts fill vendors' stalls, such as ceramics, amber jewelry, and typical wooden figurines.