Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sharing the Joy: Christmas Around the World - Poland

Although a tormented country, with a past long under Communist rule, Poland holds on to its rich Christmas traditions. The traditions I mention here come from an account from 1917...traditions which have not changed much over the past decades.

One of the most prominent Polish Christmas traditions is the festival of Christmas Eve. This feast is not only a traditional family gathering, it is steeped in religious meaning. The feast cannot begin until the first star appears in the sky, which is around 6:00 pm in Poland. Therefore, this Christmas supper Wigilia, or The Vigil, is also known as the Star supper.

In the brightly lit dining room, straw or hay is laid out upon the table with a white tablecloth placed on top. This is in memory of Jesus's birth in a manger. Before everyone is seated, the head of the family holds a plate containing a wafer that has been prepared specially, blessed by the parish priest and has a sacred sign stamped upon it, such as IHS or a scene of the Nativity. A speech is made for all present to be at peace with God and the wafer is broken with all present at the feast. Anyone who is absent is sent a blessed wafer with a corner torn off to show that they have broken the wafer with them as a gesture of affection and showing that they were missed.

After the wafer ceremony, everyone wishes each other a happy Christmas and the singing of Polish carols commences. At last, everyone sits down to eat the supper. The feast is the first meal of the day, as the earlier hours of Christmas Eve require a strict fast in Poland. This extraordinary meal has 11 courses! However, no meat is included. Almond soup made with almonds, raisins, rice and milk is a required mainstay. Some of the other fare includes baked fish or carp, vegetable dishes, such as small bags of pastry filled with sauerkraut and tons of butter, and cabbage leaves wrapped around fried or boiled millet. For dessert are Polish poppyseed cakes, made with white poppyseeds and jam in alternate layers. Other desserts include the lavishly decorated ginger cakes and all kinds of pastries. There are also apples, oranges, nuts, dried fruits and Hungarian wine and the famous traditional Polish mead.

Next, the Polish take naughty and nice very seriously. The children are assembled and a person dressed as Father Christmas, known as Starman in Poland (often the parish priest in disguise). Starman quizzes the children in their catechism and those who answer incorrectly are scolded. Starman then tells the children that he has brought them rewards for their good conduct from his own homeland, Starland. They are led back to the dining room where the feast has been removed and, in its place, decorated with bright lights and beautifully adorned Christmas trees. You can probably guess what is waiting there for the children. You guessed!

Everyone then gathers around the fireplace and Christmas hymns are sung. At midnight, everyone attends midnight mass. The church is crowded with people singing more Christmas hymns.

Christmas day is generally spent like an ordinary Sunday. However, there are other festivities that continue through the season. Young boys from the town, called Starboys, gather together and go house to house singing Christmas carols and carrying the Szopka, a miniature shed with puppets with which they act out the sacred story of Christmas.

Finally, on Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, the people attend church with small jewelry boxes containing a gold ring, incense, and amber...all in memory of the gifts of the Magi. Also included is chalk. The objects are blessed and then taken home. Upon returning home, the owners draw on all the doors with the chalk the initials K.M.B. with a cross after each. The letters stand for the names of the Three Kings - Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These remain on the doors all year.

As you can see, Polish has very rich and sacred Christmas traditions. I hope you enjoyed reading about them as much as I did.

Christmas Around the World, compiled by Maria Hubert

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Always in spirit....


  1. This is beautiful! My grandmother was Polish and she died three years ago, so it is lovely to read about her family's traditions. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I love the idea that every country has their own traditions and beliefs. I'm not sure I would like the almond soup, but if I'm ever in Poland for Christmas, I'll give it a try.


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