Let’s say you decides to spend Christmas in Poland. Wouldn’t it be good to know something about Polish Christmas traditions? The first thing you need to know is that for the vast majority of Poles Christmas is a family holiday, which means that in the countryside and in smaller towns everything will be closed and streets will be rather empty on the 24th of December after 2 pm. Some life will come back to the streets shortly before midnight when families go to church (yes, the midnight mass is very popular). On the 25th of December you can expect a few restaurants and cafés to be open, but only in the largest cities and only in the touristy places. December 26th is also a bank holiday, but after 2 days spent with your closest family you would rather go out, meet with friends, go for a walk or for a drink, so more and more places reopen.
What should be your conclusion after reading the information above? First of all, if you are not staying in a hotel, make sure to buy some basic stuff before Christmas (most shops will stay open until 2 pm on the 24th of December). Remember that it gets dark after 15:30, so it’s better to start sightseeing early. After it gets dark you can enjoy beautiful illuminations. The most attractive cities to come for Christmas are Warsaw, Cracow, Wrocław and Gdańsk. In all of them you will find wonderful Christmas markets (the biggest one is organized in Wrocław). These markets are a good opportunity to try Polish specialties from all over the country. On December 6th lots of activities for children are organized.
If you have Polish friends, you may get invited to spend Wigilia (solemn dinner on December 24th) with them and their family. In that case, you should definitely read the tips below.
10 things you should know about Polish Christmas traditions:
- On Christmas Eve that day Poles don’t eat meat (only fish is allowed).
- Dinner starts quite early (when the first star appears on the sky, so around 4 pm) and lasts for a long time. There are 12 different dishes are served, so it’s best if you don’t eat anything during the first part of the day!
- Everyone must eat or at least try some of each dish. For Catholics the 12 dishes symbolize Jesus’s 12 disciples.
- Don’t be surprised if you see someone having a serious conversation with their pet, especially at midnight, when animals are believed to be able to speak.
- One of the most important dishes is “barszcz” (beetroot soup) and it’s obligatory to have it. If you really hate it, you can eat mushroom soup instead! The barszcz may be eaten with “uszka” (little dumplings with mushrooms) or “krokiety” (pancakes with mushrooms or/and cabbage, in breadcrumbs, fried on oil or butter).
- If you come early enough, you may find a fish swimming in the bath. This horrible tradition (I try not to be judgmental, but can’t accept this cruel practice) of having carp as the main dish is not very old and requires you to buy the fish alive and kill it by yourself at your place shortly before serving the dish. Fortunately now it’s starting to change and more and more people just buy a fillet of carp instead.
- At the beginning of the meal, a large wafer biscuit called an ‘Opłatek’, which has a picture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus on it, is passed around the table and everyone breaks a piece off and eats it. Sometimes a small piece may be given to any farm animals or pets.
- A place is often left empty at the meal table, for an unexpected guest. Polish people say that no one should be alone or hungry, therefore if someone unexpectedly knocks on the door they are welcomed (try it!).
- Sometimes straw is put on the floor of the room, or under the tablecloth, to remind people that Jesus was born in a stable or cow shed.
- Presents are brought by “Święty Mikołaj” (St Nicholas/Santa Claus), although in the east you may hear about “Dziadek Mróz” and in western and northern Poland – about “Gwiazdor”, the Starman. The starman is not always all-good – if you didn’t behave yourself, you may get a “rózga”, a birch-rod that should be used on bad person!