Christmas is probably the most anticipated holiday throughout the year in Poland. Its traditions are deeply rooted in our culture and quite strictly followed during the festive days and preparations for them. The magical atmosphere during the last week of the year is created through the special celebrations reserved only for Christmas.
A few days before Christmas, the families gather to decorate the tree to put some festive mood in the house. It is usually lit up on the day of Christmas Eve and decorated with presents laid under its branches. On the day of Christmas Eve traditionally you are supposed to fast and wait until the first star comes up on the sky to start a celebratory feast. It is to remember the history of the birth of baby Jesus and the star that led the three kings to him. While preparing the table we usually put a bit of hay under the cloth to remind us that Jesus was born in a manger. The evening dinner starts with reading a part of the Bible describing the Holy Birth. Before finally seating down to eat, there is time for Christmas wafers. These small pieces of bread are a symbol of family unity and each year they are distributed by the workers of the local church who walk from door to door in every parish. While sharing a wafer, you exchange wishes with the beloved ones. Once you do it, you break off a piece of someone's wafer and eat it - and so do they.
The menu for Christmas Eve traditionally consists of 12 meals (from the number of the apostles). As you can eat them only once a year, they are highly appreciated. On the day of Christmas Eve, you are not supposed to eat meat and dairy; thus only fish are on the menu of available animal products. The set does not fall far away from traditional Polish tastes. You would start an evening with clear beetroot soup served with little stuffed dumplings called 'uszka'. The main course consists of fried or jellied carp fillets, sour cabbage with mushrooms, and pierogi or croquettes with the same kind of filling. On the table, you will also surely see herring in different versions - in oil, vinegar, sour cream, or with raisins. For the sweet part of the dinner, you could have homemade pasta with poppy seeds, raisins, and nuts. Next to that, you can also have kutia - a mix of wheat berries, honey, nuts, and dried fruit. It is also very popular to bake a poppyseed cake for that occasion. As you are not supposed to drink alcohol during this day, Polish cooks usually serve a homemade drink based on cooked dry fruit with sugar.
Another important tradition while setting the table is always making one more space than the number of expected guests. This is a place for a lost wanderer. The custom says there might be a person in need of shelter who we could help during these days. In other parts of the country, it is believed that the seat is prepared for baby Jesus.
In Polish tradition, there is a wide repertoire of songs linked to Christmas. They are well-known melodies, sung before and after the holiday. You can hear the first carols during the nativity plays performed by children at school. In many towns and cities, there are organized multiple concerts with the same set of songs that usually invite the spectators to join. In my family, we usually sing them all together after eating the Christmas Eve dinner. There is also a vanishing tradition of carol singers walking from door to door and collecting coins or sweets.
During Christmas Eve, there is a special mass organized at midnight. 'Pasterka' (named after the shepherds who came to the manger) is an unskippable part of Christmas celebrations. The masses are organized by all the local churches, but the most impressive will be held in the city cathedrals, like the one in Cracow and Warsaw. During the evening young people more often visit bars to celebrate Christmas with their friends than attend Pasterka mass (obviously, it has nothing to do with the tradition).
Two other days of Christmas are usually spent on visiting closer and further family members. For those who are religious, holiday time is a great occasion to attend masses in the local churches.
Christmas is the favorite holiday of the Poles. Maybe because of a big number of traditions connected to it, it is the only time during the year with a magical atmosphere and family closeness. If you are ever in Poland during Christmas, try to take part in some of its celebrations as there are one of a kind.
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