Polish Christmas traditions in a nutshell


Christmas is a time for family feasting and resting after few days of preparing festive meals. The first star, beautiful Christmas tree and oplatek are one of symbols of Christmas in Poland. Christmas lasts three days. The first one, and in practice the most significant is of course Christmas Eve, in Polish: Wigilia Bozego Narodzenia. A number of traditions is associated with Wigilia. A Christmas Eve supper (wieczerza wigilijna) is vegetarian and considered one of the most important meal in the year. December 25 is called Boze Narodzenie (God's birth) or Pierwszy Dzien Swiat (The First Christmas Day); while on December 26 Poles have Drugi Dzien Swiat (Second Christmas Day). Generally speaking Christmas traditions are similar to those of Anglo-Saxon countries. But let's look at them more closely.

Christmas fair at the Main Market Square, Krakow, Poland.
Photo from Flickr by Thomas N.

The First Star — Pierwsza Gwiazdka

Gwiazdka is a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, whose appearance was accompanied by the birth of Jesus. Thanks to the Star of Bethelem, the Magi could reach the place of birth of the Savior. Today, we expect the first star, which appears in the Christmas sky during Christmas Eve (Wigilia). Only after it shines, Poles sit at the table, divide the wafer and exchange Christmas greetings.

The peasant looks for the first star in the sky. Oil painting by Tadeusz Popiel (1863-1913), entitled "Pierwsza gwiazdka". Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Wafer — Oplatek

Its name comes from the Latin word 'oblatum' and means 'offering'. This is nothing but a thin piece of baked wheat flour. Sharing of bread has its roots in pagan traditions and with time, it passed permanently to the Christian traditions. Today we share oplatek before the Christmas Eve supper exchanging Christmas greetings and forgiving.

Everyone holds a piece of oplatek, and sharing means that when somebody wishes you, you have to brake a small piece of his/her wafer off, and eat it. It continues until all of you gave each of the rest their best wishes. Face to face, braking off the oplatek.Then Poles sit down to the dinner at peace and with pure hearts :) Oplatek tradition is also known in Lithuania and Slovakia.

Oplatek. Photo from Flickr by Roman G.

Christmas Hay — Sianko

A piece of hay – sianko – is placed under a white tablecloth on the table at which Christmas Eve dinner is organized. Sianko symbolizes the place and the crib where Jesus was born.

(1) Christmas Sianko attached as a gift to a newspaper. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. (2) Modern Polish design. Kluka – a beautiful glass bowl to be filled with the Christmas hay. Designed by Wzorowo group. Photo from: wzorowo.com.

Christmas tree - Choinka

Usually dressed on Christmas Eve, December 23. Once Choinka was adorned with bundles of hay, candles and apples, which are likely to symbolize the biblical parabole of Adam and Eve. Today apples are replaced with glass baubles of course. The top of the Christmas tree is adorned with a star of Bethelem. Green tree is a symbol of life and the birth of the Savior. Christmas tree lights should be switched on only after the First Star appeared on the sky.

Choinka in front of the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
Photo from Flickr by maniak713.

Christmas Carols — Koledy

Old Poles love to sing koledy at the Christmas table. Songs tell stories about the birth of Jesus. The oldest Polish Christmas carol is "Be Healthy Angel King" and comes from 1420.

"Lulajze Jezuniu" from Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20 by Frederic Chopin.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Gifts — Prezenty

One of the most important Christmas tradition, especially for kids is Christmas gifts – prezenty swiateczne. Gifts should be placed under the Christmas tree when the First Star appears.

Photo from Flickr by Mark Paciga.

Christmas Eve Holy Mass - Pasterka

Traditional Holy Mass is celebrated on the night of 24 to 25 December. This is very important one in Polish culture, so that it has its own name – Pasterka. Even the Poles, who are not practicing Catholics, go to the church at midnight to attend the traditional midnight mass. And churches are usually full. Another tradition is The Stable / The Crib – 'Stajenka' or 'Szopka'. Jesus was born in the stable and at Christmas time, all churches organize small stables inside, with figures of a newborn Jesus, Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, animals and other. A great attraction for children.

The Crib in Katowice, Poland. Photo from Flickr by Rafal N.

Home decoration in the past

During Christmas time, both in rural cottages, manors and aristocratic residences, home interiors were decorated with the sheaves of grain, straw, hay, flaxseed, hemp, poppy seeds, peas, and beans. Sheaves were set up in the corners of all rooms, or on the ceiling hung, and hay was placed under the table. Straw was spread across the floor. This was done so to commemorate the birth of Jesus in the stable. The custom of giving gifts, now commonly practiced, concerned only wealthy burgher houses.