Friday, December 23, 2011

Polish Christmas Necessities

Is a Polish Christmas really all that different from an American or British one?

Well, yes. Yes it is. Mainly, Poles celebrate Christmas Eve more festively than Christmas Day.

Here are a few things worth knowing about Christmas in Poland.

The first star

Christmas Eve is a day of fasting. You're not supposed to eat anything until the big evening meal, which begins once the sun has set and the first star has appeared in the sky. This is a good way to keep kids busy as lookouts...

Especially in the city, one must look out for the star.  An illustration of mine for "The Star of Betlehem"

Christmas is also often referred to as 'Gwiazdka', or 'the little star'. This is a pretty name which everyone has adopted in good spirit, but its origins actually lie in the ploys of our socialist government of 1952-1989 to secularise the seasonal celebrations. The Polish term for 'Christmas' is 'Boże Narodzenie', quite literally, The Birth of God.


 Before the meal, the family gathers around to share opłatek. Opłatek (pronounced op-wah-tekk) named from the latin word 'oblatum' meaning 'offering'. It is just like communion wafer, except rectangular, embossed with Nativity imagery, has not been consecrated and thus is not sacramentally the body of Christ. It is typically made by nuns, and always blessed by a priest. Charities and churches distribute it in exchange for a donation.

It works like this: you take a piece of opłatek, then go around the room, hugging and kissing each guest in turn. He or she will take a small piece from your opłatek, and you must take a piece from theirs. Then, you exchange best wishes for this Christmas and the upcoming New Year.


Opłatek is an extremely important tradition in Polish culture, extending even beyond Christian households as a way of acknowledging each of our close ones individually, if only that for that one brief moment every year. If you don't have any handy, break some bread together, for as the saying goes, enemies will not sit down to a meal together. Therefore, anyone you share bread with is your friend.

The Christmas Eve table

There is a very particular set of rules regarding the setting of a Christmas table. Hay must be placed under or on the tablecloth, as a reminder of the manger that Jesus was born in.

Hay on the table
Hay on the table, a baby Jesus figurine dating back to my childhood, and, of course, one extra place setting.

There must also be one extra place setting, no matter how crowded the dining room. This place setting is meant for the Weary Traveler, whomever he may be- whether a lost soul, a loved one who could not make it home that year, or Jesus himself. In theory, anyone who seeks shelter and company on that night should be invited to share the Christmas meal with the family. In practice...well, some people are more welcoming than others.

The animals

Twelve dishes take a long time to consume, so once the meal is over, there is a small window of time in which people usually sing carols and exchange gifts. Children have another reason to be excited- legend says that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals speak in human languages. One should be cautious, though. Many is the story of the landlord who crept into the barn to listen to his horses and cattle speak, and overheard them talking about his own death. Though they are not mentioned in the Bible, common faith has it that the ox and the donkey were the first and last at Jesus's birth- they often know more than we do.

Guinness under the tree
My parents' dog, Guinness, probably has a lot to say.

The Shepherd's Mass

But alas, few people hear the beasts speak, for midnight is the hour when Shepherds' Mass begins. Bellies full and mouths yawning, people flock to the churches to witness Christmas Eve turning to Christmas Day. It is during that mass that they will first see the nativity scenes unveiled, with the baby Jesus in place.

Each church must have a nativity scene, and while some parishes are content with the traditional figures...


 ...many go out of their way to create an original and sometimes philosophical setting for the baby Jesus' arrival.

361/366: Baby Jesus
The Word became Body, and lived among us- the baby Jesus lies cradled in an open book at the Artists' Church.

An unforgettable icon in Polish history, and symbol of the Church's involvment in the defeat of communism was a nativity scene where the baby Jesus was placed inside the trunk of a car. This was a reaction to the brutal murder of a Solidarity activist priest, Jerzy Popiełuszko. The Secret Service beat him to death, stuffed the body into a trunk and then dumped it in the Vistula river in October 1984. The film 'To Kill a Priest', starring Christopher Lambert, tells a fictionalised version of this story.

Photo used with kind permission of the author, Mark Carrot . The car used for the nativity was of the same make
and colour as the car in which Father Popiełuszko's body was transported.

I was only one year old when this happened, but for many years after that, crowds would gather at Popiełuszko's old church to light candles on the anniversary. My parents would take me with them, and I remember people crying.

After Midnight Mass, the family comes home. They may sleep in the next day, but Christmas Day, or as Poles like to call it, The First Day of Christmas, is usually celebrated by visiting relatives to sample leftovers from the previous night's feast. It is also the first time meat products may be eaten during the holiday, which many people look forward to. Those who did not attend Midnight Mass may spend Christmas Day strolling from church to church, taking part in Mass and visiting the nativities.


Carols, in Polish tradition, are not sung before Christmas, but instead all through the month of January. Think about it- carolers are not the ones who announce that Jesus will be born, but those who are passing on the joyous news that he has arrived!

We differentiate, as in English, between Carol and Christmas Song. The first is 'Kolęda', pronounced koh-len-da, from the latin calendae which signifies the first day of the month- January, in this case, when carols were sung. The second is 'Pastorałka', pronounced pass-toh-rahw-kah, from the Polish word 'pasterz' meaning shepherd. So, shepherd's song.

A kolęda will strictly tell the religious story; a pastorałka contains secular elements, and will never be sung at church during service.

Here is one of the most beautiful Polish Carols, set to a polonaise tune and written in 1792. Its text is based on a juxtaposition of opposites, and often called the Great Oxymoron. The song's title is often translated as 'God is born', but the actual tense of the verb implies that God is being born. The miracle of the birth is supposedly occurring during the song.

God is born, the might trembles
The Lord of the Heavens lies naked
The fire stills, the light darkens
The infinite one has limits.

Disdained, covered in glory
Mortal everlasting King
And the Word became the Body
and lived among us.

Bolding mine to emphasise the paradoxical contrasts, which I included in this literal translation but which are often omitted from the lyrical English version. The performance is by the world famous folk dance and song ensemble, Mazowsze.

In many regions, carolers will dress up as an array of characters symbolising various aspects of daily life and the Christmas story- traditionally the group might contain shepherds, kings, King Herod, an Orthodox Jew, angels, Death, various animals, a goat-like monster called the Turoń, and of course, the Star of Betlehem, carried propped up on a stick and often spinning like a pinwheel. Nowadays, especially in cities, it's rare to see such carolers.

A group of carolers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Fiberek.

So, it's the day before Christmas Eve.
I had planned to make a detailed tutorial on celebrating a Polish-style Christmas for you this year. Unfortunately I fell a little bit short! As it turned out, preparing such a celebration and documenting it at the same time is practically impossible.

We didn't cover all the recipes. We didn't talk about so many things that should have been mentioned!

That's okay. Christmas does come around every year, and I hope you'll join me for the next one. And don't forget, there are twelve days of holiday ahead of us.

Besides, today, I still need to write about how to finish your barszcz... you're probably really worried about it by now!

Meta Information

Photograph of the Popiełuszko nativity used with kind permission of the author, mr Mark Carrot. Thank you!
It can be seen here among other photographs of the mourning of father Jerzy Popiełuszko:
Photo of Carolers from Wikimedia Commons
Wikipedia entry on 'God is Born' carol
Wikipedia entry on opłatek

1 comment:

  1. Świetny post :D Z przyjemnością czytałam i roześlę zagranicznym znajomym ;)