Christmas in Poland: a comprehensive guide to Polish Christmas customs and traditions

Christmas is a very special time all around the world, yet every country has its own, unique ways of celebrating it. Have you been wondering how it is done in Poland? It would probably be best to book a trip to Poland and see it yourself, but if you haven't had a chance to do that this year, let us at least give you a foretaste of it.

Warsaw Castle, Poland

When do we celebrate Christmas in Poland?

At first glance, we’re not very original in this respect. Like most countries, we celebrate it at the end of December. Surprisingly, though, the most important Christmas celebrations in Poland take place on Christmas Eve. Families gather to have a solemn Christmas Eve dinner together.

Preparing for Christmas

We put a lot of energy into the Christmas preparations. And I don’t mean the shopping spree, although we do fall victims of that too. Our houses and apartments must be spick and span. Every window pane has to shine. Every item on the shelves has to be dust-free. Every corner of the house simply has to be clean, without further ado!

We also put all our hearts into the cooking. We prepare so much food that losing weight becomes an obvious New Year’s resolution for nearly all of us. After all, the tradition is to serve 12 dishes to represent the 12 Apostles and the 12 months of the year. What is more, all the cooking has to be planned and done beforehand. Christmas Eve is a working day for most people in Poland, which doesn’t leave much time for preparing before the guests arrive.

Setting the Christmas Eve table

Naturally, the Christmas table has to be beautifully decorated. We take out our best sets of plates and cutlery and polish them all to make them shine. But before we put them on the table, we put a little bit of hay under the tablecloth. After all, Jesus was born in a stable.

Christmas Eve dinner is reserved for the family. Nevertheless, no one should be left alone on Christmas, so we traditionally put an additional set of plates and cutlery for an unexpected guest or a vagrant.

Wigilia: the Polish Christmas Eve traditions

On Christmas Eve, the traffic in big cities is really dense, because people move around a lot. Christmas Eve is the most important part of Christmas celebrations in Poland, so you should spend this day with your entire family. In many cases this means you’ll have to attend at least two Christmas dinners: with your mother’s family and with your father’s family.

When does the celebration begin?

Traditionally, before the Christmas Eve dinner can start, families wait for the first star to appear in the sky. It is the children’s job to watch the sky carefully and give a sign when they spot the first star.

Celebrating Wigilia begins with sharing the Christmas wafer, ‘opłatek’. Family members break off small pieces of each other’s wafer and give their best wishes for Christmas. To wish someone a Merry Christmas in Polish, we say WESOŁYCH ŚWIĄT /ves-oh-wih shvee-ohnt/. After that, we all sit down and have dinner together. Do I need to mention that we have to try all the 12 dishes?
At midnight, the whole family goes to church to attend the midnight mass, 'pasterka'.

When do we get Christmas presents in Poland?

Obviously, one night is not enough for Santa to deliver all the presents to everybody around the globe. Apparently he starts with Poland, because we get to open our presents already on Christmas Eve. After dinner, the youngest member of the family takes the presents from underneath the Christmas tree and distributes them.

Who else brings Christmas presents?

The answer is not obvious. Most homes are visited by Santa, but in some regions presents are brought by Starman, Grandfather Frost, Little Angel, Little Star, or even Baby Jesus. But no matter who  brings the presents, if you misbehave throughout the year, you may get a birch rod called ‘rózga’ instead.

Polish Christmas food

Food is an essential part of the Christmas celebrations. Many of the traditional dishes are prepared specifically for Christmas and only eaten at this time of the year.  Traditionally, meat is not served on Christmas Eve (although nowadays it is acceptable).

What’s on the Polish Christmas table?

The Polish Christmas dishes include (among other things):

  • bigos (although on Christmas Eve a meatless version of it is served)
  • pierogi stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms
  • cabbage with peas
  • beetroot soup
  • mushroom soup (preferably made from mushrooms that the family picked themselves)
  • kutia (wheat grains with poppy seeds, nuts and honey)
  • poppy seed cake
  • cooked vegetable salad
  • dried fruit compote
  • different kinds of fish

The carp is the king of the Christmas table. Live carp can be bought in stores all around Poland. It is then kept in the bathtub, before it ends up on the table as fried carp or carp in jelly.

Polish Christmas trivia

Sharing the ‘opłatek’, putting hay underneath the tablecloth and preparing 12 dishes for Christmas is already quite unheard of in other parts of the world, but there are even more interesting customs and traditions.

Nativity Scenes

We love Nativity scenes. Every church has one on Christmas. Some even have live Nativity scenes, with real animals. Those are the children’s favorite.

If you visit Kraków for Christmas, you may get to see the famous and unusual Nativity scenes, inspired by the city’s architecture. The tradition of making them is included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Christmas ornaments

Decorating the Christmas tree is not a tradition that stems from Poland, but we sure are experts at doing that. In fact, Poland is the fourth biggest exporter of Christmas ornaments, right after China, the Netherlands and the USA.

Christmas carols

In most Polish houses, Christmas carols are eagerly sung at the Christmas table. Many of the most popular ones date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the most popular and very solemn carols is ‘Bóg się rodzi’ (‘God is being born’).

In fact, we have two kinds of carols: kolędy (sung in church) and pastorałki (a folk kind of carols).

Christmas markets

Christmas markets are very popular in Poland - and really beautiful too. Together with all the street decorations, they make visiting Polish cities at Christmas an unforgettable experience. This year, the Christmas market in Gdańsk was dubbed one of the best in Europe. You can have a glimpse of it in our video about Gdańsk.

Polish Christmas quirks

Is there anything else I should tell you about Christmas in Poland? I think some things may surprise you. Well, here we go:

  • You already know about the carp. But did you know that people often put Christmas carp scales in their wallet? It is supposed to bring them financial luck. I suggest you try that this season. If it works, you’ll be able to plan a very looong holiday in Poland!
  • Animals are believed to speak human language at midnight. But I’m not sure who they’re supposed talk to, if everyone’s at the midnight mass?
  • As weird as it may sound, our favorite movie to watch on Christmas is… ‘Home Alone’. It is played on tv every year and it seems that we got used to it.

Wesołych Świąt! Merry Christmas! May all your dreams come true.

Especially those of visiting Poland 🙂

Click here to learn some basic Polish Christmas vocabulary and learn to sing 'Silent Night' in Polish.

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