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Święta po polsku. Christmas in Poland.

Who is Mikołaj, what is that white piece of wafer that people share and why do Poles leave one seat empty on Christmas Eve dinner?

Maybe you have already spent Christmas in a Polish way, with friends or your Polish partner’s  family and discovered some of our traditions and customs. 
Although it’s time to celebrate and connect with family and friends, the religious significance of Christmas is also observed. Nowadays you will find mix of customs, some of which have been established in Poland for generations, and others which are somewhat newer. In today’s post I will present you some traditional aspects of Polish Christmas. 


Festive season in Poland starts early December. Children have their mini-Christmas on the 6th December as on that day, or night rather, the Polish Santa Claus – Święty Mikołaj places some goodies (usually sweets) under children’s pillows or in shoes. When they wake up , they know Mikołaj visited. 
Very often, there are  parties organised for children on that day and Mikolaj himself distributes the gifts. Before he gives any presents away, he asks a child:
Byłeś grzeczny? 
Did you behave well?
If you want to find out what Mikołaj brought to a child, ask him:
Co ci przyniósł Mikołaj? 
What has Santa Claus brought you?
But also adults may get some gifts from Mikołaj. In some workplaces people organise Mikołajki – a secret Santa- you draw a person’s name in order to buy him or her an anonymous present. 
So who brings presents 3 weeks after? 
Well, it depends where you live in Poland. I grew up in Upper Silesia and on the 6th it was Mikołaj and on the 24th Dzieciątko Jezus (little Baby Jesus) who brought presents. In some parts  of Poland, it is Gwiazdor (it derives from the Polish word for star gwiazda) or Aniołek ( little Angel) or even Dziadek Mróz (Father Frost). Also, it can be still Mikołaj who makes an appearance on the 24th December.


Even if you are not in Poland for Christmas be ready to say Christmas wishes to your Polish friends, family but also to  your Polish neighbours or the lady in a Polish shop that you visit frequently to get your favourite Polish delicacies.
The easiest way is to say Wesołych Świąt – Happy Holidays. The good news is that you can use the same for wishing a happy Easter. 
Święta Bożego Narodzenia – Christmas holiday
Święta Wielkanocne –  Easter holiday
Święta plural form of święto,a holiday, which means a particular day on which some events, religious or public  and celebrated. 
You can learn the long form and impress the Poles you know even more. Start with the verb życzyć to wish followed by the Wesołych Świąt and add the type of holiday you refer to:
Życzę ci Wesołych Świąt  Bożego Narodzenia – I wish you a Happy Christmas.


Once you have done your Christmas shopping  (zakupy świąteczne), put up the Christmas tree (choinka), it’s time to enjoy Polish Christmas delicacies.
Unlike the Anglo-Saxon world, the centrepiece of Polish Christmas celebration is the Christmas dinner on the 24th December. Wieczerza wigilijna or Wigilia  is the most important celebration of the year. It’s not a public holiday in Poland, but many institutions stop working earlier on the day, so people can celebrate a family dinner at home.
What you can expect to happen during dinner? 
First star and opłatek
Before we sit down to the table, we should wait until the first star appears in the sky to commemorate the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Wise Men to the birthplace of Christ. Children are usually at the window searching for the star in the sky!
Once at the table, it’s time to the most beautiful and most revered Polish custom – sharing the opłatek. It’s an unleavened wafer made of flour and water embossed with a religious image. We break and share a piece of opłatek and exchange wishes with everyone participating in the dinner. 
Empty seat
You may ask yourself if anyone else is coming to the dinner seeing one extra place setting and one seat empty.
Although this meal is reserved for the closest family, traditionally, the host of the Christmas Eve Dinner  prepares an extra chair and plate at the table should there be an unexpected visitor. No one should be on his own that day.  
Hay and white tablecloth
Don’t be surprised if you see some hay (sianko) spread beneath the tablecloth, it’s not about the host being careless when cleaning the house. It’s a reminder that Christ was born in a manger. And traditionally the tablecloth must be white.


What you can find on the Polish Christmas table?
Most of the dishes served are cooked specifically for this special day – and only once a year! The tradition calls for twelve meatless  courses to be served. This number is a symbol of richness, twelve Apostles and a representation of the twelve months of the year. What you will have on the table, it obviously depends on which part of Poland you are.
  • Opłatek 
  • Barszcz z uszkami -beetroot soup with porcini ravioli or
  • Mushroom soup with noodles –  zupa grzybowa z kluskami
  • Pierogi (traditionally with cabbage and mushrooms) dumplings 
  • Śledzie – herrings 
  • Karp – carp 
  • Kapusta z grzybami  sauerkraut with mushrooms 
  • Kompot z suszu  – dried fruit drink
  • Kutia – mixture of wheat grains, poppy seeds, honey, dried fruits, honey, nuts and seeds.
  • Piernik- gingerbread cake
  • Makowiec – poppy seed cake
Once you tried a little bit of everything, you are ready to open your Christmas presents (prezenty) and sing some carols (kolędy). And to finish the day you can attend the traditional midnight mass (pasterka).


Christmas in Poland remains far more a time of traditions and celebrating with friends and family, rather than excessive gift-giving. If you are going to spend it in Poland or if you celebrate with Poles outside Poland, enjoy discovering new traditions and customs. 
Learn how to say Merry Christmas and more ready made expressions that I prepared for you in this month festive series on my Youtube channel.

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