This is the most important family gathering of the year. Christmas holidays have always been the special celebration were generations sat together for feasting. Even today the Christmas Eve (“Wigilia Bożego Narodzenia”, the term “wigilia” descending from latin and meaning vigilance, waiting) is the best time to experience many of the most characteristic Polish customs. If you are planning to visit Poland in holiday season – read our short guide.
Today, the old feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra, on 6th December, blended with the pop-culture Santa Claus and his red suit. Many schools, companies or shopping malls organise events where Santa is giving out candy and posing with kids for photos. At home, parents also prepare small gifts for their children, supposedly from Saint Nicholas. Children also love the tradition of advent calendars, not surprisingly, as it is a chocolate box. They count the remaining days till Christmas by means of eating one praline per day.
At this time, which is beginning of December, holiday decorations, Christmas trees and colorful light chains are already put in place. Major streets and promenades in city centres are also shining with seasonal ornaments. In the last few years Christmas fairs became a great alternative for shopping malls or on-line stores. In every major city, on town squares or streets, you can buy a variety of holiday gifts like local specialities (honey, mulled vine – grzaniec – or smoked sheep cheese – oscypek ).
The time before Christmas Eve is usually very busy for everyone and we advise not to commute by train if it’s not necessary. Although the 25th and 26th are bank holidays in Poland, the most important day is 24th. Most companies and shops close earlier to let employees come back homes for the Christmas Eve supper. It is customary for families to wait with the supper until the first star shines on the sky. Before the actual meal, Poles share the traditional flatbread wafer, known as opłatek, with each other wishing all the best. The customary meals for the holiday are barszcz (borscht soup), various types of dumplings, and especially many styles of carp, the most characteristic dish of the season. Other fish are prominent as well, since no meat or poultry is allowed on the Eve, which is traditionally a day of fasting. After the supper, sweet deserts like gingerbread, cheesecake and especially the sweet grain pudding with honey and poppy seeds known as kutia are served.
After partaking of each dish, a wide spread custom dictates to sing a few traditional Christmas carols. When kids finish theirs plates, parents let them rush to the Christmas tree to open gifts. The family celebrations of the Christmas Eve are long and slow, the final event is being the pasterka, the midnight mass between 24th and 25th of December. The next two days are bank holidays, meant for meeting other relatives or leisure activities like going to cinema or coffe bars, or just walks in snow-covered parks.