Christmas in Poland is known as “Boze Narodzenie” (“God’s Birth”) after the birth of Christ, the Divine Savior.
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Over 88 percent of Poland’s 40 million or so people are Roman Catholic, so Christmas is firmly steeped in the Catholic traditions there. Local Christmas customs have also gradually developed in Poland over the last 1,000 years of so, some of them even going back further to pre-Christian times.
In Poland, preparation for the Christmas season begins about a month before Christmas on Advent, which marks the beginning of the liturgical year. During this time, people avoid excess in eating and entertainment and try to focus on the meaning of Christmas as it approaches. Special masses are held during this time to remember the announcement of the Virgin Birth to Mary. Houses are also cleaned to get ready for the coming day.
As Christmas nears, nativity plays will be held in schools. These plays are sometimes heavily secularised, and they may even have the story set in the 21st Century. On Christmas Eve, many Poles fast from all meat, and this is a day of intense house-cleaning and of wearing special Christmas clothes as well.
Also on Christmas Eve, late in the evening after the first star has appeared in the sky, it is time for the long-awaited “Christmas Eve Dinner.” Traditionally, the meal begins when a wafer with a picture of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on it is passed around and a bite taken by all till it is gone. Straw may also be strewn about on the floor to remind of the stable where Jesus was born. There will be 12 dishes on the table, which is supposed to give good luck for the 12 months ahead, and you are expected to at least sample all 12.
Only after supper is over and the whole family sings Christmas carols together can the presents be opened. Many times, adults purposefully linger long at the table and take much time in festive singing to tease impatient children. In many parts of Poland, Santa brings the presents, but in some places, “the Star Man” brings them. Star Man tends to be a bit more severe than Santa, for he leaves not coal but a birchwood switch for kids who were not good that year.
The Christmas tree will also be put up on Christmas Eve. A star will sit on its top, and it will be decorated below with lights, glass baubles (called “bombki”), and gingerbread. After all of the other activities, Polish Catholics then go to midnight mass to await the dawning of Christmas morning.
Should you be in Poland around Christmas time, here are a few activities you may wish to take part in:
- Get an authentic Polish Christmas dinner. If you can’t stay with a local family, look for Christmas food at local restaurants. Traditional dishes include: beet-root soup, often with “mushroom dumplings;” carp as the main dish, traditionally allowed to swim in the bathtub for several days before the meal; “bigos,” which has bacon and cabbage in it and is eaten on Christmas Day; herring, served in oil, cream, or jelly; “kompot z’suszu,” a drink made from dried fruit and fresh apples; and desserts such as poppy-seed rolls, moist honey-cakes, and hardened gingerbread.
- Listen to Polish carolers at church services or as they wander around town. Poland has its own traditional Christmas hymns and songs, such as God is Born, Within Night’s Silence, Sleep Baby Jesus, Today in Bethlehem, and Shepherd’s Song. Some of them date from Medieval times, and you can get a collection of them in book form as well.
- Visit a glass-blowing factory where hand-blown Christmas ornaments are still made. Poland is famous for these ornaments, most of which are produced in southern Poland. Some specific Polish glass workshops include: Glassware Art Studio, IMPULS, and Silverado.
Poland has many unique Christmas traditions that date back many centuries, and the tourist who observes a Polish Christmas firsthand will find much of interest and much to enjoy.