Christmas traditions of Polish people (and some old pics)

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Happy Holidays, my dearest readers! I hope your day is a beautiful one and you get to spend it with the ones you love. And if not, then I hope you have an awesome day nonetheless. Drink a hot chocolate and get cozy 🙂 I’m about to share with you how do Polish people celebrate Christmas as well as what do polish people eat for Christmas! Keep reading…

Snowman on my Tree

Who am I to talk?

As some of you might know, I grew up in Poland. Did you know our Polish traditions are pretty different when it comes to Christmas? I thought I would explain a little bit about how Polish people (my family in particular) spends Christmas holidays. Although since moving to the US 9 years ago, I have been spending the Holidays with just my parents, back in Poland it was more of a family affair. Distance has grown in miles but we still make sure to call and talk with our family members on the phone.

Let me begin by stating that I have no idea what the whole thing with the Christmas stocking stuffers is all about.

I’ve lived in the US for 9 years and I still don’t know how it works. Do you do the stockings instead of Christmas presents under the tree? I don’t know. It’s confusing to me. Thinking back, the only thing that is similar that we did back in Poland (only once or twice at that, it wasn’t a very big deal) was “celebrating” St. Nicolas birthday, I think was on December 6th(?). I remember getting something in my shoe. That only happened like twice in my whole life, it really wasn’t a very popular thing to do in Poland. Maybe for little children it was since kids love any occasion to get presents, but yeah. Is that pretty much the same thing except with stockings here?

How do Polish people celebrate Christmas Eve?

In Poland, Christmas Eve is the biggest day for us. We don’t celebrate Christmas the way American people do. It seems to me that most American people pretty much ignore December 24th, Christmas Eve, and just go about their day as they normally would. I see most people still going to work and doing regular stuff. Well.. it’s the total opposite for Polish people. Christmas Eve is where ALL the action happens. Let me explain…

photo 4

We have a huge dinner on Christmas Eve (Wigilia) that consist of 12 different dishes. We say dishes but any single food can be considered a dish. My parents and I found a nice balance between the traditional Christmas Eve foods and foods we actually enjoy. What’s the point in making food that none of us like just because it’s the tradition, right? The main thing is that on Christmas Eve we are not allowed to eat ANY meat (yeah, we don’t consider fish as meat per se). Our dishes are mostly vegetarian or pescatarian. Our customs are that we are not to eat any meat nor sweets on Christmas Eve. Some people (my dad) even fast all day until the dinner comes around and then they are able to eat. My mom and I don’t do the fasting thing though.

We spend all day cooking.

(check out our food preparation and prepared food photos from Wigilia 2012 here)

The dining table is to be covered with a white cloth and a little bit of hay underneath it at one corner of the table to represent that Jesus was born in a barn.

When food is almost all done, we set the plates for all of us AND one extra set of plates for “the special guest.” It’s an empty seat for a hungry wanderer. I used to think it was always for Santa Claus in case he came to visit and was hungry and then he could have dinner with us. But this is actually done to remind us that Mary and Joseph were wandering around, hungry, before finally finding a place for Mary to have Jesus. It is meant for us to welcome the hungry traveler and help him by feeding him and providing him shelter.

We must have 12 different foods on the Christmas dinner table because there were 12 Apostles. Before the dinner, the whole family waits impatiently until we see the first star in the sky – that’s our cue to begin having supper. That happens right around 4:30pm or 5pm or so. So we first proceed with the tradition of breaking off opłatek. We begin our feast by saying a collective prayer and thanking God for the meal we are about to eat. Then, one by one, we wish everyone around the table good fortunes and say any other things we wish to say to them while breaking off a piece of their opłatek and eating that piece. Then they do the same with ours after telling us their greetings. It’s a symbol of peace.

Let’s get into the specifics of what do polish people eat for Christmas. In my parents’ house, the foods we usually have on our Christmas table are:

  1. Opłatek (Christmas wafer)
  2. Red Borscht with uszka (mushroom stuffed pasta pockets) <– these two count as two different foods separately, the soup AND the uszka
  3. Pierogi with cabbage – these are traditional Polish dumplings.
  4. Ryba po grecku (Greek Fish) – the name doesn’t really say much but this is one of my favorite Christmas dishes – it’s fish in a tomato/carrot sauce. It’s my mom’s recipe.
  5. Egg  Salad – the best! Seriously, amazing.
  6. Cooked Vegetable & Herring Salad – again, amazing.
  7. Herring with onion in oil
  8. Bigos (meatless) – apparently it’s called Hunter’s Stew in English
  9. Bread
  10. Gołąbki (golumpki) – cabbage rolls traditionally made with ground meat inside but on Christmas Eve we stuff them with mushrooms and some other stuff I don’t even exactly remember what, we usually buy those at the store.
  11. Kompot – a traditional Eastern European non alcoholic clear juice obtained by cooking fruit, in a large volume of water.
  12. Łazanki z makiem – (picture) I can’t ind an English-language version of this but it’s like dough/pasta with served mixed ground poppyseeds, honey, and raisins. It’s amazing and it’s my mom’s favorite. This is our “dessert” of the dinner and the sweetest item we can eat on Christmas Eve.

Quite the feast for just three of us, huh? Well we obviously don’t eat it all in one sitting. Plus we don’t make a lot of each dish; just enough for us.

So the custom is that we must eat a little bit of each thing. We absolutely have to try every single dish. Once we have all tried the food and we are full and happy, we collectively move on over by the Christmas tree where presents have (magically) appeared! Sometimes we have a Santa Claus come in at this time but since we have no children present we don’t do that part anymore. Then we assign one person (usually, it’s my dad) to give out the presents. We open the presents one by one.

Traditionally, Santa Claus does this or the kids just go to the tree and get their presents. I remember having done it both ways. The one time we had Santa come, he called out the name on each present from the bag and had each of us do something in order to obtain the present, like sing a song or recite a poem we learned in school. It was a fun time but I remember being a little scared of Santa. He was just so big. And he demanded so much, haha, I was a little shy as a child.

photo 1
I must have gotten over the fear by then lol

So then my parents and I made our own tradition after unwrapping presents that consists of us going over to the park in our town because it’s always beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and we take a nice walk, snap some pictures and just enjoy each others’ company. When we return, we drink some tea, play Scrabble, and watch a movie. That’s our own little tradition we came up with since we have not much other family to celebrate with here. So that’s how Polish people celebrate Christmas Eve! Or at least my family does.

The main takeaway from Christmas Eve is:

  • fasting
  • no meat
  • no sweets
  • no alcohol
  • big pescaterian feast
  • presents

Now… how do Polish people celebrate Christmas Day?

Now on Christmas Day, it’s not that big of a deal. Well at least for us personally it isn’t because this is the day that is meant to be spent with more family. Since we don’t have much family in the US, we usually just call up our family in Poland and talk a little bit while eating cakes and other desserts and playing with our presents. It’s a day of relaxation.

photo 3
My aunt, cousin, grandma, mom, and I. I must have been 4 or something. I think I was upset because they wouldn’t let me play some game. So my cousin and I were both mad lol

Can’t forget that the whole two days are spent with a constant soundtrack of Polish Christmas caroles (kolędy).

It’s a jolly and happy time.

So I hope you learned something new about Christmas and how it is celebrated by other cultures.

Check out the full recap of our Christmas Eve aka Wigilia celebration including what do Polish people eat for Christmas and how we celebrate it in general. Food pics are included 😉 Gotta love that food porn!

  • What’s your own tradition that you do during the Holidays?

Last Updated on March 27, 2019

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  1. That sounds delicious! You’re right- Christmas eve is downplayed a bit here, especially when some people still have to work a half day or so. We’re all off, and planning to spend the day together as a family. Merry Christmas!

  2. Wigilia is the best food day of the year! I love the Polish Christmas traditions and we totally luck out by getting to open our present on Christmas Eve, or at least I thought so when I was a kid. Wesolych Swiat! 🙂

  3. Awesome, I love learning about different holiday traditions! We usually have non traditional fried rice on Christmas lol gotta love being Chinese 😉

  4. cleanfoodcreativefitness

    Love learning about all the different family traditions! Merry Christmas Kammie!

  5. What beautiful traditions! I loved reading all about the food sounds like quite the feast 🙂 merry Christmas to you and your family 🙂 love and shine courtstar

  6. One of my closest friends is Polish and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea of Wigilia. It sounds like a beautiful tradition, and I’m glad that your family has kept true to it even though you are no longer in Poland. It’s so easy to fall under the typical Christmasy spell here in America (which sometimes gets verrryyy commercialized), but we found that staying true to our own traditions makes the holiday time just as special! Merry Christmas, Kammie 🙂

  7. Pingback: WIAW: Polish Christmas Eve "Wigilia" 2012! (food porn alert) - Sensual Appeal

  8. This is such a cool post! Growing up in America, I had always been under the impression that Christmas is exactly the same everywhere in the world, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that’s not the case at all. I love hearing about other traditions, and I think it’s awesome that your family sticks with yours even though you’re no longer in Poland.

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