POLAND | The Magic of a Polish Christmas by Magdalena Gizicka, Mazurkas DMC
What makes a Polish Christmas so special and charming is the old rituals and customs. Carried through the centuries and passed from one generation to another, they make Christmas a much more spiritual experience rather than just a shopping extravaganza.
Throughout the month of December a popular Polish tradition is the Kulig (sleigh ride). Especially popular in the mountains, where the Highlanders culture is still vivid and alive, the sleighs are decorated with jingling bells and old fashioned torches to light up the way. The ride leads into the forest and ends with an open air feast with food, singing and dancing.
Wherever you are in Poland though, the most beloved and beautiful of all traditional festivities is that of Christmas Eve. It is then that the Wigilia (Christmas Eve dinner) is served, a solemnly celebrated occasion that arouses deep feelings of kinship among family members. For days in advance the traditional foods are prepared, and everyone anxiously awaits the moment when the first star appears in the eastern sky, for that is when the feast to commemorate the birth of the Christ Child begins.
Our Polish custom dictates that bits of hay are put under the tablecloth as a reminder that Jesus was born in a manger, and one place at the table is left empty for the stranger. At the start of dinner we will break oplatek (a thin white wafer), passing it around the table exchanging greetings and good wishes.
The dinner will consist of twelve traditional dishes (but no meat) representing the twelve apostles. The following are examples of some of the dishes served:
- Barszcz Czerwony – beetroot soup with small ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms
- Karp w galarecie – aromatic carp in jelly, decorated with vegetables
- Sledz w smietanie – tasty herring in sour cream
- Pierogi z kapusta – dumplings with sauerkraut
- Kutia – a cooked wheat pudding with poppy seeds, grains, nuts and honey
After dinner, the remainder of the evening is given to Christmas carols before the family departs for Pasterka (Midnight Mass). Beautiful carols are sung, like the well-known Silent Night, as well as local Polish ones, first sung in the Middle Ages. Music for the Midnight Mass begins as soon as the doors open at 11.00pm, the Blessing of the Crib can take place before or after the homilies, when the priests open the Szopka (nativity scene) set up by the main altar and the service concludes with a traditional blessing.