December – darkness lit by candlelight

Grudzień December is named after gruda a lump of earth which is so characteristic of the Polish landscape in December when the temperature oscillates between a few degrees Centigrade below zero at night, and just above zero during the day. The ground changes from soft to hard and back again and this forms lumps covered in a thin layer of snow and frost.  

December landscape

Grudzień coincides with Adwent Advent, the traditional spiritual preparation for Christmas – it’s the time of restraint, fast and abstinence; there are no parties or weddings. In Poland the traditions associated with Advent are still very strong. The Adam Mickiewicz’s verse about Christmas still rings true – 

Wierzysz, że Bóg się narodził w betlejemskim żłobie, 

lecz biada ci jeśli nie zrodził się w tobie

You believe that God was born in the Bethlehem crib 

but woe betide you if He was not born in you.  

On the four Sundays in December, four candles are lit, one on each Sunday. The candles represent pokój peace, wiara faith, miłość love and nadzieja hope.  Many people fast and abstain from drinking alcohol and since Wigilia the Christmas Eve supper is the last meal of Advent, in Poland it is traditionally without meat. 

four candles with ribbons

Grudzień is dominated by ciemność darkness – the days are short and often cloudy and daylight is at a premium. That mood is reflected in traditional church services.  Since the 13th century Poles attended RoratyRorate Mass also known as Advent dawn Mass – traditionally celebrated early in the morning, before dawn, in the dark when the church is illuminated only by candlelight brought by those attending, many of them children. You can frequently see children and their parents walking to church about 6 o’clock in the morning, carrying candles and lanterns. 

An integral part of Adwent is the commitment to dobre uczynki good deeds as a preparation for Christmas. During Roraty, children write their good deeds on pieces of paper which are then placed in a special basket in church.

Roraty also emphases the central truth of the Christian faith – that darkness is always surpassed by light, and good always conquers evil. 

The fact that traditionally there are no parties in December appears to be  hard luck for those who celebrate name days in this month.  And there are four popular names: Barbara Barbara, Mikołaj Nicholas, Adam Adam and Ewa Eve. As in many Catholic countries, Poles attach more importance to feast days of their patron saint than to birthdays. All four saints are firmly anchored in Polish culture and tradition.

On December 4th, the feast of Saint Barbara is celebrated. Barbara is a popular name is Poland but St Barbara is also a patron saint of górnicy miners (as well as artylerzyści artillerymen, architekci architects and matematycy mathematicians). Dzień Górnika Miner’s Day is called Barbórka. Miners, dressed in their traditional black uniforms with hats decorated with feather plums (different colours denotes different ranks) celebrate their festival. Traditional balls, dinners and church services are all part of the festivities.


On December 6th, the feast of Święty Mikołaj Saint Nicholas is celebrated. In stark contrast to the Western Santa Claus, Święty Mikołaj is traditionally dressed in a bishop’s garment and the celebration is linked to the story of the real St Nicholas, a bishop of the ancient Greek city of Myra (modern day Demre in Turkey). He was known for giving presents to those who were in need of support and the tradition of gift giving survived to this day in Poland as Mikołajki. For children, a judgment is passed on whether they have been grzeczne good or niegrzeczne naughty throughout the year. For grzeczne dzieci good children gifts await, while niegrzeczne dzieci naughty children receive rózga  a rod or twig. For that reason you can often see street sellers with baskets of small bunches of twigs painted in silver or gold.  


On December 24th, Wigilia Christmas Eve, the feast of Adam and Eve, the first parents, is celebrated. Again, both are very popular names in Poland. 

The most famous Polish Adam was Adam Mickiewicz, the earlier quoted poet.  He was born 220 years ago, on 24th December 1798. If you are in Kraków, in a tradition that stretches over a hundred years, you can see kwiaciarki flower sellers in the main Market Square leaving bunches of flowers under the monument of Adam Mickiewicz who celebrates his name day and his birthday on Christmas Eve.


Polish tutor tips

Find out more about:

St Barbara here 

Barbórka here 

St Nicholas here

Mikołajki here

Adam Mickiewicz here

You can listen to a popular Christmas song “Święta w nas” Blue Cafe – why not search for the lyrics and turn it into a translation exercise.