Boże Narodzenie Christmas in Poland is steeped in centuries old customs and traditions – some are similar to those across Europe, others are uniquely Polish. For Poles, Christmas starts on Wigilia, the Christmas Eve vigil.
What makes memories of Christmas so evocative are the smells and scents of festive food – kompot z suszu dry fruit compote, the cakes: makowiec poppy seed cake and piernik honey and spice cake. The scent of wanilia vanilla, migdały almonds, skórka pomarańczowa orange zest, cynamon cinnamon, anyż star anise, pieprz pepper, imbir ginger, gałka muszkatołowa nutmeg and goździki clove fill in the air mixing with the scent of mushroom and fish (traditionally, Poles abstain from meat on Christmas Eve). I was reminded of this when, after a long time, I spent Christmas in Poland. I walked into a grocery shop which had a lot of open wooden boxes on display which were full of dry fruit – śliwki plums, jabłka apples and gruszki pears – for kompot z suszu, grzyby mushrooms for soup, and all the exotic spices. A heady mix of scents from Polish forests and some faraway lands was almost overwhelming and immediately brought back happy memories of my childhood.
On 24th December, when darkness falls, everyone is looking out for the first star in the winter sky. Sometimes, as it will be this year, it is indeed a star (astronomers are predicting it will be Vega) but more often than not it is one of the planets, usually Venus, which acts as a first star. The tradition relates to the star of Bethlehem, which led the three Kings to the manger where Christ was born.
Tadeusz Popiel Pierwsza gwiazdka
The appearance of the star signals it is time to sit down to kolacja wigilijna Christmas Eve supper also known as wieczerza wigilijna – the main Christmas meal. Wieczerza is a more poetic word meaning supper or evening meal as in Ostatnia wieczerza The Last Supper.
Before the meal starts, everybody shares opłatek wafer – a piece of rectangular communion bread, as a sign of forgiveness and good wishes. It was Cyprian Kamil Norwid, one of the greatest Polish poets, who put it so beautifully in his poem “Opłatek”.
Jest w moim kraju zwyczaj, It is the custom in my country,
że w dzień wigilijny, that on Christmas Eve,
przy wejściu pierwszej gwiazdy at the first star’s appearance
wieczornej na niebie, in the sky,
ludzie gniazda wspólnego, people as one
łamią chleb biblijny, break biblical bread,
najtkliwsze przekazując uczucia and with great love share all they feel
w tym chlebie. in this bread.
(translation by Dcn Jim)
This tradition goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when bread was blessed and then shared during the service.
When the Wigilia is over many Poles celebrate by attending Pasterka (from pasterz shepherd) Midnight Mass, often conducted in semi darkness when the church is only illuminated by candles. Wśród nocnej ciszy In the silence of the night is traditionally the first kolęda carol sung at Pasterka.
The word kolęda comes probably from the Latin word calendae meaning the first day of the month and is closely related to the English word calendar, which has the same origin. The oldest known Polish carol was written in 1424. Many of the carols are composed to the melody of traditional Polish dances like the polonez polonaise or mazurek mazurka. Here’s a small selection of the most popular ones:
Bóg się rodzi God is born
Gdy się Chrystus rodzi When Christ is born
Dzisiaj w Betlejem Today in Bethlehem
Pójdźmy wszyscy do stajenki Let’s all go to the manger
Gdy śliczna Panna As the Beautiful Virgin
Przybieżeli do Betlejem They Came to Bethlehem
Z narodzenia Pana Because the Lord is Born
If you prefer a different interpretation of this kolęda (Z narodzenia Pana) you can listen to Zakopwer’s performance here
Silent Night, the most popular carol in the world, has also its Polish version – Cicha noc
Pastorałki are popular songs with a Christmas theme. Here’s a small selection:
Kto nas woła by Zakopower
Szkoda by Czarny Nosal
Jest taki dzień by Czerwone Gitary
Pastuszkowie bracia mili by Golec uOrkiestra
Polish tutor tips:
To get into the spirit of Polish Christmas why not try to cook Polish kompot z suszu.
Follow the links in the text to find out more about Christmas in Poland.
Above all – enjoy Christmas!
Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia