Photo © Piotr Jasiczek. Source: nowahistoria.interia.pl
What it lacks in yule logs, candy canes, and Michael Bublé hits, Poland makes up in talking animals, unorthodox guests entering through the chimney, and awkward bathroom visits involving exposing yourself to fish. Below we’ve compiled a list of essential Polish traditions and idiosyncrasies to help you make sense of this holiday season.
A word of introduction
Though not immune to the inglorious Western custom of setting out festive merchandise in October, this staunchly catholic country keeps Christ firmly in Christmas – meaning that the holidays are still more of a spiritual rather than consumerist celebration. The season kicks off with Advent, a period of fasting, praying, and expectant waiting, which (at least in theory) is every bit as solemn as you’d expect from Poland. Of course, how closely church guidelines are followed depends on individual inclinations, and while some wake up before dawn each day to attend Rorate Mass, other prefer to celebrate the season with generous amounts of mulled wine in jolly company. One of the most eagerly awaited days of the year for children is December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, when they wake up to sweets and small gifts from Saint Nick (generally the stately saint, not Coca Cola Santa – though the visual given to kids is also a matter of preference). The main act of the holidays occurs on Christmas Eve, called Wigilia, when families gather for a festive evening meal followed by caroling, gift-giving, and Midnight Mass; Christmas Day and Boxing Day are reserved for visiting extended family and friends and possibly taking part in additional masses. Unabashed Christmas spirit is kept going until Three Kings Day on January 6th, but the holiday season doesn’t officially wrap up until Candlemas on February 2nd, when many families finally take down their decorations.
Carp in the bathtub
Having scored a fat carp ahead of the holidays, Poles kept their future meal swimming in a bathtub right up to Christmas Eve - when it was usually butchered by the man of the house
Carp in the tub seems to be as Polish as it is crazy. The tradition was born out of necessity during communist times, when food shortages were commonplace and holiday shopping had to be opportunistic. Fish is and was a Christmas Eve staple (with other types of meat forbidden), but post-WWII Poland had a small problem – the fishing fleet had been decimated, and the state was only starting to figure out how to run newly nationalized fisheries. Luckily for fish lovers, Minister of Industry Hilary Minc came up with the perfect idea – Poland would start raising carp, a cheap and easy-to-breed option. The idea proved quite feasible indeed, and the funky fish replaced pre-war favourites like zander and pike. With refrigeration and transportation a challenge, the best way to ensure the freshness of the fish was to sell them live out of huge vats filled with water. Having scored a fat carp ahead of the holidays, Poles kept their future meal swimming in a bathtub right up to Christmas Eve – when it was usually butchered by the man of the house – rather than take chances with it spoiling. Despite no longer being a rational thing to do in the era of supermarkets and reliable freezers, many continue to buy their carp live and subject it to the same commie-era treatment. The actual popularity of the practice is difficult to establish; while we don’t personally know anyone who lets piscine guests (prisoners) take over their bathroom, it undeniably does still happen, or there wouldn’t be numerous articles by animals’ rights activists each year arguing for the abandonment of this bizarre custom.
Hay under the tablecloth
Don’t be surprised if you show up to dinner and the table looks lumpy – the tradition of placing bits of hay under the tablecloth proved to be strong enough to continue into the 21st century, despite few people still having access to a barn. Sold in little packets in the run-up to Christmas, hay is associated with Jesus’ manger, but the actual roots of this custom are pagan and tied to ensuring a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
Extra table setting
The First Star
While adults are busy with last-minute Christmas Eve preparations, kids are usually told to keep a lookout for the first star to appear in the sky. Associated with the Star of Bethlehem that lead the Three Wise Men to newborn Jesus, the twinkling companion is a sign that dinner should commence. Guesstimates are accepted in case of cloudy weather.
Though the specific fare varies in different regions of Poland, there are a few non-negotiables on Christmas Eve: the number of dishes must be twelve, one for each apostle, which is every bit as gut-busting as it sounds; meat that doesn’t come in fish shape is a no-no (alcohol is discouraged, but depending on the participants’ affinity to vodka this rule may be overlooked); and carp reigns king at the table. The two most popular ways to prepare the hapless fish are ‘Polish style’ in gray sauce (which starts out as vegetable broth and turns said appetizing color after the fish is cooked in it, letting out juices) and ‘Jewish style’ in jelly with raisins. With that out of the way, you’re looking at beet soup (barszcz) with fun-size dumplings, mushroom soup or maybe sour rye soup (żurek), full-size pierogi two or three ways, cabbage with mushrooms or peas, marinated herring, and dried fruit compote. Having made it to dessert (perhaps after a round of vigorous carolling), you can expect poppy seed strudel (makowiec), poppy seed pudding (kutia), gingerbread cake (piernik), and tins of gingerbread biscuits. Though the big Christmas Eve dinner is undeniably the main event of the holidays, the eating marathon continues through December 26th (meat and alc now allowed), as Poles convene with extended family and friends around the table.
Who’s giving the gifts
While it’s undeniably St. Nick who gives candy and small presents to children on December 6th, things get more complicated during the main gift-giving event, which falls on Christmas Eve after dinner, not on Christmas Day morning. Depending on where you are in Poland, the entity that makes gifts appear underneath the tree can be the jolly man himself, an angel, Baby Jesus, Star Man (Santa Claus semi-doppelganger), Grandfather Frost (in regions heavily inspired by Russian/Belarusian culture), or – weirdest yet – a ‘little star’, which is the only personage in the bunch to not have arms. With Poles shuffled around following WWII and increasingly mobile in present times, a bit of muddled explaining is sometimes necessary when children ask why they’re visited by an angel while the kid next door seems to be Baby Jesus’ favourite.
Having stuffed themselves silly and gotten presents sorted out, most families wrap up like penguins and head to Midnight Mass, known as pasterka (for those who aren’t night owls, mass is also held earlier in the evening). Lasting up to two hours and filled with carols, pasterka is one of the most joyous spiritual events for more religious Poles; for the less religious it can be one of only two yearly church-going occasions, the other being the blessing of Easter baskets.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, the time Jesus was born according to legend, Polish farm animals are known to speak in human voices and air grievances accumulated throughout the year. With the timing inconvenient (Midnight Mass) and eavesdropping thought to cause bad luck, not many get to have a chat with Wilbur or old Major, however. This belief – which is neither limited to Poland nor actually taken seriously by anyone other than small children – might date back to pagan times, when souls of ancestors were thought to occasionally inhabit the bodies of animals, but is marketed as an extension of a legend describing how God gave voices to animals present at Jesus’ birth so they could praise the miracle they had just witnessed.
Baby Jesus or St. Nick making an appearance at Christmas might be all fine and dandy, but how do we feel about (young) Macaulay Culkin? Since 1992, when it first aired on Polish telly, collective viewing of ‘Home Alone’ between Christmas Eve dinner and pasterka has been a staple in many a Polish home. So much so that in 2010, when the TV channel Polsat announced they would no longer be showing the film, online protests sprung up instantly, spawning a Facebook page titled ‘Polsat killed Christmas’, which gathered 46 000 supporters. Enough pressure was put on the channel that it had no choice but to backtrack, and Kevin’s mischief is still the highlight of the Christmas TV schedule – 2016 being no exception. Tune in at 8 PM on December 24th to take part in this great Polish tradition.