Poles do not really start celebrating Christmas until Christmas Eve, but then the Christmas season in Poland finishes much later than in America. It starts with the end of Advent on Christmas Eve and finishes with Candlemas on Feb. 2.
During Advent, which precedes Christmas, Catholics, who are in the majority in Poland, are expected to abstain from dancing and partying (taniec i figlarny imprezowanie). But there are at least two exceptions to this rule that often occur during Advent—St. Andrew's Day (Andrzejki), on Nov. 29-30, which is also known as a day of magic, and St. Barbara's Day (Barbórka), the patron saint of miners, on Dec. 4. Miners' Day was and, to some extent is still, celebrated with big balls in mining communities.
Another break in the fasting of Advent is St. Nicholas Day (Dzien Świętego Mikołaja) on Dec. 6 when the saint visits children on the evening and through the night of his nameday.
In the region of Greater Poland (Wielkopolska, Poznań) the Starman (a man with a gwiazdor or "star") gives the gifts to the children, not St. Nicholas. The Starman is not as jovial and kind as St. Nicholas—he first threatens the children with a beating with a birch switch, but then relents and opens a sack of presents to be passed around.
The custom of gift-giving can be a little confusing, especially for children, since St. Nicholas / Santa Claus gives presents approximately three weeks before Christmas. So who is responsible for the gifts received on Christmas Eve ()? In the region of Lesser Poland (Małopolska, Kraków) and in Silesia, it is the baby Jesus or his messenger, a small angel, that brings the presents and, since they are invisible, their presence is signaled by the ringing of a bell. The children are supposed to remain silent during Christmas Eve dinner so that the small angels (gift-givers) would not be afraid to enter the house.
How Poles Decorate for Christmas
Preparations begin early on Christmas Eve. Years ago, it was traditional for country families to cut boughs of evergreen from the forest to be tucked behind holy pictures in the home or above the entryway. A fir tree top was hung upside down from a beam in the ceiling. The children and women of the household decorated the boughs with red apples, nuts, and ornaments made of paper and bread.
City families decorate with lights, apples, nuts, candies, and hand-blown glass, crystal, and paper ornaments. Hung from the ceiling are pajaki, spider-web-like decorations, and dozynki, colorful harvest wreaths decorated with flowers and stars.
In Kraków, there are (SHAWP-kee)—miniature Krakówian puppet theaters. These elaborate creations are made of tin foil and entered into competition each year on the square of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Krakow.
Wigilia — The Vigil
For Poles, Christmas Eve is a night of magic when animals are said to talk and people have the power to predict the future. It’s a time for families to gather and reconcile any differences, and to remember loved ones who have gone before them.
Wigilia (vee-GEEL-yah), which literally means "vigil," or waiting for the birth of Baby Jesus, is considered more important than Christmas Day itself.
The Table Is Prepared
Straw or hay, a reminder of Christ’s birth in a stable, is placed under a white linen tablecloth, which symbolizes Mary’s veil, which became the Babe’s swaddling cloth. The mother of the family places a lighted candle in the window to welcome the Christ Child. The eldest woman of the house places the blessed Communion-like wafers—opłatki (oh-PWAHT-kee)—on the finest plate she owns. Today, in a concession to tradition, many people place straw and evergreen sprigs on a serving platter covered with a fine white napkin on which the opłatki rest.
An extra place is set for any weary stranger who happens to pass by, in the same way Joseph wandered from home to home looking for a place for Mary to give birth, and in memory of those who are departed.
The Star Supper
After sunset, the youngest child is sent to watch for the first star to appear in the night sky. This is why the wigilia dinner is also known as the Star Supper. Only then are the candles on the table lit and the dinner begun. But not a morsel is eaten before the breaking of the opłatki.
The eldest family member takes the opłatek wafer, breaks it and shares it with the next eldest with wishes for good health and prosperity, and a kiss on each cheek. Each person then exchanges opłatek with everyone else at the table. It can be a very emotional time as grudges are forgotten and deceased family members are remembered.
Some Poles share a pink-colored opłatek with the pets and barnyard animals because they were the first to greet the Baby Jesus at midnight. The animals also receive a taste of every course of the meal mixed in with their feed.
Instead of sending Christmas cards to friends and family that are not present, Poles send opłatki, first tearing off a small corner to show that the donor has broken it with them as a token of affection.
The Wigilia Meal
Wigilia is a meatless meal because, years ago, Roman Catholics fasted for the four weeks of Advent, including Christmas Eve. In the past there were 13 main dishes (representing the Apostles and Christ), but, these days, many families have replaced this tradition with a 12-fruit compote for dessert.
The foods are to represent the four corners of the earth—mushrooms from the forest, grain from the fields, fruit from the orchards, and fish from the lakes and sea.
Meals vary from family to family but usually include a special soup followed by many elegant fish preparations, vegetables, and pierogi.
Typical dishes include barszcz wigilijny z uszkami (Christmas Eve borscht with mushroom dumplings), carp in aspic, herring (sledze), breaded and fried fish (carp or whitefish), meatless cabbage rolls (), and noodles with poppyseed. Desserts might include nuts, tangerines, chocolates, makowiec (poppy seed roll), mazurek (a jam-filled flat pastry), piernik (honey-spice cake), pierniczki (gingerbread cookies), kompot (fruit compote), cognac, liqueurs, mead and krupnik (a honey-spiced vodka). Kutia, a kind of gruel with cracked wheat and honey, is also eaten in some parts of Poland on Christmas Eve.
The Starman Makes an Appearance
In some regions of Poland, at the end of supper, Father Christmas, known as The Starman (very often the parish priest in disguise), accompanied by singing Starboys, pays a visit. He brings rewards to good children from Starland and scolds the naughty ones, who eventually get their reward, too.
Kolędy—carols—are sung and presents are opened by all. Then the family prepares for Midnight Mass known as Pasterka or Shepherds' Mass because they were the first to greet the Baby Jesus.
Wesołych świąt (veh-SOH-wih SHVYOHNT)! Merry Christmas! Christmas day is spent visiting family and friends. Dinner typically is ham, some type of Polish, roast duck or goose, or Hunter’s stew—bigos. Starboys go caroling from house to house carrying a miniature puppet theater that recreates the Nativity story.
New Year's Day
While customs vary from region to region, many families celebrate New Year's Day with a roast turkey dinner.
On the Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, Poles take small boxes containing chalk, a gold ring, incense and a piece of amber in memory of the gifts of the Magi, to church to be blessed. Once home, they inscribe "K+M+B+" with the blessed chalk above every door in the house. The letters, with a cross after each one, stand for the Three Kings -- Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. They remain above the doors all year until they are inadvertently dusted off or replaced by new markings the next year.
In some families, a King Cake with a lucky coin or almond is baked on this day. The one to receive the piece with a coin or almond must host the next party.