Christmas in Poland is a major annual celebration, as in most countries of the Christian world. The observance of Christmas developed gradually over the centuries, beginning in ancient times; combining old pagan customs with the religious ones introduced after the Christianization of Poland by the Catholic Church. Later influences include mutual permeating of local traditions and various folk cultures. Christmas trees are decorated and lit in family rooms on the day of Christmas Eve. Other trees are placed in most public areas and outside churches Christmas is called "Boże Narodzenie" in Polish (literally 'God's Birth')
Among the special tasks carried out in private homes during Advent (a time of waiting for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus) is the baking of the Christmas piernik (gingerbread), and the making of Christmas decorations. Pierniks are made in a variety of shapes, including hearts, animals, and St. Nicholas figures. St. Nicholas does not play a major role on Christmas Day, but is celebrated on his Saint feast day of December 6. He visits good children in secret and leaves presents for them
Traditionally, the Christmas trees are decorated with glass baubles, garlands and many homemade ornaments including painted eggshells, shiny red apples, walnuts, wrapped chocolate shapes, candles, etc. They are lit on Christmas Eve before Wigilia. At the top of each tree there is a star or a glittering tree topper. In many homes, sparklers are hung on the branches of the trees for wintery ambiance. Sometimes the trees are left standing until February 2, the feast day of St. Mary of the Candle of Lighting.
During Advent and all the way until Epiphany, or the baptism of Jesus (day of January 6), the "gwiazdory", or the star carriers walk through the villages. Some of them sing carols; others recite verses or put on "szopki", or "herody" (nativity scenes). The last two customs are inspired by the traditional manger scenes or "Jaselka" (crib). One tradition unique to Poland is the sharing of the "opﾳatek", a thin wafer into which a holy picture is pressed. In the old days people carried these wafers from house to house wishing their neighbors a Merry Christmas. Nowadays, opłatek is mostly shared with members of the family and immediate neighbors before the Christmas Eve supper (Wigilia in the Polish language). As each person shares pieces of the wafer with another, they are supposed to forgive each other any hurts that have occurred over the past year and wish them happiness in the coming year.
Wigilia, the Christmas Eve supper
In Poland, Christmas Eve is a day first of fasting, then of feasting. The Wigilia feast begins at the appearance of the first star. There is no red meat served but fish, usually carp. The supper, which includes many traditional dishes and desserts, can sometimes last for over two hours. It is followed by the exchange of gifts. The next day, the Christmas Day, is often spent visiting friends. In Polish tradition, people combine religion and family closeness at Christmas. Although gift-giving plays a major role in the rituals, emphasis is placed more on the making of special foods and decorations.
On the night of Christmas Eve, so important is the appearance of the first star in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem, that it has been given an affectionate name of "the little star" or Gwiazdka (the female counterpart of St. Nicholas). On that evening, children watch the sky anxiously hoping to be the first to cry out, "The star has come!" Only after it appears, the family members sit down to a dinner table.
According to tradition, bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder that Christ was born in a manger. Others partake in the practice of placing money under the table cloth for each guest, in order to wish for prosperity in the coming year. Some practice the superstition that an even number of people must be seated around the table. In many homes an empty place setting is symbolically left at the table for the Baby Jesus or, for a lonely wanderer who may be in need of food, or if a deceased relative should come and would like to share in the meal.
The supper begins with the breaking of the opﾳatek. Everyone at the table breaks off a piece and eats it as a symbol of their unity with Christ. They then share a piece with each family member. A tradition exists among some families to serve twelve different dishes at Wigilia symbolizing the Twelve Apostles, or perhaps, an odd number of dishes for good luck (usually five, seven, or nine).
A traditional Wigilia supper in Poland includes fried carp and barszcz (beetroot soup) with uszka (ravioli). Carp provides a main component of the Christmas Eve meal across Poland; carp fillet, carp in aspic etc. Universal Polish Christmas foods are pierogi as well as some herring dishes, and for dessert, makowiec or noodles with poppy seed. Often, there is a compote of dry fruits for a drink.
The remainder of the evening is given to stories and songs around the Christmas tree. In some areas of the country, children are taught that "The Little Star" brings the gifts. As presents are unwrapped, carollers may walk from house to house receiving treats along the way.
Christmas Eve ends with Pasterka, the Midnight Mass at the local church. The tradition commemorates the arrival of the shepards to Bethlehem and their paying of respect and bearing witness to the new born Messiah. The custom of Christmas night liturgy was introduced in the Christian churches after the second half of the 5th century. In Poland that custom arrived together with the coming of Christianity. The next day (December 25) begins with the early morning mass followed by daytime masses. According to scripture, the Christmas Day masses are interchangeable allowing for greater flexibility in choosing the religious services by individual parishioners.
Kolędy, the Christmas carols
Christmas carols are not celebrated in Poland until during-and-after the Christmas Vigil Mass called Pasterka held between 24 and 25 of December. The Christmas season often runs until February 2. The early hymns sung in Catholic church were brought to Poland by the Franciscan Brothers in the Middle Ages. The early Christmas music was Latin in origin. When the Polish words and melodies started to become popular, including many new secular pastorals (pastoralka, or shepherd's songs), they were not written down originally, but rather taught among people by heart. Notably, the song Bg si￪ rodzi (God Is Born) with lyrics written by Franciszek Karpiski in 1792 became the Christmas hymn of Poland already in the court of King Stefan Batory. Many of the early Polish carols were collected in 1838 by Rev. Mioduszewski (ca; eo; pl) in a book called Pastorałki i Kolędy z Melodiami (Pastorals and Carols with Melodies).
In Poland, Christmas Eve dinner is the most important celebration of the year. Although this meal is reserved for the closest family, it is customary to set an extra plate and seat for an unexpected guest or even a vagrant. Most of the dishes served are cooked specifically on this special day – and only once a year!
Christmas Eve practices are guided by custom rather than by faith, and so Christian (predominantly Catholic) conservative families and modern or aethist families alike celebrate with traditional cuisine. Meat is not allowed. What’s on the plate is based on traditional and seasonal products available in winter. Christmas Eve traditions, including culinary ones, are the combination of ancient pagan customs with religious ones introduced by the Catholic Church, local traditions and various folk cultures. The supper, which traditionally includes twelve dishes and desserts, may last for a good couple of hours. It is followed by an exchange of gifts. Sometimes the Christmas Eve menus reflect its multicultural aspects, as Jews, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians and other minorities lived together in the past.
Christmas Eve dinner starts when the first star appears in the sky. Nothing may be eaten until all members of the family have broken the Christmas wafers ("opłatek") together and exchanged wishes for good health and prosperity. During the meal, all guests should taste a bit of everything. According to tradition, bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder that Christ was born in a manger. Also, there is almost always an empty place left at the table.
The 12 Dishes of Polish Christmas
The tradition calls for twelve traditional courses to be served during the Polish Christmas Eve. This number is the symbol of the richness, twelve Apostles and represents the twelve months of the year. But in the past, dinner consisted of an odd number of dishes. The preparation of the traditional dishes takes a lot of time. Many restaurants and shops offer ready products, but Poles still prefer to cook traditional family recipes as they always taste better. Some specific dishes may differ from various regions, but many of them are universal.
Christmas Eve dinner often starts with a beetroot soup (red borscht) - probably the most popular soup for that day. The Christmas version varies from the common one. Christmas bortsch requires a sour base ("zakwas") which is to be made a few days in advance. It consists of raw beets, peeled and cut into slices, fermented, during four to five days, in pre-boiled and chilled water with or without garlic. It is then mixed, for example, with both a light broth made from dried wild mushrooms and a vegetable broth. This traditional Christmas borscht usually is served with tiny dumplings stuffed with a mix of soaked (and then nicely chopped) dried ceps and fried onion. These are called "uszka" meaning "little ears" in Polish. Borscht is traditionally served in the south of the country, particularly in the Podhale region, close to the touristic Tatra mountains. There "uszka" are replaced with large, white beans.
This soup which is also served very often at Christmas Eve dinner is made from dried forest mushrooms (the best ones are ceps). The flavor of dried forest mushrooms is part of the Polish culinary heritage. This delicious soup usually comes with square or thin noodles. Other traditional Christmas Eve soups are soft water fish soup (for example, carp), white bortsch, vegetarian Christmas Eve sour rye soup or old fashioned sweet almond soup.
The tradition of carp farming in Poland is at least 700 hundred years old. However, it became an eminent part of Polish culinary traditions only after World War II. It is more popular than noble fish like sander, eel or pike. Today carp is the Christmas Eve must-have in many families. Poles developed species of carp (for example, karp zatorski) which are certified regional products of good quality. Christmas Eve carp is often accompanied by hot sauerkraut with dried mushrooms, a vegetable salad or potatoes. There are numerous local, ancient and interesting recipes, inlcuding carp in grey sauce, carp with dried mushrooms and cream or stuffed with parsley.
In the Lesser Poland region (Małopolska), many families continue the tradition of preparing "Jewish style" carp fish for Christmas Eve dinner. In the past, this was a traditional meal of the Ashkenazi Jews living in Central-Eastern Europe. Pieces of fish are cooked slowly in a fish stock. It is served in a natural jelly with onion, almonds, raisins and soft bread.
Herrings are very popular in Poland at any time of year, and they are also served at Christmas Eve. Poles in Scandinavian and Baltic nations know how to prepare this healthy fish, and so Polish gastronomy has quite a range of recipes for herrings. The most popular preparations are classic herrings fillets ("matjes") in oil (the best ones are in healthy linen oil), or with cream, sour apples, chopped onions, usually served with the so-called root vegetable salad or potatoes
Pierogi - the most recognizable Polish food abroad. The Christmas version of those half-circular dumplings is stuffed with cabbage or sauerkraut and dried forest mushrooms such as ceps. Interesting regional varieties - most notably coming from the eastern territories - are sweet pierogi stuffed with smoked and dried plums or with poppy seeds.
Polish Christmas Eve smells predominantly like sauerkraut. Sauerkraut has always existed in the Polish diet and is one of the most popular and recognizable food preparations. One can see the strong presence of sauerkraut in the Polish culinary culture during Christmas Eve. Nearly everybody braises sauerkraut as either filling for pierogi or as a side dish with the addition of dried forest mushrooms or tiny white beans. Some Poles also like it with soaked raisins.
The cabbage roll is a type of comfort food eaten all year round. In daily cooking it is usually stuffed with meat, but it changes its face during Christmas. In those households where they are served on that special evening, the stuffing is vegetarian and contains cereals (buckwheat, pearl barley or rice) and dried forest mushrooms.
Kutia is an ancient dessert with origins in Eastern European made exclusively for the Christmas Eve dinner. Today, it is still served in many households where families have some roots in the Eastern part of Old Poland. It is a mixture of cooked, unprocessed wheat grains, cooked poppy seeds, honey, dried or candied fruits soaked in a small amount of port or red wine and various nuts - usually almonds, sunflower grains or walnuts. In the past kutia not only had a culinary meaning but was connected to religious beliefs.
Baking gingerbread in Poland is a tradition several hundred years old. Gingerbread from Toruń – the city of Nicolas Copernicus – was already known in the 17th century. Ancient Polish cuisine was full of exotic spices, inlcuding ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. The traditional Old Polish “piernik” which is still prepared in many homes requires a lot of time and attention. The dough consists of honey, lard, sugar, eggs, flour and a mixture of gingerbread spices. It must be made a good couple of weeks in advance to maturate and gain the very special gingerbread taste. Baking it a couple of days before Christmas Eve makes it ideal for consumption. It is then cut along and eaten with layers of traditional plum preserves ("powidła"). It remains fresh for a long time. Poles also bake a lot of small ginger cookies which also serve as Christmas tree decoration.
Poles love dried and smoked fruits and use them especially in Christmas dishes. Compote is a traditional and popular beverage served at the end of Christmas Eve. It is made from cooked dried and smoked fruits, typically plums, apples, pears, raisins and apricots. Its most appreciated purpose is to speed-up digestion.
This tiny, black grain symbolizes prosperity and must be included in the Chirstmas menu. Poppy seed cakes are eaten by Poles year round, but the traditional Christmas poppy seed cake is a bit different – the layers of the dough should be thinner and the layers of the sweet poppy seed cream should be thicker. In some regions, a few other desserts with poppy seeds are made for Christmas Eve. "Makówki," a traditional poppy seed-based dessert, is a must in Silesia, as well as “makiełki," bread rolls soaked in milk or water, served with dried fruits and honey, and a dried fruits compote.
(Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk -- Article from Category Polish Cuisine - Dec 2013 http://culture.pl/en/article/the-12-dishes-of-polish-christmas)
Poland has a series of unique rituals connected to Easter, ranging from joyful to spiritual, and of course always including plenty of homemade delicacies.
Easter in Poland is celebrated according to the Western Roman Catholic calendar. Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Rites and practices are therefore marked by Christianity, but still remain strongly influenced by pagan traditions. It is usual for both modern and conservative families to partake in the celebrations, regardless of what their religious beliefs may be.
The first sign of approaching Easter in Poland is a large number of branches and dried flowers being brought to church. One week before Easter, Palm Sunday (in Polish niedziela palmowa) takes place. According to Catholic tradition, the day marks the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem. Since palm trees are rare in Poland - although there is one known specimen - churchgoers often bring pussy willows or 'palms' made of colourful woven dried branches.
The Holy Week preceding Easter involves spring cleaning. In the countryside, people would use the occasion to repaint their barns. Religious fasts are sometimes observed in varying degrees of strictness. Families visit representations of the tomb of Christ, often decorated in a spectacular fashion for the occasion.
On the Saturday before Easter Sunday, Poles paint hard-boiled eggs (called pisanki). Some use store-brought kits which make the coloring and decorating easier, others continue to make dyes the traditional way - with boiled onion skins. Egg painting is encountered in several other Slavic cultures, and is thought to date back to talismanic pagan rituals that are over 5000 years old.
Another Saturday activity is the preparation of Easter baskets. Lined with a white linen or lace napkin and decorated with sprigs of boxwood (bukszpan), the baskets contain a sampling of Easter foods: pisanki, a piece of sausage or ham, salt and pepper, bread, a piece of cake and an Easter Lamb made of sugar or even plastic. They are brought to church to be blessed.
On the most important day, Easter Sunday, some go to church at 6am for the Resurrection mass – a ceremonial service and procession. Homes come alive with families who gather to eat breakfast. Before the meal, in much the same way as for Christmas with the sharing of the opłatek (Christmas wafer), people share wedges of the blessed Easter eggs from the basket. They exchange wishes and a Wesołego Alleluja (Joyful Hallelujah).
The breakfast is dominated by cold dishes and is a feast for meat lovers: ham, sausage, roast meats, pâté (pasztet), eggs, horseradish relish, bread. Easter breakfast is so decadent that it has to be considered a day-off from the Spring diet.
What follows is a frenzy of Easter cakes: a tall, round 15-yolk sweet yeast cake with a hole in the middle (babka) that can be compared to the American election cake, a mazurek - cake with a fat layer of icing, decorated with dried fruit, walnuts, almonds, roasted seeds or a cheesecake - sernik.
The last festive day is Easter Monday, known as Śmigus-Dyngus (Wet Monday), on which tradition requires that boys throw water over girls
10 Traditional Dishes of Polish Easter
White sausage, rye soup, cakes with poppy seed or cottage cheese: the numerous traditional Easter delicacies in Poland are surprising, sophisticated and inspired by Spring
Easter is a feast of smoked meats and ham, where biała kiełbasa takes centre stage. Biała kiełbasa - white sausage - is an unsmoked minced pork sausage (with the addition of beef and veal) covered in a thin layer of pork casings and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and marjoram. Whether it's in the żurek or amongst the food samples carried in the Easter basket, white sausage is mostly served boiled, sometimes with horseradish, mustard, or ćwikła (horseradish-beetroot relish).
Żurek, or żur is a soup made of home-made or store-bought sourdough from rye flour. It's
garnished with boiled white sausage and boiled egg halves. In remote times, żurek and herring were the main pre-Easter Lent fasting food staples. By the time of Holy Saturday, sick and tired of these dishes, people would give them a festive burial. A pot with the soup would be either buried in the ground or spilled. When it's not attending a funeral, żurek is consumed all year round.
Another unusual Polish tradition is the blessing of Easter food in a basket brought to Church...
As long as you like your eggs, you'll be fine. The egg symbolises new life and Christ's resurrection. Polish egg-related traditions include colouring, blessing them as part of the Easter basket in church, sharing the blessed eggs while wishing each other all the best for the year ahead and eating them with different seasoning. They're served boiled, stuffed, fried or with mayo - there's no getting away from them. The decorative devilled egg is a hard-boiled egg, halved and filled with a mixture of the yolks, mayonnaise, mustard, onion and horseradish cream.
Śledź i.e. herring is as popular in Poland as it is in the Netherlands or Denmark. It is present on holiday and party tables at Christmas and Easter. The fish is served gutted and filleted, in pieces that have been marinated in vinegar, oil, with or without vegetables, usually smothered with chopped, raw onion. While Easter calls for a batch of home-made herring, supermarkets stock jars of marinated herring all year.
Grating horseradish roots produces pungent vapours and makes eyes water, but white or red horseradish relish pairs well with the variety of cold cuts. The fiery relish draws out more of the meat flavour. The red type is called ćwikła and its colour is due to the addition of beetroot.
The first of the freshly baked cakes is the mazurek. The recipe is considered to have arrived in Poland from Turkey and started circulating in the 17th century. How the mazurek looks depends on who made it. The flat shortbread can be made of different kinds of dough and toppings, for example marmalade, chocolate glazing, dried fruit or nuts. The sky's the limit.
The sernik is a rich creamy baked cheesecake that differs from its American counterpart in cheese. You could try to replace the exclusively Polish cheese called twaróg with country/ cottage/ quark /curd cheese or ricotta but it won't do the trick. Twaróg is more dense, sweet and less wet than those cheeses and less smooth than ricotta. Sources say that sernik dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Eastern Orthodox Church has a tvorog-based equivalent - the truncated pyramid
The tall airy Easter babka is a no-knead yeast cake baked in a Bundt pan. It can be laced with rum syrup and drizzled with icing but custom dictates that it has no filling. The name derives from the word "grandmother" and probably refers to its shape: a grandmother's wide, pleated skirt.
Among the wealth of Easter cakes is the makowiec, a poppy seed roll spun like a strudel. It's main ingredient is poppy seeds and it uses the same type of dough as the Babka. The texture is crunchy and nutty, and it's sometimes covered with sugar icing.
Made entirely of sugar and shaped like a lamb, this is a traditional centrepiece of the Polish Easter table and Easter basket. It often has a miniature red flag with a cross.
NOTE: These traditions got lost to the first Polish immigration of 1864 and not practised by locally born Poles. They lost their Polish traditions to the Kashubs who were larger in number.
These traditions are now introduced to the local Kashubs and Poles by the Polish people who have moved to our area after 1955 from Toronto, Mississauga, Hamilton, and Ottawa. These traditions are all new to the locals, but embraced them as new traditions.
(Author: Marta Jazowska -- Article from Category Polish Cuisine - March 2014 - http://culture.pl/en/article/polish-easter-traditions)