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This Christmas Rediscover Your Heritage

by Robert Strybel

PAJ Warsaw Correspondent

If you are a bit rusty on your Polish heritage, read the  following item for self-edification. Share it with kids and grandkids. Send a Xerox copy to a relative, friend or neighbor. If your group is holding a Christmas bazaar, Oplatek Dinner or other such function, feel free to include any of the information below in your spoken or printed program. But, above all, see if you can incorporate some of these hints into the Christmas celebrations of your family, club or parish.

READING UP ON POLISH CHRISTMAS. “Treasured Polish Christmas Customs & Traditions” from the Polanie club of Minneapolis, Father Czeslaw Krysa’s “A Polish Christmas Eve,” Sophie Hodorowicz-Knab’s “Polish Customs, Traditions & Folklore,” World Book’s “Christmas in Poland” and this author’s modest booklet “Christmas the Polish way” can all help provide a better insight into our Polish Christmas heritage. Read them for your own self-edification, share them with your kids and grandkids, give them as gifts, sell them at fund-raisers or donate copies to school and public libraries.

THE TRUE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT cannot be bought at the mall and does not come out of a bottle. It is a time to pause, reflect and give some thought to what is really important in life. It is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ and the best way to do that is through human kindness—helping the less fortunate and simply displaying more patience and understanding towards fellow-family members. A smile, good word or friendly gesture can mean much more than the most expensive present. The true meaning of the season can be instilled be instilled in pre-schoolers through such practices as the hay and tree of good deeds.

ADVENT. (Adwent): Rather than just a period of house-cleaning, decorating and Christmas shopping, this just over three-week period should help to spiritually prepare us for Christmas. Giving up loud entertainment and favorite foods, not to mention nicotine and alcohol, also provides health benefits to mind and body. It is a time to meditate, pray, help those less fortunate and encourage your youngsters to do likewise. If Roraty (Polish Advent Mass) is held in your area, try to attend at least once during Advent.

ADVENT IS ABOUT GOOD DEEDS. At the start of Advent tell your youngster to set aside one strand of hay each time he or she does a good deed or makes a sacrifice: helps someone, feeds the birds, puts their toys away without being told, shares something with others, gives up a favorite TV program, etc. The more good deeds, the softer the bed Baby Jesus will have on Christmas Eve. This spiritual practice is called the hay of good deeds (sianko dobrch uczynkow). In the tree of good deeds (drzewko dobrych uczynkow), each good deed should be written on a piece of paper which is folded up into a small square and tied with a ribbon. These are hung on a small Christmas tree throughout Advent. The more good deeds—the more beautifully decorated the tree will be.

SZOPKA KRAKOWSKA, the Krakow Christmas crib, is a shimmering cathedral-like roughly structure patterned after that city’s Kosciol Mariacki (St Mary’s Church). Crib-making contest are held each year at the start of December and are displayed in the Main Marketplace round the Adam Mickiewicz Monument. Chicago’s Polish Museum has exhibited and promoted this unique urban art. Making your own good be an interest project for a craft circle, art class or other group.

POLISH CHRISTMAS BAZAAR (kiermasz gwiazdkowy) can enable your group to raise funds while enriching the Polonia mainstream with ethnic items which may not be widely available in all areas. Especially in areas where Polish goods are hard to come by such a bazaar could save many people a lot of time and effort by bringing it all together in one place. Ideally, such an event should feature Polish gift items (books, recordings, amber, crystal, folkcrafts, etc.) as well as Polish holiday artifacts and fixings: oplatek, hay (for placing under the table-cloth), Wigilia foods, holiday baked goods and imported sweets. The bazaar should be widely publicized well in advance (local media, Internet, parish bulletins, posters in store windows, etc.).

HOME-MADE TREE ORNAMENTS can be an interesting family or club craft project that will beautify any Christmas tree and serve as a good fund-raiser as well. Detailed instructions on how to make them are found in “A Polish Christmas Eve” and “Treasured Polish Christmas Customs & Traditions”. In Polish tradition, the tree is set up on Christmas Eve and left up at least until January 6th or, better yet—February 2nd.

CHOINKA means Christmas tree in Polish and is also the name of a Christmas party for children and their families, usually held between some time between Christmas and New Year’s. It features a Christmas tree, round which carols are sung, games, refreshments, possibly a Christmas play and a visit from St. Nicholas. Why not hold one this year at your parish, lodge or school?

PODLAZNICZKA or SAD is a Christmas decoration that pre-dated the imported German Christmas tree in Poland. It is the peak of an evergreen, suspended upside down from the ceiling or rafters point-side-down and decorated with fruit, nuts and sweets in shimmering wrappings, decorations made of straw, oplatek, gold-painted spruce cones, etc. This year, why not try displaying one at home, in a classroom, or clubroom?

CHRISTMAS EVE or Wigilia should be strongly emphasized to ensure a truly Polish-style Christmas. Rather than making a big fuss about present “that big Christmas Day dinner with all the trimmings,” make Wigilia the main event. Read up on it, share its traditions and lore with your loved ones. Recalling that how you are on Wigilia is how you will be all year long is a good way to ensure mutual love and kindness. After supper (seek next entry) sing koledy (along with a CD-player if your gang is not that familiar with the words). Before going to Pasterka (Midnight Mass) gifts are usually exchanged. Remind your kids how lucky they are, because their non-Polish friends have to wait till the following morning to get their presents.

CHRISTMAS EVE SUPPER (wieczerza wigilijna) is the single most important family gathering for Poles and Polonians world-wide. Begin the festivities when the evening’s first star appears (about 6:00 p.m.). Have some hay scattered beneath the pure-white table cloth and leave one empty place-setting in memory of an absent or deceased family member. Start with grace (see below), share pieces of oplatek (see below) and extend holiday wishes to all present one by one. Be sure to serve only the traditional meatless dishes (see Wigilia Foods, pages 14 and 15), no kielbasa, ham or golabki at this celebration! Traditionally an odd number of meatless dishes are served, although in some part of the country 12 dishes are specified.

GRACE (modlitwa przed jedzeniem) suitable for Wigilia might go as follows: “Panie Boze wszechmogacy, poblogoslaw wszystkich nas tu zebranych przy tym stole wigilijnym oraz te Twoje hojne dary, ktore spozywać bedziemy na pamiatke radosnych narodzin Twego Syna Jednorodzonego, Jezusa Chrystusa, ktoryzyje i kroluje na wieki wiekow. Amen.”

OPLATEK, a white unleavened wafer imprinted with nativity motifs, is sometimes referred to as “angel bread” or “the bread of love.” It is the single most important artifact of Polish-style Christmas, without which the celebration would be unthinkable. Traditionally it is broken and shared at the start of the Wigilia supper by all present as a sign of love and reconciliation.

OPLATEK (2) is also the name of a Christmas get-together which involves breaking and sharing oplatek at church (after or during Midnight Mass and other Christmas Masses), with colleagues at work or among club members and their guests. Often carols are sung and light refreshments may be served, but usually not a full meal. The Oplatek Dinner is another story (see below).

WIGILIA FOOD is 100% meatless. Typical dishes include: herring (pickled, creamed, in oil, in salads); soups (clear beet with mushroom-filled dumplings, clear mushroom with noodles, cream of mushroom, creamy fish, custard soup); fish (fried carp, walleye polonaise—with chopped hard-boiled egg topping— cream-baked pike, fish in aspic); sauerkraut dishes (sauerkraut and mushrooms, sauerkraut & peas, sauerkraut and potato dumplings); mushrooms (pan-fried, batter-fried, creamed); pierogi (filled with sauerkraut, cabbage, mushrooms, cheese & potatoes); sweet dishes (poppyseed noodles, wheat pudding [kutia], dried-fruit compote, noodles and fruit, rice & apples) and cakes (poppyseed roll, nut roll, fruit cake, yeast-raised egg bread).

OPLATEK DINNER is a term commonly used by Polonia for a community Wigilia, held in a parish, clubroom, restaurant, etc. Usually it takes place before December 24th. In places where the home Wigilia is not widespread, it might be a good idea to hold it on Christmas Eve itself and then, following an appropriate Christmas program (koledy, nativity play, etc.) go as a group to Midnight Mass.

WIGILIA POTLUCK STYLE is a good way for members of families and clubs to actively rediscover the Wigilia tradition. Get together with relatives, friends or club members and either let everyone declare what they plan to bring or have them pull dishes (and the printed recipes) out of a hat. This makes Wigilia a culinary adventure and relieves the host of much of the time, effort, cost and mess of preparing the entire meal would entail.

CHRISTMAS EVE LORE includes various folk beliefs, many having to do with the matrimonial prospects of the family’s eligible girls. They would draw strands of hay from under the table-cloth: a yellow one meant marriage by spring, a green one predicted a longer wait and a withered one foretold spinsterhood. A barking dog in the distance meant that a suitor would come from that direction. It was also said that farm animals spoke with human voices at midnight and the water in wells turned to wine. But only those who had never sinned could taste it.

SHEPHERDS’ MASS (Pasterka) is a fitting culmination for the most beautiful day in the year. The faithful lift up their hearts to God Almighty as the church resounds with the majestic strains of Polish koledy. They experience a rarely encountered sense of oneness with fellow-worshipers as receive Holy Communion together and feel that, at least this one night a year, all is right with the world. A visit to the parish’s Christmas crib is part of the overall experience. Attending a genuine Polish Pasterka is well worth the effort, even if you have to drive across town or to a neighboring community.

CHRISTMAS DAY, December 25th (Dzien Bozego Narodzenia, pierwsze Swieto, pierwszy dzien Swiat) is anticlimactic in Polish tradition, because everything of importance has already taken place on Christmas Eve. Following morning Mass (Poles who attend Pasterka usually go to Mass and receive Holy Communion again on Christmas morning), it is a day of feasting and visiting with relatives. Unlike Wigilia, there is no special food — simply typical company fare: cold meats and other appetizers, salads and relishes, roast fowl, pork, veal, bigos, etc.

ST. STEPHEN’S DAY, (Swietego Szczepana, drugie Swieto, drugi dzien Swiat) on December 26th (known as Boxing Day in English-speaking countries except the United States) commemorates the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death. Polish parishioners in the countryside symbolically mark that event by throwing oats at one another and at the priest in church. Later in the day, it is customary to invite or visit good friends for Christmas refreshments, fellowship and good cheer. It is on that day that Polish carolers start making their house-to-house rounds (See next entry.)

KOLEDNICY (Polish carolers) could best be described as caroler-masqueraders. One carries a large illuminated star on a pole, another comes carrying a Christmas crib and the others are dressed as King Herod, Death, an Angel, Devil, soldier, priest, peasant, beggar, Gypsy and/or Jew (or couples). As the season wears on, the religious figures disappear and a wild ox, bear and stork are often added. This year why not get together such a Polish caroling party and visit friends, a school, kindergarten or nursing home, or perform at a shopping mall or your parish oplatek-dinner.

ST JOHN’S DAY, December 27th (Swietego Jana, trzecie Swieto, trzeci dzien Swiat) is the day people bring wine to church to be blessed. This commemorates the time St. John was served poisoned wine but blessed it before drinking it and survived. After the blessing, consider holding a Polish wine-tasting party that could include Polish imported mead and fruit wines, that Old Polish favorite Wegrzyn (Hungarian Tokay) and other white and red, sweet and dry, still and sparkling wines of U.S. and other origin.

JASELKA is the traditional nativity play, staged by children at church, school or a community hall. The play invariably tells the story of shepherds going to Bethlehem to honor the new-born Savior. Often the youngest shepherd has no gift to give so he sings or plays a musical instrument for Baby Jesus instead. Usually the shepherds are dressed in the goral attire of the Polish Tatra highlands. Sometimes couples in the folk dress of different Polish regions come to pay homage to Baby Jesus. An easy way to stage a Nativity play is to act out the words of favorite koledy.

HERODY is a humorous Christmas skit often acted out by caroler-masqueraders making their house-to-house rounds. It shows how the Grim Reaper and Devil argued over the soul of the wicked King Herod. They tug at him with shouts of “He’s mine!”—“No, he’s mine!” and chase after him when he tries to run away. This skit is usually considered too boisterous to present in church and is better suited to a club, school or community hall. (See Kolednicy entry).

SYLVESTER’S DAY BALL (Bal Sylwestrowy) is the Polish name for a New Year’s Eve ball. Dancing usually starts at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. with the Polonaise, and at the stroke of midnight, champagne corks pop and merry-makers kiss, wish each other “Szczesliwego Nowego Roku” and often sing “Jak szybko mijaja chwile.” Food is served at intervals throughout the ball (from 9:00 p.m. until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.). The final dance is traditionally a spirited Mazurka and zurek (a tart rye-meal soup said to cure hangovers) is sometimes served as an early morning eye-opener.

NEW YEAR’S DAY, January 1st (Nowy Rok) usually starts with Holy Mass celebrating the Mother of God, and (for obvious reasons) late-morning, afternoon and evening masses are the best attended. New Year’s Day dinners usually featuring roast turkey, bigos and various holiday cakes.

FEAST OF THE THREE KINGS, (Swieto Trzech Kroli), celebrated on January 6th, has always been widely celebrated by Poles. On this day figures of the Three Wisemen are added to Christmas cribs in churches and homes alike. At Holy Mass, the faithful receive blessed chalk, sometimes also a piece of incense, juniper berry and gold leaf to symbolize the gifts of the Magi. The chalk is used to inscribe the initials of the Three Kings over the entrance to the home: K+M+B 2011.

A party known as Almond Night (migdalowy wieczor) was once very popular. The host would place a single whole almond in one portion of cake. The one who found it got to be the Almond King (Migdalowy Krol) or Queen (Migdalowa Krolowa). The monarch and his or her chosen partner would preside over the festivities and all present had to obey their orders.

Some people take their Christmas trees down on this day, which happens to be Christmas for Eastern Orthodox believers. Others keep their trees standing until Candlemas (see next entry).

CANDLEMAS, (Swieto Matki Boskiej Gromnicznej), on February 2nd, marks the end of the Christmas season in Polish tradition. Up till then, koledy are sung in churches and Christmas parties are held. In churches, candles, which the faithful light during severe storms or at the bedside of the dying, are blessed.

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