One of the fondest memories from my birth country of Poland is the time around Christmas. Living in the usually sunny California now, I miss it every year, for the cooler weather and the snow, but also for all the great traditions related to it. And of course, the food!
Christmas in Poland – still an overwhelmingly Catholic country – is a really big deal. Houses are cleaned up for weeks ahead, menus are planned, food is bought and prepared. The most important day of the season by far is Christmas Eve.
Polish Christmas Eve
On December 24th, the appearance of the first star on the sky marks the beginning of one of the most beautiful evenings in the year. Kids sit at the windows or walk out onto balconies as soon as it gets dark (which in Poland in December is around 5 PM), and look out for that first star on the wintery sky. In old tradition, but rarely held today, the entire day of fasting ends with a prayer, the sharing of the Christmas wafer and wishes of good luck. After that, supper is served – and although it is meant to be a fasting meal, in many cases it will likely lead to heavy overeating.
Even though I’ve been in the USA for 27 years now, my family is still sending me the Christmas wafers every year. The wafer is the same as the wafer used for communion. They are brought to every household, that welcomes them, by a priest or an official from the parish church, and they are saved for the Christmas eve meal. Before everyone sits down to eat, every person takes one wafer and walks from person to person present and wishes for good future are exchanged.
When I first brought this tradition to my in-law family, there was a lot of emotions related to it. It is really a different thing to with everyone around the table a generic Merry Christmas, and a different one to find words that pertain to each person specifically. It becomes a nice exercise of gratitude, compassion, and shared love.
The tradition says that there must be exactly 12 dishes during the Christmas Eve dinner (including desserts and one specific drink) on the table and everyone has to try every each of them. If you do try everything, the whole year (12 months) is going to be happy and successful for you!
“Twelve referred to the number of the Apostles and months of the year. Strength and luck were to be guaranteed by tasting each of the dishes.”
Additionally, we put a bit of straw and hay under the table cloth (to reminder of the manger where Jesus is supposed to have been born), and we leave one seat at the table empty and set for a surprise guest (if anyone would knock on the door).
The twelve dishes of Christmas Eve
Number 1 and 2 - Soups
The dinner starts with a soup. The most common choice is clear beetroot soup
served alone or with small dumplings stuffed with cabbage and mushroom. (Other options are fish soup or wild mushroom soup.) In my home, my mom always served two soup (we love soups and my mom cooks the best soups out there!): the clear beet soup and a wild mushroom soup (for this soup, my family forages for mushrooms in the fall, dries them and saves them for a number of Christmas dishes). The main purpose of the soup is to start the digestion process and allow you to eat more later. You have to pace yourself; you need to eat 11 more dishes that evening!
Christmas Eve is a “fasting” day, but the dinner is a memorable feast. Fasting here means staying away from meat and animal fat, but it doesn’t include seafood. And so, the abundance of fish reflects the observance of abstinence from meat until the feast of Christmas Day itself.
The biggest star of the evening is the humble carp. This fish is not eaten in Poland on any other occasion but for some reason, it became Christmas Eve staple.
I remember from my childhood, my parents buying the fish a few days in advance, live, and keeping them in our bathtub! It was weird but the killing of the fish right before the Christmas Eve dinner was even weirder. You had to hit the poor carp in the head while it was still alive. I guess the belief was that if the fish dies on its own, it won’t be fresh anymore.
This custom died out with the end of communism and thankfully now carps are sold dead and filleted. That saves a lot of mess (fishy bathtub, dead fish entrails in the kitchen, scales all over the floor). But it also means the end of one funny tradition, which I will mention below.
In our home, carp was prepared and served in two ways:
3. breaded and fried carp
4. carp terrine-style
We also eat a lot of herring during Christmas season and it starts during Christmas Eve. Herring has been a very abundant fish in Europe, breeding freely in the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Atlantic, and even though the number of the fish in the seas has been dwindling, it is still a staple in Northern European diets. In Poland it is eaten smoked, fried, or prepared with apples and dill pickles. In my childhood home, it was served oil with plenty of onions and bread.
My favorite part of the Christmas Eve dinner are without a doubt pierogis with sauerkraut and wild mushroom filling. They are an indispensable part of the Christmas Eve supper in all parts of Poland. They have been known in Poland since the 13th century, and were probably brought over from the Far East. In the past they were cooked exclusively for holidays.
My mom always made the pierogi dough from scratch, it was the softest and the tastiest thing ever, no fancy restaurant, nothing came ever close to her mastery. Pierogis are boiled and then warmed up once more by sautéing in olive oil with onion. Simply delicious!
7. Poppyseed cake (makowiec).
A shortbread crust base is topped with a poppy seed, honey, raisings, and nuts mixture, rolled up, baked, and then glazed. Yummy!
8. Cheesecake (ssomebody must have forgotten that cheese is made from milk, and hence it is from an animal product).
This was my dad’s prerogative. He would macerate the farmers cheese for hours, making it just right, stuffing it with rum-soaked raisins, and baking with eggs and sugar into a fluffy, one of a kind, Polish style cheesecake.
9. Dried fruit compote
This dish cannot be absent from any Christmas Eve dinner table in Poland, although in some parts of the country it takes on the form of dried fruit soup. Dried apples, plums, pears and apricots, spiced up with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and sometimes almonds, are soaked with water and served for better digestion.
10. Gingerbread or other Christmas style cookies
In my childhood days, drying the communist era, Christmas was the only time, we could get some delicacies such as oranges or bananas. So, it was a truly special treat and considered one of the 12 dishes of the Christmas Eve.
Walnuts and hazelnuts are most popular. They are bought whole with shells and opened with a nutcracker at the table.
After devouring the twelve dishes, it’s time for present unwrapping.
Sometimes, parents hire someone to dress up as Santa and come after dinner with a sack full of presents. Other times, kids are distracted and told that Santa just dropped by and left the presents under the Christmas tree – decorated with wonderful handmade glass ornaments (Poland is famous for some of the most beautiful ornaments), garlands and colorful lights.
All presents are unpacked on Christmas Eve presents, which are placed under the tree – an ongoing issue in my now American family. We usually open one present on Christmas Eve, and then open the rest according to the American tradition, on Christmas Day.
Christmas related superstitions
Christmas was considered a prophetic day, which helps explain a number of related superstitions.
it was believed that crying on Christmas Eve meant crying until next the Christmas.
it was also believed that the future could be predicted using a blade of grass from under a tablecloth – a green one meant good luck, a blackened one –bad luck.
there is a custom of putting a carp’s scale into one’s wallet. Now, with carps being bought filleted and skinless, this tradition might be dying out. Whoever still believes it, it is supposed to ensure wealth for the entire year.
most importantly, it is also said that animals could talk at a certain moment during Christmas Eve. (never worked for any of our home’s furry friends :))