Polish-American Christmas Traditions

Today I’m going to take a break from writing about books, and instead share with you some Polish Christmas traditions.  As my family is part Polish, these are the traditions that I grew up with, and form some of my fondest Christmas memories.

Traditionally, Christmas celebrations begin on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day.  This begins at dinner, which is known as Wigilia (The Vigil).  Dinner begins when the youngest child spots the first star in the sky.  My family always says that we will do this, but I don’t think that I can recall a year that we were actually able to start on time.  It’s also traditional to save an extra seat for an unexpected guest (or for Jesus), but I’m from a large family, so we generally just add tables as needed for whomever arrives.  Extra visitors are always welcome, and we’ll always manage to find a place for everyone.

The dinner begins with the passing and breaking of Oplatki.  Oplatek is a thin wafer that resembles (and tastes like) a cross between a communion wafer and those flying saucer candies that you get as a kid.  It’s generally stamped with religious images, and comes in a variety of pastel colors.

Each person at the table in order from oldest to youngest takes turns sharing a Christmas wish/blessing, which also functions as a toast.  The person speaking then breaks a piece off of his or her oplatek and passes it around the table, continuing until all the oplatek has been broken and each person has offered his or her Christmas wish.  The oplatek is then dipped in honey and eaten.

Dinner is a feast, albeit without meat.  This is because for much of history, Roman Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat at all during advent.  This tradition is preserved at Wigilia, where fish is served as the main course.  There are traditionally thirteen courses for good luck (one for Jesus and each of the 12 apostles).  Another must-have dish for Polish-Americans is pierogi, but pierogi originated as a peasant food, so they’re hard to find in modern Poland.  Next there are the prunes marinated in brandy.  One must follow the recipe precisely, making sure that the chef drinks the proper amount of brandy whilst preparing it.  Other courses include marinated mushrooms, sauerkraut, and noodles with poppyseed.  Tradition also dictates leaving a bite of each dish on one’s plate for the angels.

Another tradition on Christmas Eve is to listen to Koledy–Polish Christmas Carols.  The songs themselves are quite beautiful, and very unique among Christmas music as a whole.  Linked below is an example, the song Mędrcy świata, which translates as “Sages of the World.”  The song is performed by Mazowsze, the Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble.  Albums are finally available in mp3 format on Amazon, which is exciting because it used to be very hard to find the traditional Koledy sung by professionals once vinyl records went out of vogue.

Christmas Eve then ends with Pasterka, or Midnight Mass.  Unfortunately, many parishes no longer offer a midnight mass, or push the time to 10pm instead.  If a church has a large Polish-American population, Koledy are often sung during the half hour before Midnight Mass begins.

Another tradition in my family (although I’m not sure where it originated) is to take a piece of  straw from the Nativity scene and to keep it in one’s wallet throughout the next year, to keep one from ever running out of money.  Straw plays an important role in traditional Polish Wigilia and is often placed upon under the tablecloth, as a reminder of the manger in which Jesus was placed, but that can be a bit messy and stir up the allergies.

Wigilia with family and listening to Koledy have always been the parts of Christmas that I enjoy the most.  What about you?  What holiday traditions do you celebrate?

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Soltsice, etc.), and a Happy New Year!

19 thoughts on “Polish-American Christmas Traditions

  1. My family is also part Polish, and the only one of those traditions that I’m familiar with is the oplatki. Ok, I lied there, we also meet Christmas Eve for dinner rather than Christmas Day, so in that respect we also follow those traditions.

    There is a lot that I don’t like about Christmas (pretty much everything anymore actually, yes, I’m a grinch). But I enjoyed reading this. Thank you for posting this and reminding me that there are still people for whom Christmas is still a day based around religion and tradition rather than commerce.

  2. I very much enjoyed learning about this Grace. Mędrcy świata sounded beautiful. I really like your tradition of placing a piece of straw from the Nativity scene in your wallet 🙂

    In the Mexican-American household we have Las Posadas where someone in the neighborhood reenacts being Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay and knock from door to door where they are refused till they reach the last house (the place of the party)…more people join in from the different houses..then the children break open a pinata shaped like a star.

    It sounds kind of dangerous but usually the whole neighborhood is made aware of what’s going on… it seems like carolers cause they sing while they do this. Have a beautiful Christmas Grace and an awesome Wigilia with your family, Feliz Navidad!

    1. Oooh, cool! Las Posadas sounds like it would be a lot of fun! It’s neat learning about different Christmas traditions, and I love that Las Posadas involves the whole community. Merry Christmas!

  3. What a lovely post, thanks for sharing it. A few things are similar to French traditions but with much more little details.
    Happy Christmas to you and your family.

  4. Wow, that all sounds so lovely. Thanks so much for sharing that. Always nice to learn new things, especially about one of my favorite times of the year.

    I hope you and your family continue to have a wonderful Christmas this weekend. Bless you all!

  5. Crazy Poles and their ways. We French/German types have nothing crazy like that, we feel pickles look good on everything pickles man…pickles on a Christmas Tree.

  6. i love christmas. i’ve been obsessed this year with the nordic/germanic origins of a lot of christmas taditions and symbols, and really want to bring back some more paganism into christmas. for me christmas was always just about family, i don’t even think i realized it had anything to do with jesus for a long time (and i was raised catholic, go figure). but i do know now that i need more odin in my life.

  7. http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_LaakhfpX99w/SVL_GEZ938I/AAAAAAAABFI/GPWIxlmvU_w/s400/LOL+cats.jpg

    I wanted to leave a picture, but I no thinks I can do that.

    My Christmas, it is very similar to your Christmas. It has properly prepared prunes and dancing Pollocks. It also has somebody getting stuck going up the driveway at Christmas and is always at Grandma’s. Even after she’s dead and not there. And cookies for desserts. That is all.

    your-sister-that-just-got-wisdom-teeths-out-and-is-loopy-on -teh-pain-medicinez.

    1. Nice pic! (I’m just reading your comment now because it was caught in my spam filter, most likely because of the pic…)
      I had completely forgotten about the whole getting stuck in Grandma’s driveway and having to be dug out tradition, most likely because we had no snow this year, lol. It’s always fun to have to use a creative combination of cardboard, ashes, and a shovel to try to make the car move again.

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