Christmas in Poland is one of the most beautiful times of year. Learn about how you can celebrate Christmas in Poland – or if you’re staying home, what Polish Christmas traditions you can bring into your own celebrations.
Christmas Eve in Poland
No discussion of Christmas in Poland would be complete without a thorough treatment of December 24, Christmas Eve, or Wigilia, as it is known in Polish. It’s one of the most important Polish holidays on the calendar.
If you pronounce “Wigilia” as it would be in Poland, with a “v” sound for the “w,” you’ll understand where this word comes from. It’s a polonization of the Latin word vigilia, from which we get the English word vigilant. To be vigilant means “to keep watch,” which is what people should do on this important day of the year.
While the vigilance equates to waiting for the birth of Jesus, what else do Poles “keep watch” for during Christmas Eve?
First, they keep watch for the stars to appear in the sky. Tradition holds that the Christmas Eve dinner cannot begin until that first star – reminiscent of the star that guided the Three Kings to Bethlehem for the birth of baby Jesus – is seen in the sky. If you remember that Poland occupies a northern latitude, you understand that the first star doesn’t appear very late in the evening in Poland because the days are short this time of year.
Second, they keep watch for extra visitors. Setting an empty place at the table makes room for unexpected guests. It’s likely that no stranger or last-minute attendee will appear, but the idea that nobody should be alone on Christmas Eve is integral to this holiday.
They also wait for the animals to speak. This day is so imbued with magic that barn animals were said to be able to talk on this night. Of course, a pet dog or cat might suddenly be given the gift of human words as a cow or pig!
Like Easter in Poland, Christmas in Poland has many traditions that date from pagan times.
Christmas Eve Dinner
The Christmas Eve dinner in Poland is also replete with ritual and tradition. It has some similarities with Christmas in Lithuania due to these countries’ proximity and shared history.
For example, the 12 dishes of Christmas Eve are an important part of this holiday in Poland. Traditionally, they are meatless, though fish is permitted. The 12 dishes symbolize the 12 months of the year or the 12 Apostles.
The main dish, in common with Christmas in the Czech Republic and Christmas in Hungary, is carp. It used to be common to buy a live carp to keep in the bathtub before Christmas Eve so it could be fresh for the holiday feast. However, such practice, for logistical purposes, is less popular today, and dead carp are often purchased by those cooking the Christmas dinner.
Pierogi, Polish dumplings, are also essential to this meal. In keeping with the meatless theme, they may be filled with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and mushrooms, or even dried plums. Pierogi are often eaten with a generous dollop of sour cream.
Salatka jarzynowa is a popular salad made of a variety of vegetables, potatoes, and eggs in mayonnaise served year round.
Soup is also a typical part of the Polish Christmas Eve dinner. Depending on the region or the family’s preference, it could come in the form of:
- Mushroom soup
- Beetroot soup
- Fish soup
Cabbage dishes are also common for Christmas Eve. In addition to cabbage-filled dumplings, sauerkraut (sometimes with beans) or stuffed cabbage rolls may appear on the holiday table. While cabbage rolls are traditionally filled with pork, on Christmas Eve, they are given a meat-free filling of grain and mushrooms.
Kutia is a grain-based, honey-sweetened dish that contains raisins, poppyseeds, and nuts. This dish, which is also served in nearby countries such as Ukraine and Belarus, has a long history. Symbolizing prosperity and abundance, it connects generations of people down the ages with staple ingredients people of the region have been eating for centuries.
Makowiec is an essential Polish Christmas Eve dessert made with poppyseeds. A yeast-dough pastry is filled with a honey and poppyseed filling. The roll is sometimes topped with powdered sugar, honey, or nuts.
Families start the Christmas Eve dinner with the sharing of the opłatek, or Christmas wafer. This flour-and-water wafer, usually depicting the holy family, is shared amongst the holiday celebrants as they wish each other a Merry Christmas.
The Polish Santa Claus
Poland has various versions of Santa Claus that depend upon the region where Christmas is being celebrated. Furthermore, the chance to receive presents is not limited to Christmas proper – children may also get small treats on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, which are like stocking stuffers in other traditions.
The first type of Polish Santa Claus is St. Nicholas himself, known as Mikołaj. Whether dressed like the Western Santa Claus or in his saintly red clothing, Mikołaj may be one of the most popular and recognizable versions of Santa in Poland because he visits children widely on the day named for him – he may even come to schools to present children with treats.
In many Polish cities, Santa Claus parades see hundreds of people dressed as Santa Claus gathering together to celebrate this holiday.
Another version of the Santa figure is Baby Jesus, or Dzieciątko. Instead of Baby Jesus, a little angel (Aniołek) may bring the presents. After the presents are delivered by Baby Jesus or the little angel, children hear the ringing of a bell and are permitted to come into the room with the Christmas tree and open their presents.
Gwiazdor, or Starman, on the other hand, is far from jolly. He carries a birch stick to whip naughty children. Gwiazdka, Little Star, is another option for the Polish Santa. These two “star” figures date from pagan times, and Gwiazdor was often depicted with a wooden mask with straw for a beard.
New Year’s Eve in Poland
New Year’s Eve in Poland is celebrated much like in other parts of the world – with parties, friendly gatherings, and fireworks.
However, in Poland, certain beliefs and rituals were traditionally associated with this day, such as:
- People should make sure all their debts are paid to start the new year without owing money.
- Scales from the carp eaten at Christmas would ensure good fortune.
- Writing down unhappy memories and burning the paper would help a person be free of them.
Three Kings Day
Three Kings Day (Święto Trzech Króli), or Epiphany, in Poland is celebrated on January 6. It’s often marked by a parade or Nativity reenactments.
In some cases, people will bring either objects representing the Three Kings’ gifts to newborn Jesus or a piece of chalk to church to be blessed. They’ll use the chalk to write C + B + M, followed by the year. The letters may stand for the first letter of the name of each of the three kings. In this way, the house is also blessed.
The Nativity scene is so important to Polish Christmas traditions that it’s been inscribed in UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage.
The szopka, as it is known in Polish, is most often associated with Krakow, which has a long-established tradition of artists creating nativity scenes in the local style.
This treasured example of Polish folk art is so important that an annual competition for the best szopka is held the first Thursday of December in Krakow’s Main Market Square. This tradition was begun in the 1930s.
Historical figures, including, of course, the holy family, as well as local figures or those from mythology, along with recognizable structures from Krakow’s skyline are often incorporated into the design. Colored and metallic paper, electric lights, and mechanical parts make these scenes eye-catching and fanciful.
They’re a beautiful and unique aspect of Polish culture that has great appeal for locals and visitors alike, and they add a special touch of Christmas magic not found anywhere else. Seeing them is one of the best things to do in Krakow while you’re there during the Christmas season.
After the competition for the most beautiful szopka, the historical museum purchases a selection to contribute to the collection already in its holdings.
Enjoying Christmas in Poland as a Visitor
If you would like to experience Christmas in Poland, you can do so in several ways.
The most obvious way, of course, is to visit one of Poland’s many Christmas markets, found in Polish cities across the country. The largest markets start their operations at the beginning of December, meaning you have plenty of flexibility when it comes to travel dates.
At Polish Christmas markets, you’ll be able to sample Polish food, enjoy live entertainment, view Christmas decorations, and shop for gifts and souvenirs from Poland.
Whether at Christmas markets or traditional shops, the Christmas season is certainly a time for shopping!
Poland is a large producer of Christmas ornaments. If you love collecting Christmas ornaments from your travels for your Christmas tree at home, buying a Polish Christmas ornament is a must!
You may also want to shop for Baltic amber, which makes lovely jewelry that can be found in various shops in Poland, many specializing in amber.
Of course, you can also look for Polish chocolate, pottery, and other memorable souvenirs.
Visit a Museum
Ethnographic and open-air museum in Poland are excellent places to experience traditional Polish Christmas. These are found throughout Poland, in both big and small cities, and may show you how Poles traditionally decorated or celebrated Christmas in that area of the country.
Attend a Concert
So many concerts take place around Christmas in Poland that it would be a shame not to attend at least one. From performances of The Nutcracker and other classical music evenings or ballets to folk music and choir music, especially if you are in a larger city such as Warsaw or Poland, you may be spoiled for choice.
If you’d like to work in a concert when you visit Poland for Christmas, the best option is to check concert venue programs or events calendars for cities in advance. That way, you can plan your itinerary around your concert and book tickets online before you go.
If you expect to have Christmas Eve dinner in Poland, you should also plan in advance. Due to the importance of the holiday, most venues will be closed for dinner.
However, some restaurants catering to tourists may operate with special hours or with a set menu. It’s important to book early because seating may be limited with others vying for a table.
On Christmas Day, more restaurants will be open, so you will have a wider range of options to choose from for Christmas in Poland.
Spend Christmas in Zakopane
Many people love Zakopane for its snow sports and traditional Polish atmosphere. People go skiing or dog sledding, enjoy local thermal baths, and excape from the winter into cozy cafes and restaurants. The traditional Polish architecture creates the perfect Christmassy mood under a blanket of snow.
Tips for Spending Christmas in Poland
- Dress for the weather. Whether you’re visiting Christmas markets, seeing sights, or even just going from hotel to restaurant, you’ll enjoy your trip more if you’re dressed for the winter weather.
- While the summer season is the most popular for tourists to Poland, the Christmas market season also sees an increase in travelers, so book your accommodations as soon as you know your travel dates and itinerary.
- Keep room in your luggage or bring extra luggage if you plan to shop. Christmas in Poland is an excellent opportunity to find unique and handmade items, and even if you don’t plan to buy anything, you may still be tempted.
- Consider how you will get home fragile items, such as glass Christmas ornaments – packing supplies may come in handy.
- If you’d like to see several Christmas markets throughout Poland, consider a Christmas market tour.
- Head to old town centers to see Christmas lights festooning historic architecture and gorgeous Christmas trees.