Polish Christmas: Don't panic - A travelers guide | The Family Without Borders

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Polish Christmas: Don’t panic.

Under the table sheet you have to put some hey - a Polish Christmas tradition reminding you to Jesus birth; Photo: Thomas Alboth

Christmas in Poland is one of the beautiful things, connected with marrying a Polish girl. I am from Germany, to be more correct East Germany, where Christmas was totally demystified. An angel was called end of year character with wings and Christmas Jahresendfestend of year celebration. Whooohooo. Do you feel the marxist romanticism? But Poland is different. The Christmas eve is full of surprises.

I was astonished, could not beliefe what i see: people waiting outside of a church in order to come in. Nononono, not at 24th of December but on a normal Polish summer sunday afternoon – this was one of the unforgettable scenes I brought home from my first trip to Poland about fifteen years ago.

A couple of years later I got to know a sweet Polish girl named Anna on a conference in Brussels. Some months after this meeting I found myself sitting on a Christmas table in Warsaw in a family I nearly didn’t know.  And again this country, just a hundred kilometres away from Berlin surprised me a lot. But I survived those days an Anna’s family loved me and I loved them.

Probably because I was smiling very friendly all the time. What else to do if everybody in this cosy little flat is not speaking your language: Granny, parents, Anna, her brother in the wheelchair and her little sister. Just the dog called Vena and me spoke the same language.

A little tradition I really like about the Polish Christmas Eve (wigilia) is the sharing of the opłatki (Christmas wafer) before starting the big meal. In pairs you meet, give each other a piece of your tasteless wafer and tell personal wishes to your counterparts. It’s very nice and personal.

Fish is okay, but no meat on a Polish table on Christmas eve - a catholic tradition in Poland; Photo: Thomas Alboth
Fish is okay, but no meat on a Polish table on Christmas eve – a catholic tradition in Poland; Photo: Thomas Alboth

After this you sit down at the table, which is usually full of food and has one plate more than needed. The perfect Polish housewife (kura domowa) is serving 12 different dishes for 12 months of happiness in the upcoming year. But it’s hard the reach this level of perfection. A bit less is also okay. The main problem is, that it’s obviously all about numbers, the amount of dishes, but not necessarily about the taste. At the same time with not eating a piece from everything you risk some bad luck months. 

At my first Polish Christmas I was very friendly, curious like hell and so tried it all: This thin red (and usually tasty!) soup with little pasta “ears” (borscht with uszki), the pierogi (which I still call most of the time pelmeni, because I lived in Russia for a while), the salmon, the carp, all the salads with allot of mayonnaise… Hmmmm. Yummy.

But there are also strange things you will have to eat – like carp in aspic, noodles with poppy seeds, herring with allot of onions, some dry cakes. Even a proper Pole doesn’t like and eat everything. But not eating means less happiness. So I take, take, take, smile and deepen the friendship with the dog under my chair.

Usually my German grandmother and mother were cooking a duck or a rabbit, with dumplings, brown sauce and red cabbage on Christmas Eve. The older people drank started the meal with some red wine.

Knowing Poland a little bit, I was really surprised, not to find any meat on the table. If you ever visited Poland you will understand my astonishment. Babies here are fed with milk and sausages. A table without meat is a table without food. But on Christmas Eve (and before Eastern) the world is turned upside down: No meat allowed! This derives from the Catholic tradition of fasting before the biggest celebrations.

Secondly my Annas family was not drinking any alcohol this night. Well, Poles don’t raise babies with alcohol, but at some point youngsters learn how to handle vodka and other hard stuff somehow naturally. If you don’t believe me, go on a Polish wedding! But not so on Christmas Eve. Paradoxically after Christmas in every radio news you here policemen proudly telling, how many drunk drivers the stopped and how many accidents were cause by drunk people behind the steering wheel.

Instead of vodka or wine on wigilia Poles serve a drink called kompot. It is an disgusting juice made of dried fruits like apples, morello cherries, currants or plums. If you ask me – it tastes awful, smoky, like some medicine, an ashtray filled up with hot water and rotten fruits. I guess that is why Poles love to drink Coca Cola at Christmas. It is simply much better than this kompot.

And everybody here knows, after drinking something which can harm you body (like a glass of vodka) you have to dring a sip of something else, which takes away the bad taste. Remember this. It might be helpful on your next Polish wedding.

After you and your tried all the things on the table it’s time for the children to go out of the house an look for the first star on the sky. At this moment a miracle appears. When there are coming back, suddenly there are presents under the Christmas tree, brought by Święty Mikołaj (the red hat guy from Norway). Yes, in Poland they people also use the Christmas – by the way a German invention and a symbol for the German Gemütlichkeit (cosyness). We simply love candles and all this stuff!

If you are too late you have to wait in outside of the church - Warsaw (Poland): Christmas; Photo: Thomas Alboth
If you are too late you have to wait in outside of the church – Warsaw (Poland): Christmas; Photo: Thomas Alboth

At midnight, you better show up in a church close to your house. If you feel like sitting, while listening about the story of Jesus’ birth – better go there 15 minutes earlier. Otherwise you might have to stand or even worse – you cannot even enter the church. You will freeze for one hour like hell and wish to spend next Christmas in a more Marxist environment.

This post is also available in: German

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  • Natalia
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 16:33 | Permalink

    There is nothing better than kompot for Christmas Eve! No Cola can beat that! You just need to choose normal dried food, not smoke-dried :)
    But our local name for this drink is “kompot z siusiu”, hope Anna will translate this name ;)

    • Wolfgang aus Belize
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 17:18 | Permalink

      Bad luck with the kompot, friend. Normally, homemade kompot is one of the most delicious things Polish kitchen has to offer IMHO. But alcohol was never a taboo during the Polish christmasses I spent. We always had wine on the table and vodka for later.

  • Anna
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 17:14 | Permalink

    more, please more Tom! That’s so good!!

  • ania
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 20:02 | Permalink

    Hahaha great text Tom!!

  • Posted December 26, 2013 at 22:20 | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing! It is always great to see Polish traditions through the eyes of foreigners. I will never forget my American husband’s reactions to his first Polish Christmas, he thought it was so exotic! There wasn’t a dog to come to his rescue though, so he had to eat very many plates of food!
    I miss the smoky plum kompot, but I can see how it can taste awful to some, it’s kinda like lapsang souchong tea – you either love it or hate it.

  • Posted December 27, 2013 at 14:54 | Permalink

    In my family, we start Christmas Eve supper when the first star appears (or more less:). When we were small, the presents were found under the tree the next morning, but now days, when more people spends the evening together, the presents are given after the supper. There are slightly different traditions in every family, I suppose:) My parents don’t like ‘karp’ so they don’t cook it. We don’t have ‘kompot’ nor ‘kutia’. My mum just bakes more cakes:)

  • Marie & Casi
    Posted December 27, 2013 at 19:35 | Permalink

    Schöner Text, Tomasz!!

  • Natalia
    Posted December 29, 2013 at 22:18 | Permalink

    hehe, yeah…. Tomasz jest nasz ! :) Housewife means “kura domowa” :D That’s the best! You have a great sense of humour :)

    • Posted December 30, 2013 at 12:08 | Permalink

      Na ‘Wesołych Świąt’ trochę za późno ale… Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku oraz hucznej zabawy w Sylwestra:)

  • Iza
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 02:07 | Permalink

    My German boyfriend spent his first Polish Christmas with me and my family this year:) That’s why I found this post very close to my heart. I’m reading your blog for some time now, I even had the chance to listen to your stories in Poznań in “Głośna” last year. I hope the German version will help me to improve my German skills;) Greetings to all of you from Poznań:)

  • Kombo
    Posted November 22, 2014 at 22:19 | Permalink

    Hi! I read this text some time ago, and just have read it now again. It’s a very good description of polish Christmas Eve. I love it. All the traditions and some funny but still nice and friendly comments;). I’m from Poland buy I live abroad and with my husband (boyfriend at that time) we spent one Christmas with my family. I have to show this text to him!

  • Justyna
    Posted December 23, 2014 at 11:55 | Permalink

    It is really interesting to read about Polish traditions through the eyes of foreigners. If it’s possible, we ask you for more, Tom :) you can write lots about Christmas! :) and your Kura domowa reminded me of my Italian brother in law who with all respect and italian seriousness calls his wife Pani domowa, which just sounds cute :D greetings to all of you! :)

  • Wojtek
    Posted December 23, 2014 at 13:02 | Permalink

    Super opowieść Thomasa o polskich świętach :) przyznam mu racje odnośnie kompotu :) wolałbym coca colę niż kompot z suszu :D

  • Posted December 25, 2015 at 15:25 | Permalink

    So funny to read about polish Christmas seeing by the eyes of German guy.
    Love it!

    All good for you and Anna and your daughters!


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