Holiday season in Poland officially kicks off on December 6th, which is known as Dzień Świętego Mikołaja to some and the feast day of St Nicholas to the rest. Tradition demands that children clean and polish their shoes the evening of the 5th and leave them by the front door. If they have been good during the year they will wake to find that St. Nicholas has filled those shiny shoes with treats.
While St Nicholas day is the opener, the main act begins on December 24. The focal point of the celebration is the evening meal (Wigilia), with festivities officially launched the moment the first star appears in the sky. Technically speaking the consumption of alcohol on Christmas Eve is a no-no, though Poles sometimes turn a blind eye on this one.
Before dinner can begin the family shares the Christmas wafer; each person breaks off a piece before sharing it with the others while simultaneously making a blessing. It’s a tradition cherished by many Poles and one that intrusive foreigners should not use as an opportunity to joke around. So, what to expect once the dinner trolley gets wheeled out? Well, bad news if you don’t like Polish cooking, basically. Supper consists of a whopping 12 courses – one for each apostle – with the food reflecting various agricultural element s (fields, forests, water) so that each will bear fruit in the forthcoming year. It’s for this reason you’re expected to try a bit of everything, whether or not you’d prefer to hide it under the table or in your napkin. Furthermore, the more you eat the more prosperous you will be. The dinner is meant to be meatless, and though the church lifted this age-old ban in recent years, the majority of Polish families will still maintain the meatless tradition. Don’t expect a turkey to be making his way onto the table; the main course is usually carp, and this traditionally comes served ‘the Polish way’. That means in a grey sauce with almonds and raisins - - which is every bit as appetizing as it sounds - - or sometimes fried in breadcrumbs. If you’re staying with a Polish family the night before, don’t be surprised to find the fish kept swimming in the bathtub in the run-up to Wigilia.
If all this sounds a little awkward to the uninitiated then don’t panic. With the carp out of the way you’re on easy street, with the rest of the dishes including the whole galaxy of Polish potato inventions. On top of that you’ll be looking at lapping up bowls of barszcz, meatless gołąbki, herring, pickles and poppy seed cake. Symbolism and tradition play a big part in the whole shebang, so don’t be surprised to find hay under the table (to remind everyone of Christ’s manger), and an empty seat set inside in case a stranger comes knocking. Consider arriving with some glue on your fingers, as a spoon hitting the floor is taken as a sure sign it’s your last year alive. Alternatively, if you throw poppy seed cake at the ceiling and it sticks, then you’ll be expecting wedding bells sometime soon. With the feeding done it’s time to hand out the presents, after which you’ll find most Poles wrapping up like penguins to make it in time for midnight mass (pasterka). It’s at this hour, so they say, you’ll find animals taking on human voices.