Ve-so-wick Shvee-ont (“Merry Christmas…”)
ee Shchen-shlee-vay-go No-vay-go Row-koo!
("...and Happy New Year!")
AdventIn contrast to western coca-cola cultures, Christmas in Poland is not a shameless celebration of consumerism. Here, the holiday season doesn’t kick off with slashed prices and stampedes outside department stores, but rather a sobering four-week period known locally as ‘Adwent’ during which Poles are expected to spiritually prepare for Christ’s coming by refraining from indulgences like partying, dancing and drinking, are encouraged to help the less fortunate, and, of course, to attend Catholic mass as much as possible.
How strictly these church-established guidelines are followed is entirely up to the individual, and having a look around town you’d hardly guess the holidays were a time of self-restraint and supposed prohibition. But it does go to underline the fact that in comparison to the west, Poland really puts the ‘Christ’ in Christmas; here ‘capturing the holiday spirit’ traditionally denotes an embodiment of Christian ideals.
Saint Nicholas DayWith Christmas Day reserved for family and busy with the celebration of Christ, seasonal gift-giving chores have been mostly out-sourced to Saint Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj) who unofficially gets the holiday season started when he comes three weeks earlier on December 6th – ‘Dzień Świętego Mikołaja’, or Saint Nicholas Day. In Polish tradition, Ol’ Saint Nick (or ‘Mick’ as the case may be) isn’t a portly pipe-smoker who lives at the North Pole, but an actual dignified saint who comes down from heaven in a rather regal purple and gold robe and bishop’s hat, carrying a crosier (you know, one of those staffs shaped like a candy-cane) on the anniversary of his death. Exact traditions vary regionally to some degree; in southern PL, for example, in the run-up to Dzień Świętego Mikołaja eager children write letters to Saint Nicholas requesting the one, maybe two (if they’ve been really good) gifts they most desire that year and put the letter outside on the windowsill so the old codger can drop by and pick up their request during the night. On the 6th, Polish children awake to discover Mikołaj’s good graces with a gift under their pillow or next to the bed. In northern PL, December 5th sees children cleaning their shoes and leaving them by the door or window to await St. Nick’s, who fills them with sweets and candy.
By the first weekend in December, Warsaw will have pulled all its best “abracadabra” tricks and illusions to turn itself into a winter wonderland, with decorations along all the major promenades.
Christmas EveDecember 24th – or ‘Wigilia’ as it’s called in PL - is one of the biggest feast days of the year and an important time to be with family. As such, though Wigilia is not a work holiday you can expect virtually every shop in Poland to close early and stay closed until the 27th, so arrange accordingly. Once evening begins to fall it’s tradition that those gathered to eat the vigil feast together first share the blessed Christmas wafer, called opłatek. In an intimate (and potentially awkward if you don’t speak Polish) moment, each person goes to the others in turn, making a blessing for their happiness in the coming year, breaking off a piece of the other person’s wafer and eating it, then sealing the deal with a kiss (or three) on the cheek. Once that formality is out of the way, and the kids have spotted the first star in the sky, the feast can officially begin. Traditionally, bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth in honour of Jesus’ manger pedigree, and an extra place is set at the table in case of a visit by the ‘hungry traveller,’ Baby Jesus himself or a deceased relative (whoever arrives first).
Dinner consists of a gut-busting twelve courses – one for each of Jesus’ disciples – and because it’s meant to be meatless, the main dish is traditionally carp, which apparently isn’t recognised as meat by Catholics (fish was Jesus’ favourite vegetable). In the days before Wigilia, large pools of carp – half writhing, half floating belly-up – can be found on the city’s squares waiting to be purchased and brought home to the family bathtub where they are kept until it’s time for the man of the house to carve the carp and serve it cold. ‘Smacznego’ (Bon Appetit). Other traditional dishes include żurek and barszcz – the traditional soups, poppy-seed pastries, herring in oil, pickles and an assortment of other Polish salads and sides. The meal concludes with a round of belt-unbuckling, carol-singing and gift-unwrapping after the revelation that during the feast an angel has laid presents beneath the Christmas tree (St. Nick also gets an off-day for Wigilia). Alcoholic abstinence is the Wigila tradition most commonly overlooked, however, at midnight, most families head out in the cold to attend pasterka, or midnight mass. It’s at this magical time that many believe animals are able to take on human voices.
Christmas DayAfter morning mass, December 25th is reserved for visiting family and friends and a continuation of feasting (this time including meat and alcohol). While Christmas Day holds less importance and symbolism for Poles than Christmas Eve, it is still a public holiday and a time for family. Despite the gradual moves by many, particularly the younger generation, away from the Catholic church in recent years, Christmas is still viewed with more religious significance than you might expect in your own country and even those who might not attend mass on a regular basis still respect the traditions of the holiday period. As such, you can expect the vast majority of bars and restaurants to be closed on Christmas Day and the Second Day of Christmas (December 26th), though some businesses are beginning to break this Catholic code of conduct.
New Year’s EveDecember 31st is known locally as Sylwester, and on this last night of the year, almost every bar, club, restaurant and hotel in Warsaw host an all-night New Year’s Eve bash. Unfortunately, you have to pay to play and it’s wise to plan where you want to spend your evening ahead of time since expensive tickets are required to enter most venues, and therefore pub crawling is not really an option...not easily anyway!
This tradition is said to protect the family from sickness and misfortune for the year. Fun is also had during the day’s feast when a Three Kings cake is served with either an almond or coin baked inside. Whoever is fortunate enough to land the surprise slice is considered king (or queen) for the day and lucky for the rest of the year. If your cake – which varies by region and can be anything from sponge to fruitcake – is decorated with a crown the lucky almond-eater gets the honour of wearing it. An additional reason to celebrate: In 2011 Parliament officially restored the date as a non-working national public holiday in Poland for the first time since it was cancelled by the communists 50 years earlier, so there’s no need to go work!
The Polish holiday season doesn’t actually officially wrap up until February 2nd when Saint Nick sees his shadow and it’s generally agreed that every family should toss its Christmas tree. As previously mentioned, with the exception of Christmas illuminations and decorations adorning the streets, there are usually a selection of entertainment events taking place to get everyone excited for the holiday season, so keep an eye on the What's On in Warsaw page for more!