Wigilia - Poland's Christmas Eve Feast

24 Nov 2020

In Poland, Wigilia (ENG: Christmas Eve) is centred around a feast that consists of a whopping 12 courses – one for each apostle. Eating a bit of each is kind of like a tip of the hat to each saint. Each dish is a combination of classic Polish dishes and some other specially-prepared things, which requires the family to sacrifice the bathtub for a few days (see below). These dishes may vary slightly, depending on where you're celebrating in Poland. For this reason, we encourage you to check out specific articles at the bottom of the page on Christmas in each city! And remember: The more you eat, the more prosperous you’ll be in the coming year, apparently...

The centrepiece of the feast of Wigilia - the Carp!

So we have 12 dishes for 12 apostles, but let's not forget the big man - Jesus. This is why, before the feast kicks off, the family shares the opłatek - the Christmas wafer. 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 observance 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).

Sharing opłatek - the traditional Polish Christmas wafer.

Things often kick off with Barszcz (Beetroot Soup) followed by Mushroom soup, which is often made from wild mushrooms from the nearby forest. Żurek (Sour Cucumber Soup) is not uncommon either.

A traditional table set up for Wigilia, The Feast of Christmas Eve
Photo by Przykuta.

Abstaining from meat consumption is a notably-Catholic observance at various times of the year, which is why the centrepiece of the feast is Carp, usually served cold. Apparently, seafood isn’t recognised as meat by Catholics (fish was Jesus’ favourite vegetable). The beastly carp is often kept swimming in the bathtub in the run-up to Wigilia, a tradition which developed during Communist times because of food shortages (You had to buy your live fish several days earlier and keep it alive until the time came). It’s then down to the man of the house to clobber it, carve it and cook it. However, nowadays, enterprising carp salesmen enjoy a roaring trade, slaughtering the fish on behalf of those not man enough to the task.

Aside Carp, Śledź (ENG: Herring in Oil
) is the other commonly-served fish dish in Poland. Next up is the internationally-reknowned Polish dumpling - Pierogi! While they now come in hundreds of varieties, the Christmas filling is one of the more common traditional varieties - cabbage and forest mushroom. If you're a fan of cabbage, you'll be pleased to know that there's more of that to come. Kapusta Wigilijna (Christmas Cabbage) is kind of like sauerkraut, but typically a little sweeter. Then there's Gołąbki - cabbage rolls stuffed with mince meat and rice. Nowadays, Poles are more aware of the importance of greens and other vegetables, and so pickles and an assortment of other Polish salads and sides will often feature of the table.

Christmas carp in the bathtub during PRL times.

With that, the main courses are done with and it's time to start thinking about dessert! Kutia is a mix of wholemeal wheat grains, poppy seeds, honey and dried fruits soaked in a small amount of red wine, and some extra nuts thrown in. There are two cakes - Makowiec (Poppy-Seed Cake) and Piernik (gingerbread cake with plum jam layers, and, towards the end of the proceedings, you'll be handed a Dried Fruit Compote, a drink which supposedly helps speeds up digestion. And also, the more you eat, apparently, the more prosperous you’ll be in the coming year. Abstaining from meat consumption, with the exception of seafood, is a notably-Catholic observance at various times of the year and, for this reason, you'll see plenty of fish on the Wigilia menu as well as cabbage, mushrooms and dumplings. Depending on who you are with, this rule can also apply to the consumption of vodka, though more traditional households will frown on heavy drinking.

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. Needless to say, 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 Kraków to close early and stay closed until the 27th, so arrange accordingly. On the afternoon of the Eve on Kraków’s main square, free food is given out to the poor and the length and composition of the resultant queues is a bit of a holiday spectacle in itself.


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