Tucker and I have now been in Poland for over three months, and one of my favorite things about being here long-term is getting to see how people in Poland celebrate the holidays! We’ve been through several Polish-exclusive holidays (like All Saint’s Day, Andrzejki, etc.) and shared our American customs for holidays like Thanksgiving, but Christmas is the first holiday that both countries have in common, and it’s a big one. We had read and heard about many Polish Christmas traditions, but experiencing them was so much better! I didn’t take near enough photos, but here is my written description of our Polish Christmas:
Mikolajki – The Christmas season in Poland, much like in the US, lasts more than just a few days. We started seeing Christmas decorations in mid-November – there’s no Thanksgiving here, so no one fights over when to start decorating! There are also a few extra days of Christmas-related celebrations, such as Mikolaijki. Mikolaijki (or Saint Nickolas’ Day) is associated with Santa and seems to be mainly celebrated with children in school. Typically games are played, songs are sung, and children receive gifts of candy or sweets. As an adult, it doesn’t mean quite as much as we all still had to go to work, but it’s certainly a fun way to begin the holiday season.
Wigilia – Next is Wigilia (or Christmas Eve), which is the main day of Polish celebrations. Most people work half-days on Christmas Eve, and celebrate with their families in the evening and for the next few days. There are many articles, videos, etc. describing some of the customs Polish families observe on this evening, but it really differs from family to family. Some traditions include starting the evening meal after the first star can be seen, putting hay under the tablecloth, and always leaving an empty chair at the table for an unexpected guest. These particular traditions were ones we read about, but the families we celebrated with this year, didn’t observe them. Perhaps they are a little antiquated, like caroling in the US – we talk about it, but I’ve never seen it.
For our Wigilia, we were invited by our friend, Mateusz (who is also our Polish teacher) to his family’s house in Łask, Poland. Łask is a small town about 30 minutes outside Łódź, which allowed us to experience not only a Polish Christmas, but also Polish life outside the city. When we arrived, we were joined by Mateusz’s mom, brother, and brother’s girlfriend. The six of us then sat down for a truly amazing homemade Polish meal. There are typically 12 dishes served for Wigilia, and they usually only appear on Polish tables once a year. We had mushroom soup, cabbage pierogies with mushroom sauce, carp, cod, Greek fish, herring in a milk broth with potatoes, barscht, and I (alone) was also given a croquette (since I’m not a big ryby-eater). Traditionally, there is no meat served on Christmas Eve – fish obviously doesn’t count. To drink we had homemade wine, dried fruit compote, eggnog (made by Tucker), and ajerkoniak (Poland’s much stronger version of eggnog). For dessert there was sernik (cheesecake), szarlotka (apple pie), makowiec (poppy seed cake roll), and a very delicious cream/custard cake.
The food was delicious and unlike anything we had had before, but most exciting was the company. We got to use our very minimal Polish (plus our brilliant translator, Mateusz) to talk about food, family, and the differences between life in the US and Poland. We were also able to experience the feeling of family while we were there: everyone helping to clear the table, laughing and poking fun at each other, etc . It was very fun for us to see how Polish family members interact. Perhaps not so shockingly, it’s very much like in the US (and I suspect in most families worldwide). After dinner and conversation, we walked around the city of Łask listening to stories about the town’s history and asking a variety of Poland-related questions. Eventually, it was time to go home and open up our presents! In Poland, presents are opened on Christmas Eve, so in an effort to be both Polish and American, Tucker and I opened our gifts just after midnight (technically on the 25th).
Boże Narodzenie – Christmas day in Poland is similar to the day after Christmas in the US: more food and more family! Tucker and I decided to be very American and have steak for breakfast, but later in the day we headed over to my friend (and colleague) Weronika’s apartment for Christmas dinner. Weronika and her family welcomed us on the stairs and we, again, immediately felt like part of the family. We had amazing conversations ranging from German vocabulary to movies of the seventies, played games in English and Polish, and, of course, ate more than seems possible. For dinner we had mushroom soup, beetroot and herring, a variety of dips and sauces (many of which I forgot to ask the names of), bread with butter, and bigos (a sort of cabbage and meat stew). Everything, very typical in Poland, was again homemade: even the cakes and pierniczki (gingerbread cookies) we had for dessert. It’s really getting difficult to defend our lazy American habits! Sadly, after the wine and cookies, we had to say “dobranoc” and head back home to our empty apartment. Christmas is a difficult time to be away from family, but our incredibly generous Polish friends made sure that not only did we learn about how they celebrate the holidays, but that we felt like we were a part of them. Tucker and I are so thankful for the people we have met here in Poland and can’t wait for them to visit us in the US (or wherever we are) in the future!
Ultimately, Tucker and I had an amazing Polish Christmas, and we’re looking forward to the Nowy Rok and all the other upcoming holidays! I hope you enjoyed reading about our experience this Christmas, and I wish I could share every detail. But for now: Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!