I was talking to my British friend the other day about our families’ Christmas traditions. The amount of singular dishes that traditionally have to be placed on the Christmas table got a bit of a giggle, but it was the hay placed under the tablecloth that got her choking on her lunch. So, just in case, please no eating while reading.
10 things you possibly didn’t know about a Polish Christmas.
1. The most important day is Christmas Eve. We actually do everything Christmasy on that day – you’ll see. Christmas Day, and the next day (that is also a holiday) are either to lie in bed, see friends, or meet with parts of the families that couldn’t sit at same table with you on Christmas Eve. Oh, and Christmas Eve is not a holiday, (though whoever is able to takes at least half day off) – keep that in mind.
2. We don’t decorate the Christmas tree in November. We don’t even do it the first week in December. We, traditionally, decorate the tree on the morning of Christmas Eve, or maximum a day before. Some clever person decided we would have one day to decorate the tree, work, cook, and eat early dinner. Us Pole’s are very good at multitasking!
3. The most important meal of Christmas time – the Christmas Eve dinner – is actually a meal at a time between lunch and dinner. Traditionally, we are supposed to fast on that day, so over time people realised it was hard to wait until 5pm (all whilst working, decorating a tree, cooking…I can see you sense a theme here). Traditionally the meal should start when the first star starts shining in the sky, so in some houses it starts even earlier (yep, in the north Poland it can be around 3:30 pm).
4. Before we eat, everybody gets a piece of Christmas Wafer (yes, it’s a thing) to share with each of the other family members gathered together (we starve all day and the first thing we get is a wafer – but it’s a great one!) We take that second to wish everyone one of them a Merry Christmas, and add a more personal greeting or wish. But the whole point is not to let them take too much of the wafer – it’s actually super delicious.
5. We add one additional seat (and plate) for a strayed wanderer, to commemorate Holy Mary and Holy Joseph not being able to find a place to stay. To be honest, it’s always been quite funny as it’s not that we would actually let a stranger into our house (you never know which political party they support and all that).
6. At one corner of the table there’s always a bit of hay under the tablecloth. Don’t ask me why. My British friend suggested it was for a stray reindeer (?) who came in with the stray wanderer. Those Brits have some imagination.
7. Exactly 12 dishes of food must be placed on the table, and while that may be easy to do with big families, a family of even 8 might struggle with eating so much. So, to ensure we are in line with tradition (because we Poles are big when it comes to traditions), we count everything (sauces, salads, etc.) to meet the final 12.
8. We start the meal with a soup (either a special Christmas version of a borscht with mushrooms and special dumplings, or a mushroom soup) then dumplings with cabbage and mushrooms. Then the table is filled with all the kinds of fish; with the common Carp being the most common Christmas fish (in my childhood they were bought alive at the market by my grandparents, and would be kept swimming in the bath for few hours or even a day before being cooked).
9. After the dinner we try to drink tea, but kids are already anxious – Santa will be here any minute! Every family has a different trick to make the gifts suddenly appear under the tree.
10. The gifts arrive! We unwrap, we smile, we thank each other, and we carry all the packaging to the recycle bins- after all, despite what you’ve read above, we are a modern nation, not barbarians 😉
What are some of the things the rest of us may not know about your Christmas or holiday season? I’d love to know!