From the street fairs to the music of Midnight Mass, Poland stays true to its roots for Christmas. Here are my favorite holiday traditions.
Whether it’s making gingerbread or browsing holiday markets, there’s no better time than Christmas in Poland to get a glimpse of Polish hospitality and Slavic traditions. It’s a time when Poles embrace their country’s Roman Catholic rituals and delight in all things rustic and rural.
AN OLD-FASHIONED CHRISTMAS
Christmas fairs selling handicrafts pop up in most Polish market squares as people indulge in home-cooked meals and strolls through snow-covered parks.
Poland emerged from the rubble of World War II and decades behind the Iron Curtain to become a prominent European nation. Its modernity still surprises many tourists.
But Poles love returning to their old traditions during Christmas. They’re more likely to opt for homemade dishes over trendy restaurants. The most modern of households often celebrate centuries-old practices like placing hay under the tablecloth in memory of Jesus’ birth in a manger.
GETTING FESTIVE IN TORUN
Small cities like Torun in central Poland, the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, perfectly capture this holiday spirit. The charming medieval city is famous for the astronomer who placed the sun at the center of his model of the universe. But it’s equally well-known among Poles for gingerbread.
Copernicus’ birth home has been made into a museum that showcases the mathematician’s tools and manuscripts. And downstairs there’s a separate exhibit where staff in period dress guide you through the process of making ornamental gingerbread. The hardened ornaments have made Christmas tree decorations since the turn of the 20th century.
Many cities host Christmas fairs in their town squares in a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. And although Torun’s fair isn’t as large as Poland’s most well-known market in Krakow, that’s part of its charm. The medieval part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes a spectacular Gothic City Hall.
WARSAW’S CHRISTMAS MARKET
Warsaw’s Christmas Market in the Old Town Square is a great way to sample regional delicacies from across Poland. And the Old Town, rebuilt after the bombardment of World War II, features a Christmas tree in front of the Royal Castle.
At this market you can find oscypek, a smoked cheese made from sheep’s milk from Poland’s Carpathian Mountains. Thick woolen socks, hats and mittens are also popular as temperatures dip below zero.
But Poland is best-known for its handmade glass Christmas ornaments. They’re often colorful round balls decorated with snowflakes or religious scenes. More creative pieces are made in the shape of bumblebees or Queen Nefertiti’s bust. There are also quirky wooden toys from the Czech Republic and Lithuanian black rye bread.
Food stalls fill the air with the smell of roasted chestnuts, mulled wine or pierogi, Polish dumplings stuffed with potatoes, sauerkraut, meat, cheese or fruit. Pierogi are so popular that restaurants like Pierogarnia specialize in numerous variations on the dish.
After days of preparing and cooking, Poles sit down to Christmas Eve dinner, or Wigilia, the most important meal of the holidays. This meat-less dinner is traditionally served when the first star appears in the evening in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem.
Fried carp is the centerpiece. And there’s also beetroot soup (barszcz,) herring and wild mushrooms that make up the traditional 12 dishes served at the table. Though not all families today make them all.
There’s an extra place at the table set symbolically for any unexpected guest. It’s also a reminder of the holy family getting turned away from the inns of Bethlehem.
The meal begins with the breaking of a wafer, or oplatek, that’s symbolic of the family’s unity with Jesus. Families share these wafers, stamped with religious images, with best wishes for the coming year. They also sometimes give wafers to pets and farm animals in the country, and mail them to family abroad.
Poles open their gifts and then head out for the traditional Pasterka, or Midnight Mass. This commemorates the arrival of the three wise men to Bethlehem to pay respects to the new-born Jesus.
The Midnight Mass doesn’t include a lot of preaching. But there are lots of spirited Christmas carols, the oldest going back to 1420. And it’s worth seeing for the holiday spirit. Crowds pack churches across Poland and spill out onto the snowy pavements.
But the next day is for sleeping in. Children play with their new toys while adults munch on leftovers.