Christmas in Poland (Eastern Europe)
Updated: Jan 29
A Brief History
The Baptism of Poland in 966 is generally accepted as the birth of the nation of Poland. This is when the first ruler of Poland, Mieszko I was baptized along with his wife, Dobrawa of Bohemia and his court. Mieszko’s conversion to Christianity would be a pivotal event in the nation’s history, as it allied Poland with the West and granted it recognition by the Holy Roman Empire. Before Mieszko’s conversion, Poland was a pagan country. From this time, Poland became an ardent Roman Catholic country until the Reformation. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Poland was one of the greatest European empires. However, during the 17th century and onward through the end of the 18th century, Poland lost power and prominence due to constant conflicts with its neighbors. Poland was so weakened initially, that it was divided up during three events called the 1st, 2nd and 3rd partitions. During this time, Russia, Prussia and Austria took great swath of Poland’s lands, and divided it among themselves. In fact, due to the 3rd partition, Poland was no longer a country on European maps.
However, at the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon defeated Russia, Prussia and Austria and reinstated part of Poland as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. After WWI, however, Poland was guaranteed sovereignty by the Treaty of Versailles.
Unfortunately, in 1939 Russia and Nazi Germany again invade Poland. Poland, like the Netherlands had a very large Jewish population. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Nazis erected more concentration and death camps here than any other country. Unlike the Dutch, however, the Nazis considered Poles-- who are racially Slavic-- to be an inferior race, and thus murdered many non-Jews. Consequently, Poland lost the largest portion of its pre-war population of any European nation.
Poland never surrendered to the invading Nazis, and the Nazis were not able to find real collaborators among the citizenry as they had in most of the European countries they occupied. Therefore, it is important to note, that the concentration and death camps are termed “German concentration/death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.” Poland as well as Israel are emphatic in their rejection of the present usage of the term “Polish death camps.” For, the camps were neither conceived, nor administered by the Polish government nor its people.
Sadly, after the war, the Yalta Conference doomed Poland to remain under Russian control. Finally, in 1989 Communist control crumbled due to Solidarity.
Nativity play (Jasełka or Herody) by children
Christmas celebrations start with the end of Advent in Poland—on Christmas Eve. Poland is a predominately Catholic country, so the Advent season that precedes Christmas Day, is a time of abstaining from worldly pleasures such as dancing and partying. During Advent, Poles prepare their homes by making sure it is clean inside and out. There is a tradition that if your home is dirty on Christmas Day, it will be dirty for the rest of the year. Christmas Eve, or Wiglia (which means ‘vigil’), is traditionally the day Poles decorate the Christmas tree. In earlier days the tree was decorated with apples to represent the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (though it could not be an apple since we still have apples today!). Nowadays the tree is festooned with various paper-wrapped fruit and candies, foil-wrapped nuts, candles and paper chains.
After the first star appears in the sky, the family will pray and break the Christmas wafer (oplatek). The Christmas wafer symbolizes the unity of the family. It is prayed over by the father, then passed around for each to take a piece. The wafer also represents forgiveness and reconciliation, as family members partake from one another’s wafer piece. After the wafer has been eaten, the family eats a meatless dinner, which is then followed by singing koledy (carols and pastorals) until time for Midnight Mass. Gifts are usually exchanged on this night as well.
Opłatek- "Christmas wafer"
Christmas Day, also called first holiday, is spent at home with family. No one cooks or cleans or goes out. Only food that was previously prepared and then warmed up is eaten on this day. St. Stephen’s Day, which is on December 26th, is known as second holiday. On this day Poles visit one another and participate in caroling. Herody, a type of Nativity play is a popular form of caroling in Poland. Usually performed by twelve boys, the carolers dress up in costumes and when invited into a home, perform a humorous reenactment of King Herod’s fate concerning the Massacre of the Innocents. The actors are usually given refreshments and money. Another popular form of caroling involves singers who carry a crib and a star along.
Santa comes on December 6th, which is Saint Nicholas Day. On this day, children receive their gifts from St. Nicholas. The presents that children receive on Christmas Eve are provided by Jesus
The end of the Christmas season celebration ends with Candlemas on February 2nd. This day commemorates The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, which is a special church feast in the Polish Catholic community. It is also referred to as Candlemas Day because of the blessing of the candles that takes place at mass.
A traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal consists of twelve dishes to represent the twelve months of the year. No meat is served except fish, usually herring, pike or carp. Popular dishes in this twelve course meal include beet soup, pierogi, sauerkraut, dried fruit compote, and various desserts. Foods containing poppy seed are considered a lucky food, so can be found in many of the foods and desserts for Christmas.
Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia! Is Merry Christmas in Polish.
Pray for Poland. The Catholic Church still holds sway over Polish culture, but personal faith is nominal and morality is being chipped away from the foundations of Polish society. Pray for hearts open to the message of salvation, particularly among materialistic youth.