The Courtly Lives of Polish Kings, Nobles... - Christmas Customs Christmas in the Poland
Written by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewski,
B.F.A., P.G.S.A.

This icon is by a Bohemian Master,
called "Master of the Eichhorn Madonna"
This painting was done in tempera paint
on wood circa 1350. It is presently in
Narodni Gallery in Prague.


The genre of the large-format Italian-Byzantium Madonna icon was introduced into Bohemia by Charles IV, King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor. In his right hand, the baby Jesus clutches a goldfinch (the symbol of Passion), and in his left the Virgin's veil, which will one day serve as his loincloth on the cross. Prague boasts a piece of this cloth as one of its holy relics.



Most of Poland's customs are entwined with traditions of the church, and Christmas has some of the richest traditions. In olden days, Advent began on St. Martin's Day on November 12th. In 2005, advent begins on November 27th and ends December 18th. On this day a goose was roasted and the harshness of the coming winter season could be forecast by the color of its bones.

November 30th was the virgil of St. Andrew's day. On this day, it was said that "a young girl had the opportunity to see her future. At midnight, she would pour melted wax on water through a golden ring tied to a hair from her head or through a large keyhole, symbolic of the key to the future". After the wax shape was removed and held to the candle in the dark, and the shadow would hopefully somehow reveal a shape that could represent some aspect of her future.

Later on, advent began shortly before December 6th, when St. Nicholas arrived to reward good children. Bad children might get gilded sticks. St. Nicholas was said to ask questions about the Holy Catholic church, when he arrived, to see how well children learned their catechism.

Christmas Eve mass was the time of celebration, and oplatki were distributed for the Christmas Eve supper, which is called wigilia. Wigilia is the result of the old church mandates that strict fast and abstinence be observed on the day before Christmas. Today's church laws permit meat to be eaten, but most Polish families still adhere to the old way. Some families wait for the first star to appear in the Eastern Sky to begin dinner. This star represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wisemen. At this traditional meatless meal, a wafer is passed around and each person takes a piece; then all, in turn, give a wish of health, wealth, and happiness in the New Year. The wafer suggests reconciliation of past sins and reunites members of the family in harmony. Many times oplatki are sent in Christmas cards. At some tables, at wigilia, hay is placed under the tablecloth to help us remember the humble beginnings of Christ, as he was born in a manger, among the gentle beasts. The table cloth is usually white, symbolic of Mary's veil. Sheaves of wheat, rye, oats, and barley are plaited and hung at the four directions around the Christmas feast. In the Sypniewski house, we also set a place for the dearly departed, so they may be remembered and can be a part of the feast. Other families set a place for a stranger. This symbolizes the fact that Mary and Joseph were denied lodging at various inns, before Mary gave birth in a barn among the animals. Often Oplatki are even shared with the family pets, since the animals were a part of the birth of our savior.

Christmas dinner has an odd number of courses...usually thirteen (13), for Christ and his twelve (12) apostles. Honey liqueur is drunk after mass and honey is poured on the bisquits, to remember the part honey (and bees) played in Polish life and the harvests. Traditional items served were fish (usually herring), mushroom soup, sauerkraut, pierogis, fruit, assorted pastries, nuts, candies, and rolls (sweet breads called babka).

The midnight mass is generally the most splendid of the year and varies from parish to parish. In my own church, there were massed choirs and bell ringers, along with many poinsettas and Christmas cactus, and colorful banners. The cactus represented the "crown of thorns", that Christ was made to wear, as he walked the original "Stations of the Cross." Often, large family groups would then walk outside, after dinner, and sing Christmas carols in praise of the day.

Before New Year's, is the feast of St. Stephen. New Year's Day was St. Sylvester's Day. Some places have fireworks on this day, which was to celebrate the imprisoning of the dragon Leviathan, for a thousand years.

Epiphany, or the Feast of the Magi, has incense and myrryh blessed in the church, to honor the Three Kings.

February 2nd is Candlemas, when candles are blessed in the church and taken home as a symbol of the Blessed Mother. Candlemas marked the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. Since candles thus blessed were said to ward off wolves, the Virgin Mother is often depicted holding a candle, used as a torch to hold off wolves, when traveling at night.


Da Night Before Christmas in Poland by Raymond Sypniewski (1967)

Easy Polish Beet Soup (Serves four)

Wash beets until water runs clear. Set aside.
Combine beets, onions, bouillon, lemon juice, and 1 3/4 C. sour cream into a blender and blend until smooth.
Tranfer blended items into a double boiler or saucepan, cook on medium.
Stir constantly for smooth texture.
Bring to just boiling.
Do NOT scald!
Add leftover sour cream and diced potatoes, and blend carefully by hand with a spoon.
Reheat and put on simmer until ready to serve Stir gently every so often, so ingredients do not stick to pan. Garnish with parsley and serve hot in soup bowls.

Polish Chrusciki Angel Wings
Printed from COOKS.COM:


  • 14 egg yolks
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3 tbsp. thick sour cream
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 oz. rum
  • 3 c. sifted pastry flour
  • 3 tbsp. soft butter, unsalted
  • 3 lbs. Crisco

Freeze mixture of yolks and 1 teaspoon of sugar, mixed well with fork. Thaw out before using. Beat yolks, sugar and salt until thick; mix well. Knead dough well. Put dough in plastic bag. Refrigerate for a few hours.

Cut 2 pieces of dough. Roll out each piece on lightly floured board. Dot 1 piece with soft unsalted butter.

Cover with second circle of dough and roll out very thin. Cut into strips about 3 1/2 inches long. Make a slit in center and pull one end through the slit.

Fry prepared dough in hot Crisco until lightly brown. Drain on paper towels. Dust with powdered sugar.


Nowakowski, Jacek and Marlene Perrin. Polish Touches. Iowa City, Iowa: Penfield Press, 1996.

"Pierogi: Dumplings star in traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner," Westland Observer Newspaper, Sunday, December 17, 2000, page 1 section D.


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