How Poland is celebrating Christmas: Wigilia kicks it all off with a star

Poland celebrates Christmas

This year, 2020, the solstice evening on Dec. 21 will feature the Great Conjunction, the meeting in our night sky of Jupiter and Saturn into one special Christmas star (or rather the two planets will be 0.1 degree off from each other for a very short period of time around 7:20 in the evening, Poland time, on that night). People will gather outside to witness this unique event, and maybe celebrate something that no one has seen since the year 1623, way back when the world was so different that today’s peace-loving, IKEA-bearing Sweden was Poland’s mortal enemy.

For Poles, though, this will merely be a dress rehearsal for what normally happens every year on Wigilia, or Christmas Eve. Throughout the day on every Dec. 24 (Poland follows the Catholic calendar for the holiday rather than the Orthodox calendar, which places Christmas on Jan. 6), everyone in the household fasts while the kitchen is kept very busy making what everyone will be enjoying in the evening. Then, as the sun sets, the table is set while the by-then starving kids go outside and keep an eye out for the first star of the night.

That star, no matter if it’s a planet like Venus or Jupiter/Saturn combined, or a real one of the twinkling variety, is intended to be symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. As the legendary Christmas Star guided the three magi to a crib fashioned from a manger, or feeding trough, attached to a Bethlehem inn, the evening star on Wigilia night guides the family to the dinner table, where all manner of dishes await them.

In Poland, what is on the table on Christmas Eve is important. Families will often have their own traditions, but usually they don’t vary far from what the Adam Mickiewicz Institute’s website lists out as the traditional 12 dishes (each dish representing a different apostle who will eventually follow the celebrated Christ child). These include: (1) Red Barszcz with Uszki (borscht with “ear” shaped pierogi), (2) Mushroom Soup, (3) Fresh Carp, (4) Jewish-styled Carp, (5) Herring, (6) Pierogi (separate from that served as “uszki” in the earlier barszcz dish), (7) Braised Sauerkraut, (8) Cabbage Rolls (gołąbki), (9) Kutia (poppy seed porridge), (10) Piernik (gingerbread cookies), (11) Compote with Dried Fruit (kompot z suszu), and (12) Makowiec (poppyseed cake). (Recipes for all of these are on the Institute’s website.)

As with many other countries in Europe, Poland is dominated by a singular national culture, but historically various smaller regions had their own customs that even today help maintain a provincial identity. Wroclaw, for instance, is the traditional capital of Silesia (Śląsk), and a traditional Silesian table will differ slightly from the table you’d find on Christmas Eve in Warsaw. The most common variation you see in southwestern Poland is the addition of moczka and makowka to the dishes served.

Moczka is a sort of gingerbread sauce mixture that is eaten as a stand-alone. The Germans that used to live in the area used to describe it as a Polonian sauce, and it once resembled a dark beer soaked vegetable soup with fruit. In modern times, with the use of compote instead of beer, the result is a sweeter paste. Makowka, on the other hand, is a poppy seed dish that incorporates slices of bread or challah in the center, and a decorative nut topping as a cover to it all. (Search Google to find recipes for both.)

There are other stipulations that govern the Christmas Eve meal, including the breaking of a communion wafer (or opłatek), where each person is given a piece, which is then again broken up to exchange with other members at the table, and the leaving of an empty place for the stranger that might come to the door unexpectedly (usually, this doesn’t actually happen and the place is simply left vacant).

Because Poland is a Catholic country, going out to celebrate midnight mass is likewise a tradition, but with a slight local variation. Called Pasterka, or “Shepherd’s Mass,” the mass isn’t actually celebrated at midnight, but rather is given at various nights on Christmas Eve. The earliest, for families with children, is often held around 8 p.m., with later masses being held at times set by the individual churches for their adult parishioners. Although Pope Benedict XVI shifted the Vatican’s celebration back to 10 p.m. in 2009, rather than continuing to celebrate mass at midnight, many Polish churches still hold their last Pasterka at midnight.

As to the actual Christmas day, modern celebrations are not much different from that which you’d see in other Catholic countries. Presents are exchanged on Christmas morning, with the kids waking everyone up to get the gift-opening started. These are usually left under a Christmas tree that doesn’t differ much from the type you’d see in other countries that celebrate the holiday.

This sort of speaks to the nature of traditions, in that they do slowly evolve. Just as the world has changed from the year 1623, our world in years to come will likely also drift in a new, currently unrecognizable direction at some point. For instance, with a number of Poles returning from places like Britain, the holiday traditions that are celebrated in those other countries will tend to find their way back to the homeland. Indeed, with the number of Polish nationals who have returned in anticipation of the separation of the United Kingdom from the EU’s free movement regime, it would not be too surprising to see the distribution of festive Christmas crackers (specially wrapped cardboard tubes that pop when you pull them open) emerge as a Polish tradition in the coming years.

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