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The Map of Christmas Customs

Friday, 04 February, 2022 Food From Poland 38/2022
All across Poland, Christmas practices differ between regions. Many holiday customs have already been forgotten, but those still cultivated in different parts of Poland emphasize the uniqueness of the given region. How had it been before, how is it now? Join us on a beautiful Christmas trip around Poland.
Christmas Eve, decoration of the Christmas tree, sharing the wafer, or singing of carols – these are customs practiced in most Polish homes. Sometimes, Christmas customs vary in minor nuances. Every part of Poland has some interesting traditions that, in spite of the fading of regional differences, keep being cultivated to a lesser or greater extent. In most regions, the Christian tradition intertwines with folk beliefs. And this is the most interesting thing! We present selected customs from different regions of Poland.

6.jpgKuyavian customs

Let us start from the region of Kuyavia, where the ritual Christmas period used to last from Christmas Eve on 24 December to Candlemas on 2 February. The church customs mingled with superstitions or divinations going back to pre-Christian times. For instance, the tradition dictated an odd number of dishes on the holiday table – there was supposed to be 5, 7, or 9 of them. It was only the Christian customs that started suggesting 12 dishes, referencing the number of the apostles.

Apples, poppyseed, as well as peas with cabbage – those were the essential components of a Christmas Eve supper in this region. Interestingly, the local dishes included dried plum soup, millet groats, and traditional cabbage with mushrooms. Out of each Christmas Eve dish, a token portion was put aside into a clay bowl, for the cattle. Of course, these animals were expected to speak. Why cattle? Cows were deemed special animals, due to their presence during the birth of Jesus Christ.

On the second day of Christmas, while going to the church, the host would girdle himself with a wisp of straw. Coming back from Mass, he would sprinkle this straw onto trees in his orchard, to prevent the fruit from being wormy. Interestingly, people gathered at the Mass were thrown on peas or grain.

Another important thing for the Kuyavians was the week day on which Christmas fell. For instance, if it fell on Sunday, it was a good omen, meaning a sunny and bright year. Another good prediction was Christmas on Thursday, bringing a good year for wheat. On the other hand, bad omens were Wednesday – auguring for a wormy year – and Friday, portending a foggy and gloomy one.

1.jpgIn Kashubia, it was like this…

The tradition of decorating the Christmas tree only appeared in early 20th century. Before that, a rye sheaf used to be hanged at home, to ensure plentiful harvest and well-being. The relic of this custom is hay put under the Christmas tablecloth in many homes today. A similar custom is present in other regions of Poland. When the Christmas tree appeared, it used to be decorated with apples and self-made cookies in Kashubian homes. It could not have been adorned sooner than on Christmas Eve. During the holiday period, a certain gentleman also appears, particularly awaited by the youngest feasters. Who is this? As we can read in a Kashubian newspaper, it was Starman (Gwiazdor): “Dressed in an inside-out sheepskin, girdled with a straw twine. He has a cap (myca) on his head, galoshes (skorznie) on his feet, and carries a whipping cane (korbacz), but also a basket with dainties for good children. On his face is a lambskin mask, known as larwa. In the parts of Poland that used to be under the Prussian partition, instead of Santa Claus, we will meet Starman”.

What appears on the dinner tables in Kashubian homes? Traditional dishes include: fish soup, fried mushrooms, and rice with blueberries. Christmas food in this region of Poland has always been based on such ingredients as dried fruit, mushrooms, cabbage, potatoes, fish, beans, peas. Leftovers from the Christmas supper are fed to the livestock which may speak in the night; the animals are also sprinkled with holy water.

An important part of the holidays is carolling (kolęda), actually performed by a party of carol-singers wandering from one house to another. Among them, one can find a merry devil, a musician, Death and a Gypsy. After supper, the host goes to the orchard to knock on trees with an axe. This is supposed to ensure abundant harvest next year.

7.jpgWarmia and Masuria in their holiday garb

Christmas customs differed between Warmia and Masuria. This is because Warmia has traditionally been a Catholic region, while Masuria was Lutheran.

Once upon a time… This is how many stories begin, not necessarily fairy tales. Thus, in times of old, there was no Christmas Eve fasting. Meat dishes reigned on the tables. There were no Christmas trees in houses either, but people would put up sheaves of hay or hang a green jeglijka branch. Today, the inhabitants of Warmia and Masuria decorate green trees, just like people all across Poland. A beautiful custom, still cultivated in some places, is to sprinkle sand on the floor and bench. This is supposed to reveal the footprints of the deceased who descend to earth on the Christmas night1.

A tradition cultivated in many homes is drawing straws from under the tablecloth; this is connected with certain superstitions. Namely, a person who draws a straight straw is supposed to live a safe life. A curved straw means a life full of turns and pitfalls. An interesting fact is that children in Warmia and Masuria used to receive gifts, just like they do today, yet in Masuria, they were given by Nikolus, and in Warmia, by Szemel.

For a long time, there was no tradition of Christmas Eve fasting in Warmia and Masuria. Different meat dishes were eaten on Christmas Eve. Geese, sausages or roasts would appear. The kind of Christmas Eve food was also largely affected by the location of the region and its natural richness. Many dishes were inspired by the Russian or Lithuanian cuisine. People would eat groats prepared in many ways, as well as different dishes made of fish caught in the Masurian Lakes.

9.jpgIn the very heart of Poland...

In the old days, just like today, holiday preparations were focused on the preparation of Christmas Eve food. Rooms would be filled with the scent of dried plums, nuts, apples. Christmas trees were decorated with ornaments made of straw and crepe paper, nuts, apples, or self-made gingerbread. Before Christmas trees reached Poland, in Masovia, just like in other regions of Poland, people would place sheaves of unthreshed grain in room corners, decorated by światy, or decorations of different shapes, made of Christmas wafers. In Central Poland, following a very old tradition, hunts used to be held by noble manors on Christmas Eve. If hunters were lucky, it meant the entire coming year would be equally successful. Fishing took place as well; carps for the Christmas table used to be caught on 24 December. In Masovia, we encounter all kinds of carol-singing groups: those wandering with a Nativity scene, carollers carrying a star, or even “Herods” – acting out scenes referencing the events in Bethlehem and the story of King Herod.

Traditionally, just like today, diner tables were filled with fasting dishes: cabbage with peas, cabbage with mushrooms in oil, herrings, noodles with poppyseed, fruit soups, mushroom borsht, as well as dumplings with cabbage and mushrooms.

As late as the 1950s, many (especially children) would impatiently await shortcrust cookies with an addition of soda (known as sodziaki) or yeast cakes which were the easiest to prepare. Typical of a Christmas Eve supper were poppyseed cakes, usually baked on a yeast base. For the sake of embellishment, such cakes were decorated with dough stripes arranged in a diamond shape. An important role was played by honey, used to sweeten poppyseed and other food. Children were also bought sweets and gingerbread2.


12.jpgPodlasie and its customs

Podlasie is a gorgeous region of the country, characterized by its unusual richness of nature. An important local custom is preparation of dishes out of all kinds of produce, which is supposed to ensure good harvest in the upcoming year. Such food as kutia sweet grain dish, borsht with mushrooms, buckwheat groats, or oat kissel appear on tables. All household members have to taste every dish. Hay is placed under the tablecloth, along with slips of paper with humorous wishes, used to predict one’s future3.

Christmas Eve has to be a fasting day. Therefore, people in Podlasie prepare yeast fritters with no milk or eggs. They are quite popular in Podlasie and often served as early as the morning, as a fasting breakfast. Easy-to-make sweet yeast fritters, are usually fried in linseed oil. A very popular Christmas Eve dish in Podlasie was oat kissel, unknown in other regions of Poland. It used to be made of dried oat grain, and later, of more readily available oatmeal or oat flour. An addition of honey or cranberries complements it perfectly.

Christmas dining tables in this region also feature such dishes as: fasting borsht with mushrooms, fried fish, herrings in different forms, millet groats, buckwheat groats with mushroom sauce, boiled raspberry stalk drink (kompot), or noodles with poppyseed, poured with linseed oil. Influences from the Eastern Borderlands are certainly abound here, as a considerable number of dishes are of Ukrainian or Belarusian origin4.

The order of sitting down at the table is important as well: starting from the eldest, followed by the younger ones – since the locals believe that the family members will die in the same order. In some areas of Podlasie, a beautiful custom has been preserved, connected with putting the supper leftovers near the oven and sprinkling the bench with sand or ash. The food was intended for the deceased ancestors. In the morning, from the marks in the sand, the family members would guess who, and if someone at all, had come during the night.

11.jpgIn the Silesian mood

It is common knowledge in Upper Silesia that the presents are brought… neither by Santa nor by Starman but by Christ Child. In the region of Cieszyn Silesia, the gift-bringer is Little Angel, more associated with the Lutheran Church. Of course, one should remember to set a window ajar for him.

Certain symbols intended to ensure well-being are important here as well. In many Silesian homes, even before Christmas Eve, people remember to put several scales aside when gutting a carp, to put them into their wallets. One can also put money under their plate during the Christmas supper.

The most prominent Silesian Christmas dishes include fish head soup, peas with cabbage, dumplings with mushrooms, as well as dried mushrooms fried in oil. Potato dishes are obviously indispensable. Panczkraut, also known as ciapkapusta, is served too: it is made of potatoes with sour cabbage, well mixed and spiced.

Popular confectionery in this region of Poland includes gingerbread hearts, Bytom gingerbread (bytomskie kamyki) or Legnica baubles (legnickie bombki).

Makówki poppyseed dessert is only prepared during the Christmas period. The recipe varies depending on the family traditions and region of residence, but poppyseed is always the basis. Besides, they include bread, milk or water, honey or sugar, and dried fruit.

In Lower Silesia, on the other hand, poppyseed-based dishes are accompanied, among other things, by dumplings with buckwheat groats or świszcz – buckwheat groats mixed with dried plums. The tradition has it that every unmarried woman should walk outside at midnight on Christmas Eve and listen from which direction a dog would bark. This will be where the future fiancé would come from.

10.jpgThe Cracow way

Old Christmas traditions include making of beautiful Cracow nativity scenes. The most popular is the one displayed outside the Franciscans’ Church. Nativity plays, carol concerts and different competitions take place here on each of the three Christmas days.

The roots of the traditional Cracow cuisine go back to the period of the Galician Autonomy, also reflected during Christmas Eve. Galicia was inhabited by as many as 14 different nationalities, which has influenced not just the customs and the carols sang, but the cuisine as well. Although a traditional Christmas Eve soup in many regions of Poland is borsht with mushroom-stuffed noodles (barszcz z uszkami), people in Lesser Poland prefer dried mushroom soup, sour rye soup (żurek) on mushroom broth, or almond soup. Other must-eats include Zator carp in aspic, łazanki pasta with cabbage, as well as traditional poppyseed cake and Viennese cheesecake. From the sweet foods, Cracow layer cake deserves special distinction. It is made of yeast dough divided into 4 equal parts separated with nut cream and jam. Anyone who has visited Cracow in the Christmas period just once surely could not resist this unique delicacy5.

There are many disputes concerning who brings the presents. Depending on the family tradition, in Lesser Poland, we get them from St. Nicholas a.k.a. Santa, the Little Angel, the Little Star, or Christ Child.


3.jpgHighland traditions

In older times, the holiday table in the Carpathian region of Podhale used to be belted with a chain – this was to guarantee that no members would leave the family and the livestock would stick to the household. An axe, portending peace in the family, together with a ploughshare, would be placed under the table. During the supper, each family member would hold their bare feet on the ploughshare in order to stay healthy.

The Highlanders believe that deceased ancestors visit us on Christmas Eve, just like in other regions of Poland, but remember – in Podhale, you must not use any sharp tools on this day, in order not to hurt a wandering spirit. During the supper, you should carefully watch your spoon – if it falls, it is said to portend death in the family.

A beautiful Christmas custom, which is unfortunately fading into obscurity, is bachelors’ visits to their sweethearts’ homes. When entering the house, the bachelors would throw grain or fava beans around and extend their wishes.

Christmas Eve was a day of strict fasting. Formerly, the Highlanders would have modest and staple meals on that day: potato and flour noodles; kłuta, or overboiled cabbage with potatoes; wholemeal flour cake with curd; and finally, boiled fava beans or peas. Sometimes, bread with honey would be eaten. A Christmas wafer would be put on the table in the heel of a loaf of bread.

A well-known Christmas specialty of Podhale is bukty, or potato dumplings. Moskole are popular as well, a typical dish of the regional cuisine. These are potato pancakes roasted on a tray, served with crumbled sheep cheese and molten butter. Many Highland homes serve cabbage and kłóty, or cabbage with potatoes.

Each region of Poland has something really unique to boast. Differences can be seen, above all, in Christmas dishes, but also in the way of celebrating, superstitions, or customs present in every family. In our country, the Christmas symbolism combines elements of folk beliefs and Christianity.

Monika Górka, Managing Editor

1 source: „Zwyczaje świąteczne w różnych regionach Polski”, nocowanie.pl, https://www.nocowanie.pl/zwyczaje-swiateczne-w-roznych-regionach-polski.html
2 source: http://www.mazowieckiszlaktradycji.com/artykuly/o-potrawach-wigilijnych-na-mazowszu/?K=Kulinaria
3 source: https://www.nocowanie.pl/zwyczaje-swiateczne-w-roznych-regionach-polski.html
4 source: https://www.zajadam.pl/boze-narodzenie/wigilijne-smaki-podlasia
5 source: https://grandascot.pl/blog/krakow-poznaj-5-tradycji-ze-stolicy-malopolski/

tagi: The Map of Christmas Customs ,