Tradition with a pinch of the modern, or Christmas the Polish way

Friday, 10 February, 2023 Food From Poland 40/2023
Christmas is a special time of the year, and, depending on the region, many interesting traditions, and obviously Christmas dishes, can be encountered in Poland.
The symbolic first star heralds the moment to take our seats at the Christmas Eve table. On this table, twelve traditional dishes are served – in different versions – in all Polish homes. Hay beneath the tablecloth, the Christmas wafer, an extra plate, carols sang together – these are some of the rituals cultivated virtually across Poland. Depending on the region of our country, other customs are present as well; many of them are still cultivated, while others are slowly fading away.

There are also new recipes, or old ones spiced up with “modernness”, adapted to a modern consumer. But during those special days, one thing seems to matter to everyone: the time spent with the family.

For trade, this is usually one of the hottest periods of the year. Store shelves are bending under the manufacturers’ offer tailored to the customer’s needs. Usually, the Polish people go for their biggest holiday shopping about a week before Christmas, so trade has to be well-prepared for that.

12 dishes – across Poland

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dishes differ a little between different regions, but traditional recipes are the common denominator – spiced up with a bit of modernness in some homes. On Christmas Eve, the practice is a meatless menu. Fasting soups, cold and hot fish, dumplings and pasties stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms, dried fruit compote, noodles with poppyseed, poppyseed cake, gingerbread, etc. The following two days of Christmas usually provide an opportunity to savour Polish meat specialties. Roasted hams, pork loins, sausages, pâtés all guarantee a veritable feast for meat gourmets. Vegetarians will surely not be devoid of delicacies either – such as vegetable salad, herrings, or vegetable pasties.

Apples, poppyseed, and peas with cabbage, are the basic ingredients of a Christmas Eve dinner in the Kujawy region. Interestingly, prune soup, millet grain and traditional cabbage with mushrooms used to be prepared there.

In Kashubian homes, traditional foods include fish soup, fried mushrooms, and rice with blackberries. Christmas dishes in this region of Poland have been based on such ingredients as dried fruit, mushrooms, cabbage, potatoes, fish, beans, or peas.

In Warmia and Masuria, there had been no tradition of Christmas Eve fasting for a long time. Different meats were already eaten on Christmas Eve, including goose, sausages, roast meats. The kind of Christmas dishes was heavily affected by the region’s location and natural riches. People would eat groats prepared in many ways, as well as sundry dishes made of fish caught in the Masurian lakes.

In Central Poland, in the past as well as today these fasting dishes have been present on tables: cabbage with peas, cabbage with mushrooms fried in oil, herring, noodles with poppyseed, fruit soups, mushroom borsht, as well as pierogi (dumplings) with cabbage and mushrooms.

In Podlasie, the Christmas Eve table bore such dishes as fasting borsht with mushrooms, fried fish, different versions of herring, millet groats, buckwheat groats with mushroom sauce, raspberry stalk compote, or noodles with poppyseed.

In Silesia, the foremost Christmas Eve foods include fish head soup, peas with cabbage, dumplings with mushrooms, and dried mushrooms fried in oil. Of course, potato dishes cannot be absent too. Another one is panczkraut, also known as ciapkapusta: potatoes with sauerkraut, well mixed and spiced. Additionally, such sweets as gingerbread hearts, Bytom pebbles, or Legnica baubles are popular in this region of Poland.

In southern Poland, strict fasting has always been in force on Christmas Eve. Formerly, what Highlanders would have on that day included potato-and-flour noodles, kłuta, or overcooked cabbage with potatoes, wholemeal flour cake with quark, as well as boiled fava beans or peas. Sometimes, bread with honey was eaten as well. A Highland Christmas Eve dinner consists of several fasting dishes. The best-known ones include mushroom soup, pickled beetroot borsht with beans, barley or oat flour soup, sauerkraut with peas. Noodles with poppyseed and honey, noodles with plums, or dumplings with cabbage are also a must on the tables.

Certainly, a Christmas Eve favourite of the Podhale highland region is bukty, potato noodles. Another popular item is moskole – a typical dish of the regional Podhale cuisine. These are tray-baked potato pancakes served with broken-up sheep cheese and molten butter. Many Podhale homes serve cabbage and kłóty, or cabbage with potatoes. Highland kołatanka, a dish made of boiled barley groats mixed with sliced swede and honey poured on it, is often present on Christmas Eve tables. The sweetness of the dishes is ensured by honey and prunes. The latter are also added to the fasting kwaśnica sauerkraut soup. An interesting custom from Podhale is to have the Christmas wafer with honey.

Christmas customs – interesting facts

All across Poland, there are a lot of Christmas customs. For instance, in many Pomeranian homes, following an interesting tradition, the hostess must not stand up from the table during the Christmas Eve dinner. The host has to handle everything.

In Podlasie, the belief was that if you get up in the morning on Christmas Eve, you will have no health or fitness problems throughout the upcoming year. And depending on whether the first person to visit the house is a woman or a man, the cow would give birth to a heifer or to a bull.

In Podhale, the Christmas Eve table was often wrapped around with a chain, to keep the livestock in the homestead and to protect the family against death of any members. Interestingly, an important thing that day was… spoons. None of them could fall from the table, as this might portend death, just like when there were fewer spoons on the table than the number of feasters. In turn, if there were more of them, that could herald the birth of a child.

In Upper Silesia, presents are brought by Baby Jesus; in every house, one should remember to leave a window ajar so that Baby Jesus could get inside and leave the gifts. Preparation of Advent wreaths is very important to the Silesians. The wreaths have four candles, lit on each Advent Sunday.

In the Lublin region, garlic and honey were put next to the wafer, which was to ensure good health for the whole family. Interestingly, the number of dishes on the Christmas table differed from the other parts of Poland: there were seven, nine, or thirteen of them.

The unique Christmas atmosphere becomes infectious long before the first star shines in the sky. In many regions, holiday preparations start much earlier.

Christmas is one of the most anticipated holidays during the year. Preparations are in full swing in every home. The last shopping and… we can start cooking or baking together. And although there is a list of traditional Christmas dishes, every family has its own favourite recipes, secret ingredients, or peculiar culinary customs that it practices and passes down to the next generations: some of them completely traditional, others spiced up with a bit of modernness. However you like it.

Monika Górka,
Deputy Editor-in-Chief

Photo: AdobeStock

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