Cultural Musings, Poland

5 Things about Christmas in Poland that take some getting used to

As you know, I’ve lived in Poland for 5 years. However, I’ve only experienced 2 real Christmases. It’s really special in Poland because of the traditional dishes and sometimes there’s actually snow, which is a treat. I think it’s only snowed on Christmas once maybe since I’ve lived here? So it doesn’t seem too common. But considering the fact that we can usually wear shorts on Christmas in Florida, it’s kind of a change. I have to say though, I think I need another few Christmases to get used to some traditions here.

Funky foods – I love my Polish family but they eat some strange food on Christmas Eve. I’m not a picky-eater but I think I’m just unlucky because there’s some things which are used a lot at Christmas that I don’t really enjoy. Mouth full of poppy seeds? No thanks.

As far as soups on Christmas go, there are a lot of good options – beetroot soup, mushroom soup, fish soup. Gimme. But for some reason we eat siemieniotka, a soup made from hemp seeds. And, no, it doesn’t make you high (might be more motivation to eat it). Each year I eat it but only the smallest spoonful which is required of me. Never had it? It’s sweet and it has buckwheat in it.

Next are the desserts – moczka? Can’t I get some cake instead? I’m pretty sure moczka is a Silesian dish so for sure not everyone in Poland eats it. Anyway, moczka is a mix of gingerbread, compote (so like juice made from fruit, water, and sugar. There’s no good translation.) nuts, dried fruit, dark beer, honey. It’s the consistency of a thick soup. You could also eat makówki, a dessert made from poppy seeds, nuts, raisins, honey, milk, and bread. Not a fan of those but everyone else freaking loves them. It’s like their favorite part of Christmas. (edit: I just remembered about susz, compote with smoked fruit. why smoked!! normal compote is so yummy).

Don’t get me wrong, aside from those things, everything is delicious. Especially on Christmas Day!

Gifts from Santa and baby Jesus – In Poland, you receive little gifts like what we receive in stockings (those big socks) on December 6 – Santa Claus day. And on Christmas Eve, you get your present from none other than baby Jesus (at least in Silesia). I’ve heard though that in Poznań it’s actually Grandfather Frost (Dziadek Mróz) who brings them. What’s it like in other parts of Poland?

Giving wishes – Poles love wishing each other happiness, health, money and all that kind of stuff. Not only on Christmas but also birthdays as well. For me, giving formal wishes is extremely intimate. You get all close up in someone’s face, break off a piece of their wafer (opłatek, like what you eat for communion), look them in the eyes and tell them something nice. Maybe I’m just an introverted freak and that’s why this makes me uncomfortable but I never know what to say so I just say the same thing to everyone.

Decorating the tree on Christmas Eve – In our house, we have to make a compromise each year. The Christmas tree usually goes up somewhere between when Americans would put them up (first week of December) and when Poles would (Christmas Eve). December 15 or so is a good middle ground. I think a lot of Poles keep the tree up until the middle of January. I’m so sick of Christmas stuff after the fact that it has to be taken down right after New Year’s.

Killing the Christmas carp. This is actually kind of a badass part of Christmas. A lot of people I know have horror stories from their childhood of seeing their dads kill the carp with a hammer after it swam around in their bathtub for a few days. Polish dads are the real deal. I guess it’s fresher that way but why not just buy it the day before and be able to use your bathtub?

I was trying to think of some weird traditions in America, but honestly, America is so mixed up in terms of traditions, it really just depends on the family. I have some friends who roast entire pigs on Christmas or decorate giant gingerbread houses. Most people get drunk off eggnog at company parties, which is similar to ajerkoniak. Mmm speaking of eggnog, that’s one of the things about Christmas in America that I miss. You can buy eggnog at any supermarket. Delish, but it’s so thick and creamy you can only drink one glass.

When I was a kid, a lot of our Christmases were spent at a hotel about 30 minutes from our house, which we loved going to and spending Christmas at. So we often had non-traditional Christmases and therefore we don’t really have any special Christmas dishes because we didn’t eat dinner at home. Anyway, it’s nice to make your own traditions. We also spent many Christmas Eves at church singing carols and lighting candles. It was a nice atmosphere, even if there’s no snow 🙂

So those of you who live in different parts of Poland, or those of you with other traditions, could you let us know what you do on Christmas? The weirder, the better!

Like I said in the video, Wesołych Świąt, Merry Christmas, Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku and Happy New Year! kisses!

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  • Reply hollydolly 20 December 2015 at 21:49

    – poppy seeds are not that bad, especially considering that makowiec is quite tasty
    – siemienotka, moczka (piernik z moczem, hahahahaha), makówki — seems to be unique to Silesia
    – Santa’s names:
    św. Mikołaj (Saint Nicholas) — general term, is (or should be) understood by anyone
    Gwiazdor — Greater Poland, Kujawy, Kaszuby, perhaps some other region with strong German influence
    Aniołek — Lesser Poland (I’m not 100% sure about this)
    Dziadek Mróz — a calque from Russian дед мороз, I think only used by Belarussian/Ukrainian minorities (or maybe in regions with strong presence of them)
    – I think that the tree should stay until 6th January (or it may be just an excuse to not to dismantle it), and I also think that a lot of families actually get rid of it sometime in the middle of January, when all the needles already fell off the tree
    – Buying a carp in advance may have been (and often was) impossible in the 80s

    • Reply Leah Southers 20 December 2015 at 21:59

      Holly – exactly it’s Gwiazdor! Hah thank you for posting those names. That’s exactly what I wanted to know about! the carp thing makes sense. I should’ve known that. About the January 6th thing – I’ve heard that from other people. That’s it’s tradition to keep it until Three Kings’ Day.

      Also, I will probably never like poppy seeds. It’s one of those things, like olives, that I can’t make myself enjoy but will eat if I must 🙂 Thanks for your interesting comment!

    • Reply Anna 21 December 2015 at 22:15

      Welp, in Małopolska, where I live, we have Star (Gwiazdka, not even Gwiazdor) and Angel (Aniołek). No one uses term Dziadek Mróz here. Also we have św. Mikołaj for 6th December. At least in my family, we are giving each other presents on both days.
      Plus, I’m native but I never heard of moczka and makówki, to be honest with you. That’s probably because you live in Silesia.

  • Reply Ewa 20 December 2015 at 22:02

    In my house it’s an Angel (Aniołek) who brings presents. 🙂 Also, I heard that in some parts of Poland there is also a star (gwizadka).

    • Reply Leah Southers 20 December 2015 at 22:04

      Hey Ewa! Is that so? I thought that in Śląsk it was always baby Jesus 😉 good to know!

  • Reply Julia 20 December 2015 at 22:09

    Some people, mostly catholics, keep the Christmas tree untill priest will come to their house for kolęda and then they get rid of it. In my region it’s very common.

    • Reply Leah Southers 20 December 2015 at 22:13

      Julia – Of course! how could I have forgotten that. I should have written about that.

  • Reply Weronika 20 December 2015 at 22:24

    I’m from the centre of Poland- Łódź. We don’t really have any weird traditions. Santa brings presents, we eat more-less 12 dishes, our cats don’t speak human on Christmas Eve, just a normal celebration 😉 Though on December 6 Santa brings presents but we (he ;)) put them in the receivers’ shoes at night.

    PS Good Polish skills! Give me some advice on how to motivate my American fiance to learn the language 😉 He’s lived here for 4 years (on and off) and his Polish is… not good. Btw he also says the same thing to everyone in my family while sharing an opłatek 😉

    • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 07:07

      Hey Weronika — Santa puts gifts in your shoes? that is so adorable. I gotta steal that tradition 🙂

      About your fiance, well the question is… does your family speak English? Mine doesn’t so it was the best motivation for me to start learning because I wanted to communicate with them. Before that I also didn’t speak because I just didn’t feel the push. I think the problem has 2 parts: a lot of people speak English and Polish is so daunting that it’s hard to get started. My recommendation is to find him a teacher he likes and to convince him to take lessons. It improves your quality of life so so much when you can communicate outside the house. Also, he’d probably like to understand his future children when they’re speaking! just a thought 🙂

      Good luck to you both!

      • Reply Hanna 29 June 2016 at 23:17

        I remember the gifts-in-shoes tradition, the 5th of December was the only day when children went crazy about cleaning their shoes! “But what if Santa decides that they are not clean enough and will not leave gifts?!” Mom was clever ? BTW I live in Gdańsk, and I think it’s very common tradition in Pomerania. (sorry for mistakes!)

  • Reply Grzesiek 20 December 2015 at 22:50

    My mum always says that Christmas Tree should be kept until the Christian holiday of Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which falls on 2 February and it’s in fact one of the most popular dates to do so. So we have Christmas atmosphere in home for a loooong time 😉

    It’s funny to read here about some dishes I’ve never heard about – it’s amazing how diverse they are in different parts of Poland and the same is with the one who brings presents. In my house on Christmas Eve there was no Santa, Baby Jesus, nor a Star, but it was clearly said that we just give presents to each other – even when we were little kids. I think it still quite nicely fits into warm family atmosphere of Christmas, but honestly, I’ve never met anyone who had it the same way :).

    • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 07:08

      Grzesiek – all the way to February? yikes. the tree probably has no needles by then! 🙂 I like the tradition in your house that you just give each other gifts because let’s be honest here, that’s what it is. you were lucky to grow up in such a liberal house!

  • Reply Marta 20 December 2015 at 23:54

    I actually had to google the names of the dishes you’re writing about and I’m Polish. xD My boyfriend comes from Silesia (Sosnowiec) and even his family doesn’t eat siemieniotka on Christmas Eve. I guess it’s very different for every region.
    I’m from eastern Poland (Lublin) and our gifts are brought by Gwiazdka (word for word: Little Star). As for the Christmas tree: when me and my sister were younger we wanted to have it as early as possible (one time it was so early, that it has lost half of it’s needles before Xmas), usually in the beginning of December. Now, when we study far from home, my mom buys it few days before C. Eve and waits for us to decorate it. 🙂
    What we eat: beetroot soup, pierogi with sauerkraut and mushrooms, carp, all kinds of herrings (my favourite are the ones with pineapple, onion and sour cream), kompot (which I hate), cheesecake and poppy seed cake. And don’t be mad at the recipes, most of them come from the PRL, when it was hard to buy any food, so the housewives had to cook with ingredients that were cheap and available: poppy seeds, sauerkraut, mushrooms, pea, flour. The main reason we eat carp on Christmas, instead of other fish, is that it’s easy to grow and reproduces quickly. However, the times are changing and I hope that in a few years we’ll switch to something that doesn’t smell like mud. 😉

    Merry Xmas!

    P.S. You are so cute in that movie! <3

    • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 07:12

      Marta – thank you for your very informative comment. I don’t think many people eat siemieniotka these days because well no one young really likes it. Even when I ask people here they don’t know what it is. And in Silesian it has another name – konopiotka – so that’s also important. Luckily I got good news this year that we will also have mushroom soup. Hooray!

      ok I was wondering about carp and why we all eat that fish but now it makes sense. i’m a little surprised though that these traditions aren’t a bit older than PRL times?

      • Reply hollydolly 21 December 2015 at 19:10

        Carp is easy to breed, so PRL promoted it as a Christmas dish and somehow it caught on very well. It may seem surprising indeed.

    • Reply Kas 21 December 2015 at 12:50

      Sosnowiec is not Silesia.

    • Reply WojciechT 22 December 2015 at 19:09

      “My boyfriend comes from Silesia (Sosnowiec) and even his family doesn’t eat siemieniotka on Christmas Eve. I guess it’s very different for every region.”

      That’s probably because Sosnowiec is not part of Silesia 😉 Yes, it’s a part of Silesian Voivodeship, but it’s totally artificial, made without respect for historic borders of regions. Actually Sosnowiec is historic part of Lesser Poland 🙂 And now it has developed into region called Zagłębie Dąbrowskie. Nothing to do with Silesia. Different traditions, different origin, different dialect.

      And makówki and moczka are my favourite parts of Christmas 🙂 And, for example, we don’t eat carp – since late 90’s we always have… Salmon 😀

  • Reply Mateusz 21 December 2015 at 01:24

    I am from świętokrzyskie. My grandma and older aunts told me that when they were young the grandpa gave ‘Opłatek’ to cows and other animals in the cowshed. You can also buy pink or green ‘Opłatek’ for animals. When I was younger and there was more family members there was also more differens dishes like ‘racuchy’ for desser (
    My aunt made great ones. Now we only eat a carp, noodles with poopy seed, cabbage with pea, plum compote and my favourite pierogi z mięsem. I can eat tons of that. There is also a tradition that You should prepare an extra seat for the stranger. And if the stranger come You should invite him for the supper. I think everyone prepares that extra seat but always hope and pray that nobody will come 🙂

    • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 07:14

      Mateusz – opłatki for animals? that might be cuter than gifts in shoes on Mikołajki 🙂

      um excuse me? you got to eat donuts and pierogi on Christmas? How unfair!! But noodles with poppy seeds? That’s a new one.

      • Reply hollydolly 21 December 2015 at 18:17

        Pierogi are one of the most staple Christmas foods (did I commit a lot of language mistakes here?), it’s a bit strange you don’t get them. That’s sad.

        • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 21:37

          it’s strange and sad 🙁 Pierogi are a Christmas staple, I would say 🙂

  • Reply hollydolly 21 December 2015 at 01:41

    Here’s something about putting the tree out (it reminds me of a „mamo, choinka się pali” joke):
    And Christmas is Poland is normally associated with snow, it’s just a few Christmases with high temperatures in a row

    • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 07:16

      yeah someone else also said that they take down the tree around February 2… but yeah by then it’s ready to be burned. probably all dried out!

  • Reply Marcin 21 December 2015 at 03:19

    In Lower Silesia angels/star bring(s) the gifts. According to my grandmas words, the same tradition was in Lviv, before WWII.

    • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 07:15

      Oh I know some other people from Lviv so I have to ask them about it. thanks for the info 🙂

  • Reply Asia 21 December 2015 at 11:21

    One main rule about Christmas Eve: no meat. The Church decided some 10? years ago that the fasting is unnecessary, but most of families still keep the tradition. This explains the fact that there are mostly fish and mushrooms on the table. 😉
    In my family (we live in Kraków, but my family comes from a village near Lublin) we have barszcz with uszka (tiny pierogi with mushrooms, shaped like ears) and/or cheese sticks, cabbage soup with potato puree (DELICIOUS!!!), kompot from dried fruits and maaaany fish dishes (which I don’t care about, ’cause I’m not really fond of fish… just eating cabbage soup all evening :D). Then of course cakes – gingerbread and cheesecake, and a lot of gingerbread cookies (this year I’m preparing at least three types).
    Santa Claus comes to us on 6th December, and on Christmas Eve we give gifts to each other, but not openly – before we start eating we put them all under the Tree and then (usually after wishes and soups) one person distributes them.
    About the tree: we have a plastic one. No needles, no problems. 😉 But I like to have a small living one in my room, but in a pot – every year I try to grow it, but it usually dies in February – the seller cuts its root and places the tree in a pot instead of growing it in a pot from the beginning… but I still hope I’ll find an honest seller one day… The trees are decorated not earlier than 2-3 days before Christmas Eve and they stay like that until 2nd February.
    Nowadays my dad buys a dead carp (or maybe kills it in home, but without the bathtub stage), but when I was little a carp in bathtub was nothing unusual. 😉 Once I’ve thought that the carp is dirty… so I put in bathtub some shampoo. 😛 From that time I wasn’t allowed near bathtub when the carp was there…
    Don’t your family sing carols together? In my family it’s quite an important tradition, even if we only sing 3-4 carols.
    Merry Christmas! 🙂

    • Reply Leah Southers 22 December 2015 at 18:34

      Asia – what are these cheese sticks you speak of? oh yes we also have the dried fruit compote… another thing i’m not a huge fan of.

      We also bought a potted tree and hope to replant it! Does it always die? That’s disappointing. I was hoping it would work :/ ohh because the roots are cut. Well that’s really too bad. We’ll see what happens with mine this year.

      I love that you tried to clean the carp. Shampoo flavoured carp 🙂 yummy. Do we sing carols together? Not at all. That’s pretty cute that your family does. We might plan some Christmas songs in the background but that’s about it. We often went to church on Christmas Eve to sing carols at church which was really nice.

      Merry Christmas to you too!

  • Reply Emilia 21 December 2015 at 12:11

    I’m Silesian and in my house we eat siemieniotka, moczka and makówki, and these are the best dishes on Christmas Eve! For me there will be no Christmas without them. Also in my family “Dzieciątko” (baby Jesus) brings presents on Christmas Eve. 😉

    • Reply Leah Southers 21 December 2015 at 12:34

      a true Silesian 🙂

  • Reply StruśBabeczka 22 December 2015 at 18:42

    In Dolny Śląsk traditions in houses are really diffrent. It’s a mix of traditions from Ukraine, Belarus, some from Małopolska, because Dolny Śląsk before II World War was in Germany and Poland had a part of Ukraine and Belarus territory (and some more countries but I don’t remember exactly which one). After II world war we got this borderline which we have nowadays, and people moved to Dolny Śląsk and Wielkopolska (which was in Germany earlier), so in Wielkopolska presents brings Dziadek Mróz what is popular in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. But in my house presents brings Gwiazdka. But at my grandparents, who live in Podlasie, presents brings Dziadek Mróz and, it’s important, Śnieżynka, a doughter of Dziadek Mróz, takes from under Christmas tree presents and gives it to others. Śnieżynka is always the youngest family member who can walking. And children who’s going to get a present, sit on grandpa knees and grandpa ask them: Were you polite last year? or Do you earn for present? (it’s just a tradition, every child get present, even when was impolite). And after that child have to sing a carol or tell short rhyme. It isn’t necessary. And then get a present. It’s just a fun and tradition, every child like it.
    In my grandparents there is a lot of fishes make in different way, for exmple fish in jelly (not sweet jelly, but made from rosół). They have instead barszcz z uszkami mushrooms soup. And there you can eat what you want.
    In my house we have too, “gołąbki”, it’s usually rice and meat in cabbage and we bake it, but at this day we mustn’t eat meat so we make it with kasha and mushrooms (or my aunt make it with potatos inside). There is a kasza ze śliwkami, it’s just kasha with plumps (I don’t like it) and groch z kapustą, so it’s a soup made from sauerkraut and peas (I don’t like it too). At my cousine they make kutia (honey, nuts, raisins, poppy seeds, wheat seeds and a lot more, and it’s really, really sweet), but in our family we don’t like it.
    In my house we have to eat by order: barszcz z uszkami, groch z kapustą, gołąbki, pierogi z kapustą i grzybami, karp, grzyby w śmietanie (mushrooms in cream), kasza ze śliwkami. Oh and my dad smokes meat before Christmas 🙂
    I think that’s all. I know tjat my English is perfect xD but I’m still learning at school.

  • Reply Karolina 22 December 2015 at 21:57

    I live in the east of Poland – and I’ve always been visited by Gwiazdka (star) and this is the first time I’ve heard about moczka. I’m not a fan of poppy seeds either (probably becuse they get under my braces).
    My favourite thing about Christmas is the carols! Can you sing any in polish?
    I am suprised by how good your polish is! I thought you might sound like Joanna Krupa :D. Congratulations!

    Merry christmas to you too! xx

  • Reply Sabina 23 December 2015 at 13:09

    Hi, I live in Pomerania, north part of Poland.We don’t eat any moczka. I think is it just in Silesia. For us, Christmas soup is barszcz. But I heard about fruit soup and mushrooms soup. I realy don’t like christmas compot too. We eat on Christmas Eve pierogi, krokiety, piernik(ginger cake?) few kinds of fish for ex. salomon(I love salomon but I don’t like carp), kluski z makiem and łazanki. I’m sorry for my English mistakes 😉

    • Reply Leah Southers 23 December 2015 at 14:22

      Hey Sabina – thanks for your comment. Kluski with poppy seeds… hmm that’s interesting. Never heard of something like that. I have to look it up. but mmm krokiety on Christmas? so lucky!

  • Reply Chris from Kielbasa Stories 23 December 2015 at 20:31

    I like my American personal space as well so at the Company Wigilia, I wished each person “to gain the ability to grow a moustache”. They were laughing so much I avoided the kisses.

    We do a Polish Christmas Eve with an American Christmas morning. I couldn’t give it up especially after having kids. It’s so much better to wake up to the presents, isn’t it?

    Happy holidays!

  • Reply Mike 23 December 2015 at 21:51

    Hi Leah. Love your blog. It’s quite interesting too see your point of view on a country which I took for granted as a kid. With me nowadays being an expat like you — a Pole living in Canada.

    About the Christmas presents giving characters, here’s a heat map showing which parts of country uses which. For the majority of people it would be Santa Claus (Mikołaj), Star Man (Gwiazdor) being the second I think:

  • Reply Inga 29 December 2015 at 22:52

    I’m from Mazovian but I don’t think Radom has a lot of common with Warsaw or so. In my family we eat beetroot soup with uszka and these 12 traditional dishes (I don’t really like them, it is said to try even a little of all but I hate herring), of course carp (my dad became more sympathetic and buys killed fish now), and RACUCHY 🙂 It’s some kind of doughnut with superfine sugar – yummy!
    We keep Christmas trees till 6th of January but – practically – till the priest visits us. This year I have no Christmas tree (only some ministuff) because of my new little cat (but giant destroyer). 😉 It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between regions in Poland because… yes… all seems for us so common that we don’t even realise that it’s strange for friends from the city 100 km away 😉 But it makes this tiny country big and full of colours like a continent 😀

    • Reply Leah Southers 30 December 2015 at 14:51

      Hi Inga – hah cats are the worst when it comes to Christmas trees so better not to have fun 🙂 I was really surprised to hear about the differences in traditions all across Poland. It’s really interesting, especially when you think about who brings the presents in your region. It’s quite cute actually! In America, such a huge country, it’s just Santa and in Poland you like 5 different things!

  • Reply Paulina 30 December 2015 at 01:50

    Woah, this blog is what I was looking for 😀 I have a foreign friend so I could link it to him. It’s also a great opportunity to see how american girl sees our country 😉 and improve my english as well. I’m looking forward for new posts. Greetings from Ruda Śląska (so close!) ✌

  • Reply Paweł 26 January 2016 at 14:00

    I am also pretty introverted, and also blessed with a huge extended family, so I feel you about the wish-giving. I usually run out of uniquely nice things to say halfway through so I just shake hands and kiss and smile, and it seems to work out okay in the end 😉

    • Reply Leah Southers 26 January 2016 at 15:45

      Paweł – hah I’m glad it’s not only me. Actually this year wasn’t that bad for me. I think it’s because I know the people who I exchange wishes with better now. That helps 🙂

  • Reply agnes_adv 24 February 2016 at 20:48

    Why susz? Maybe because there were no fresh fruits availablein Poland in winter when Christmas tradition was born?? Are they all smoked? Not dried?

    • Reply Leah Southers 24 February 2016 at 22:22

      I think only the plums are smoked but still everything might as well be smoked cause it just overpowers, you know? bleh 🙂

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