With December 24th fast approaching, there is much talk of Wigilia (click for pronunciation) and Polish Christmas Eve recipes and traditions. There are many differences between Christmas in Poland and the traditions I know from growing up in the United States.
Let me share those before we get down to a recipe roundup for Wigilia which I think of as The Vigil or the wait. The food is a vital part of the celebration.
I’ll preface this by saying these are generalizations. Every family will do things a little differently, and traditions change with time and new locations. My Polish friends in Poznań wouldn’t dream of having meat on Christmas Eve, even the ones who aren’t religious, but I know of many Polish American families who include meat in their Wigilia menu. I’m not here to suggest that anyone’s traditions are better or more traditional than another’s. In my mind, it’s the shared family memories over the years that make traditions so precious whatever they may be. That being said, here are some of the lovely traditions I observed my Polish friends practicing in Poznań.
- A well attended, pre-dawn rorate mass is celebrated during Advent.
- The Christmas tree is decorated on December 24th and it is most likely a freshly cut or living tree. In the USA, most of my friends have switched to artificial trees and they’re up and decorated on Thanksgiving weekend in November.
- Christmas Eve is spent fasting until the first star of the evening is seen. Fortunately, sundown comes early in Poland in December.
- Opłatek, the Christmas wafer, is the first thing on the menu. These thin, rectangular wafters are embossed with religious scenes and are the same consistency as communion wafers. Before sitting down at the table, everyone present will break off a piece of their wafer and share it with every other individual as they wish them good health and prosperity. This involves a lot of movement around the room, and lots of hugging and kissing. Alternatively, the head of the family may break a wafer and pass it around the table with everyone taking a piece to begin the meal. There is sometimes a pink wafer that is meant to be shared with the household’s animals in honor of the animals present at the birth of Christ. It’s believed that animals can talk on this night, but only the pure of heart can hear them.
- There will be a small amount of hay underneath the tablecloth to remind us that Christ was born in a stable. There will be an extra place setting; one that will remain empty unless an unexpected guest arrives.
- There will be 12 dishes served. I’ve heard it said the number 12 represents the 12 apostles or the 12 months of the year. Everyone is expected to at least taste every dish to ensure good luck during the coming year. No alcohol is served during Wiglia.
- After dinner, gifts are opened. Christmas carols are sung.
- The family attends midnight mass, Pasterka, or the Shephards mass.
- Christmas Day is spent visiting family.
- On Epiphany, January 6th, many homes are marked with the year and K+M+B (for the 3 Wisemen, Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Chalk is used to write above the front door. In 2022, it will look like this: 20 K + M + B 22. For some people, this will also be the day to take down the Christmas tree.
- Others will wait until February 2nd to un-decorate, for Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation the official end of the Christmas season. I’m sad to say that it’s not unusual to see American families taking their trees down on Christmas day or the day after.
Now let’s give some thought to the 12 dishes on the tables. There is some flexibility here, regional differences, etc., but there will be kompot to drink, pierogi of some sort, soup, fish, poppy seeds. Some items may appear in multiple forms. This isn’t an exhaustive list of possibilities, but there are enough recipes to get you started.
Kompot – dried fruit and sugar are simmered to make this fruity Wigilia beverage. Small pieces of fruit may be found in your glass or have the fruit later with yogurt or oatmeal.
Kutia – whole wheat berries, poppy seeds, dried fruits, and nuts. A tasty dish that is both chewy and crunchy. Be sure to start the process two days in advance.
Mushroom Soup – make this using vegetable broth.
Christmas Eve Borscht – start the zakwas for this tart and spicy beet soup several days in advance.
Fish in Old Polish Gray Sauce – it tastes much better than it sounds, a gingerbread spiced sauce makes this dish special.
Pickled Herring – can be made with fresh, frozen, or salted and dried herring. It’s a Polish classic. I’ll admit that my tomato slices are not a Polish Christmas classic, but sometimes I just want some color in a photo.
Greek Style Fish – this fish served with a savory topping of vegetables is my favorite Wigila fish recipe. It can be served hot, cold, or my favorite – at room temperature.
Pierogi ruskie – potato and cheese filling, omit the bacon topping tonight.
Vegetable (potato) salad – the most delicious combination of flavors ever. This recipe makes a lot, but you’ll want leftovers.
Sauerkraut Rye Bread – a reliable favorite made even easier with a food processor.
Buckwheat and Mushroom Cabbage Rolls – a meatless version of this Polish favorite.
Makowiec – poppy seed roll. You won’t want to save this recipe for Christmas Eve. It’s popular all year!
Chruściki (angel wings) – thin crispy bits of dough covered in powdered sugar.
Gingerbread Cookies – a Christmas classic. You can even hang them on your tree.
Gingerbread Cake – a spicey cake made even better with marzipan, jam, and chocolate.
Kolaczki – a rich dough filled with fruit, nut, or poppy seeds. The most popular recipe on my website in the month of December.
Krupnik – a honey-spiced liqueur, a little something for Christmas Day.
Wesołych Świąt, Merry Christmas!
An accountant by trade and a food blogger since 2009, Lois Britton fell in love with Polish cuisine during the years she lived in Poznań, Poland. As the creator of PolishHousewife.com, she loves connecting readers with traditional Polish recipes. Lois has a graduate certificate in Food Writing and Photography from the University of South Florida. She is the author of The Polish Housewife Cookbook, available on Amazon and on her website.