The countdown to Christmas has officially begun, and with that in mind Language Insight is proud to kick off its Christmas Around the World series. First up: Poland.

Christmas Eve

The start of Christmas in Poland is marked in style the night before with Wigilia. Families will spend days preparing for this special meal, which they sit down to eat as soon as the Gwiazdka is spotted in the sky. This is the First Star, or Star of Bethlehem, and children will eagerly keep an eye on the eastern skies waiting for it to appear.

Before tucking into the main meal, Polish families and friends will break an Oplatek to share. This is a thin wafer and the breaking of it represents good health and fortune for the year ahead. Once this is done, it’s time to dig in – but you won’t find any turkey at this spread. Instead, the meal is meatless in keeping with the Christian tradition of fasting during Advent.

A popular dish to feature in the Wigilia meal is fried carp, while beetroot soup with ravioli, pickled herrings, boiled potatoes and sauerkraut are also served. Traditions observed at the dinner include layering hay under the tablecloth or in each corner of the room to represent the manger and stable Jesus was born in. One chair is left empty for the “Unexpected Guest” to come and join the family. This could be a friend or relative, or it may represent a loved one who has passed away. Alternatively, it is left free as a place to welcome Jesus.

Once the food is finished, Polish carols are sung and this is probably the most exciting moment for children, as they gather around the tree to open their gifts. On the streets outside there is also plenty of festive cheer thanks to the carollers who make their way to the centre of the village to perform. The day ends with everyone heading to church to attend midnight mass.

Who is the Polish Santa?

Unlike in many other western cultures to celebrate Christmas, Polish people receive their gifts on Christmas Eve. Saint Nicholas is the Polish equivalent of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th, as on this day Sw Mikolaj visited villages dressed in red robes and with a remarkable beard to hand out gifts to all the children who had been good.

Saint Nicholas is not the only giver of gifts at Christmas time in Poland, though. Indeed, many children believe the person responsible for leaving presents under their tree is Gwiazdka – the Little Star herself!

Christmas Day

One favourite Christmas Day custom is that of the Festival of Stars. In the weeks approaching Christmas, Szopkas are built to be displayed at this festival. These are miniature Nativity scenes set against the backdrop of historical Polish buildings.

In addition to parading these remarkable sculptures on Christmas Day, townsfolk may also dress up as shepherds and wise men to perform the Nativity. The festival typically lasts until Three Kings Day, but it is known to stretch until early February.

Christmas Day in Poland was traditionally a time of prayer, but of course, there’s plenty of feasting to be done too. After visiting one another, families will sit down to an impressive spread of ham, duck, goose and stew. Sometimes this food is prepared in advance and simply heated up on Christmas Day, due to the belief no work should be done on this special holiday – something we’re certainly in favour of!

If you’re Polish, why not share some of your own Christmas customs below?

Get your Polish translations covered this Christmas by Language Insight.