During the holiday season Polish cities become magical in their character. Christmas markets, Christmas illuminations, slides or ice rinks – traditions that significantly enhance on this pleasant season. Stands with traditional food, the opportunity to purchase gifts, Christmas decorations or festive dishes to be served at the Christmas feasts from year to year gain in popularity. Additionally infinite pleasure may be experienced by walking around the streets adorned with festive illuminations or having fun at one of the ice rinks.
The great Christmas illuminations on the streets of Polish cities make holiday more “tasty”
At the beginning of December, just before St. Nicholaus Day (December the 6th) Warszawa (Warsaw), the capital of Poland presented its Christmas look. At the Castle Square Varsovians lighted up together the most beautiful Christmas tree in the whole city, and the whole Royal Route along with surrounding streets sparkled with the colours of Christmas.
Warsaw is one of many Polish cities where the great Christmas illuminations make holiday more “tasty”. Christmas Market in Wroclaw, the largest city in western Poland is one of the most beautiful fairs. During this very special time of the year Wroclaw’s heart starts beating much faster. Wroclaw Market becomes the backdrop for a fairy tale scenery. Amongst the forest fragrant Christmas trees, the aroma of mulled wine and chocolate gingerbread, there are number of attractions waiting for the city residents and tourists. The magic of Christmas enchants everyone.
The Christmas Market in Gdańsk is set up traditionally in December at the Coal Market in the city center. The Coal Market has been filled with dozens of huts and stalls selling goods and Christmas treats – including regional and traditional delicacies. In the large retail mall a wide variety of crafts and products is showcased.
The Christmas Fair in Kraków (Cracow) is a return to the trading traditions of the Market Square. The Fair has been held there for centuries and typically would start in late November and last until the second day of Christmas. Its atmosphere introduces its visitors to the feeling of Christmas and transforms the Main Market Square into more colourful and lively place than usual. The fair is accompanied by other special events that include the Christmas Carollers Parade, a Procession of Polish Forefathers, presentations by local districts and the sharing of blessed Christmas wafers with city dignitaries. Merchants offer a wide range of Christmas merchandise such as hand-painted bubbles, Christmas tree decorations, decorative articles and Christmas attire. Visitors can taste delicious traditional grilled dishes, such as the oscypek, a cheese made of ewe’s milk and served with cranberries, or taste a cup of mulled wine from Galicia.
The world`s biggest cribs collection comes from Kraków
In the second half of the 19th century, the society of bricklayers and builders in Kraków formed a new kind of guild, it was the cribs’ makers guild. They used to create two kinds of cribs: small, without the small theatre, just to put it under the Christmas tree, and the big ones even up to 3 meters high with the show played by puppets to the accompaniment of occasional songs, more like street theatre. WWI stopped the tradition of Christmas plays to be partly reborn after the first competitions for the most beautiful crib had been arranged in 1937, two years before another world war. Unfortunately, although the tradition of Christmas plays could not be recalled, a new one arose – building cribs exclusively for the competition. The Kraków’s Museum of the History which is an organizer of these competitions has collected all cribs since 1945. At the moment there are 177 items which makes the collection the biggest among the official ones. The Kraków’s crib is not only a fantasy about the atmosphere and architecture of the city, but also a very good lesson of the history. A beautiful and thoughtful crib does teach, amuse and move.
Who brings Christmas presents in Poland? That`s how complicated history has affected the customs
Among the special tasks carried out in private homes during Advent which is a time of waiting for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus is the baking of the Christmas piernik (gingerbread), and the making of Christmas decorations. Pierniki (plural of piernik) are made in a variety of shapes, including hearts, animals, Christmas trees and St. Nicholas figures.
St. Nicholas AKA Santa Claus and in Polish called “Święty Mikołaj” (being direct translation of St. Nicholas) does not play a major role on Christmas Day, but instead he is celebrated on his Saint feast day of December the 6th while he is visiting good children in secret and leaves presents for them. And again he returns on the Christmas Eve, secretly or in person. In some parts of Poland there are different present bringers because during the 19th century the borders of Poland were different, so people had different traditions. In the east (Podlasie) there is “Dziadek Mróz” (Ded Moroz – Grandpa Frost), in western and northern Poland “Gwiazdor”, the Starman (the star carriers). The Starman is not always all-good – if someone was bad, he can give him “rózga”, a birch-rod that should be used on bad person!
During Advent and all the way until Epiphany, or the baptism of Jesus (January the 6th), the “gwiazdory” walk through the villages. Some of them sing carols, others recite verses or put on “szopki”, or “herody” (nativity scenes). The last two customs are inspired by the traditional manger scenes or “Jasełka” (crib).
There are 12 dishes on the table – they are meant to give you good luck for the next 12 months
Christmas is a major annual celebration in most countries of the Christian world but Poland is a largely Catholic country, that`s why Christmas Eve is a very important and busy day. It`s known as Wigilia and pronounced vee-GHEE-lee-uh, now often the most important day over Christmas – even though it’s not a holiday itself as Christmas and December the 26th are feast. Traditionally it was day of fasting and abstinence (not eating anything) and meat is not normally allowed to be eaten in any form. This is to remember the baby Jesus was laid in the manger, animals’ food trough. So there is no red meat served but fish, usually carp. Everyone has to eat or at least try some of each dish. For Catholics the 12 dishes symbolize Jesus’ 12 disciples. Like in many Catholic countries, Christmas Eve is often a ‘fasting day’ meaning that some people don’t eat anything until after sunset when the Church day officially ends. So that’s where the custom of the first star come from. The Wigilia feast begins at the appearance of the first star. Therefore no food is eaten…
… until the first star is seen in the sky…
in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem, that it has been given an affectionate name of “the little star” or Gwiazdka (the female counterpart of St. Nicholas). So children look at the night sky to spot the first star anxiously hoping to be the first to cry out, “The star has come!” Only after it appears, the family members sit down to a dinner table. The main Christmas meal is called “Kolacja wigilijna” (Christmas Eve supper). It can sometimes last for over two hours or so.
If animals eat “opłatek” on Christmas Eve, they will be able to speak in human voices at midnight
One tradition unique to Poland is the sharing of the “opłatek”, a thin wafer into which a holy picture is pressed. It`s similar in taste to the hosts that are used for communion during Mass. In the old days people carried these wafers from house to house wishing their neighbors a Merry Christmas. Nowadays, opłatek is mostly shared with members of the family and immediate neighbours before the Christmas Eve supper. The head of the household usually starts by breaking the wafer with his wife and then continues to share it with everyone at the Wigilia table. They are supposed to forgive each other any hurts that have occurred over the past year and wish them happiness in the coming year. Also wishes for peace and prosperity are exchanged and even the pets and farm animals are given a piece of “opłatek” on Christmas Eve. Legend has it that if animals eat “opłatek” on Christmas Eve, they will be able to speak in human voices at midnight, but only those who are pure of spirit will be able to hear them. They are granted the gift of speech on Christmas Eve as a reward for their role in welcoming Jesus on earth. As a result, children often try to extract a word or two out of bewildered family pets.
A lonely wanderer who may be in need of food and other Christmas Eve traditions
According to tradition, bits of hay are usually placed in the corners of the room and on the tablecloth, recalling Christ’s humble birth in a stable. Others partake in the practice of placing money under the table cloth for each guest, in order to wish for prosperity in the coming year. Some practice the superstition that an even number of people must be seated around the table. In many homes an empty place setting is symbolically left at the table for the Baby Jesus or, for a lonely wanderer who may be in need of food, or if a deceased relative should come and would like to share in the meal.
The Christmas Tree – where St. Nicholas leaves the gifts
The Christmas supper is followed by the exchange of gifts which usually are left by St. Nicholas under the Christmas Tree. Traditionally, the Christmas trees are decorated with glass baubles, garlands and many homemade ornaments including painted eggshells, shiny red apples, walnuts, wrapped chocolate shapes, candles, etc.
Handmade ornaments are being made in the evenings and cookies are being baked, and in recent years, gift shopping and wrapping has taken place, but the Christmas tree or “choinka” is not brought into the home until a day or two before Christmas.
The ornaments are lit on Christmas Eve before “Wigilia”. At the top of each tree there is a star or a glittering tree topper. In many homes, sparklers are hung on the branches of the trees for wintery ambiance. The tree will stay up at least through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on the Feast of the Three Kings on January the 6th, and sometimes it stays up even until February the 2nd, which is Candlemas Day and the official end of the Christmas season in the liturgical calendar.
Polish Christmas ornaments have very old tradition
They are often made of blown glass and then painted and decorated by hand, so they are very delicate and need to be handled with care. These glass ornaments, called “bombki”, have many shapes: some are round, others are shaped like icicles, pine cones, or angels. Other ornaments are made of paper, wood, straw, or hollowed eggs. Fruit, cookies, and candies are sometimes also hung on the tree. At the end, foil icicles and chains made of paper or wooden beads are added, and a large star is placed on top. Small beeswax candles add the final touch. After “Wigilia”, the candles on the “choinka” are lit and the family gathers around the tree to open presents and sing Christmas Carols.
The arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem
Christmas Eve ends with “Pasterka”, the Christmas Vigil Mass which is the Midnight Mass at the local church. The tradition commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem and their paying of respect and bearing witness to the new born Messiah. The custom of Christmas night liturgy was introduced in the Christian churches after the second half of the 5th century. In Poland that custom arrived together with the coming of Christianity. The next day (December the 25th) begins with the early morning mass followed by daytime masses.
The Christmas carols – “Kolędy”
Christmas carols are not sung in Poland until Pasterka being held between December the 24th and 25th. The Christmas season often runs until February 2. The early hymns sung in Catholic church were brought to Poland by the Franciscan Brothers in the Middle Ages. The early Christmas music was Latin in origin. When the Polish words and melodies started becoming popular, including many new secular pastorals (pastorałka, or shepherd’s songs), they were not written down originally, but rather taught among people by heart. Notably, the song “Bóg się rodzi” (God Is Being Born) with lyrics written by the leading sentimental Polish poet of the Age of Enlightenment Franciszek Karpiński in 1792 became the Christmas hymn of Poland already in the court of Stefan Batory being considered one of the most successful kings in Polish history. Many of the early Polish carols were collected in 1838 by Rev. Hioduszewki in a book titled “Pastorałki i Kolędy z Melodiami” (Pastorals and Carols with Melodies).
The Christmas Eve supper recipes
Since Polish Xmas is about the Christmas Eve supper Polish occasional recipes are essential. Below you will find just a few. To give you all of them would take much more space. Hopefully some meal suggestions from Poland will make your Christmas more tasty. Enjoy it!
Polish Mushroom Soup – “Zupa Grzybowa”
16 ounces fresh mushrooms (portabella mushrooms preferred)
2 ounces dried mushrooms (optional)
1 large onion
4 tablespoons butter
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup water
6 cups rich mushroom, vegetable, or beef broth
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
If using dried mushrooms, soak them in hot water for two hours. Drain, squeeze out excess water, and chop finely. Wash and coarsely chop fresh mushrooms. Sauté onions in butter over medium heat for 5-7 minutes until softened, add mushrooms and sauté for another 15 minutes. Add lemon juice and water and cook covered for another 5 minutes.
Transfer mushrooms to a soup pot, add the broth, and bring to a low simmer. Blend the sour cream with the flour and mix well. Gradually add 1 cup of the hot soup to the sour cream and mix until smooth. Pour the sour cream mixture slowly to the pot, stirring constantly. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve garnished with chopped dill.
Easy Beet Soup – “Barszcz”
3 or 4 cans of whole beets
2 cans of vegetable, mushroom, or beef broth
2 cups of water
4 cups of tomato or vegetable juice
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Strain the beets and set aside. Combine beet juice, broth, water and tomato or vegetable juice in an enameled or stainless steel soup pot. Don`t let the soup boil for more than a minute or it will lose its clear red color. Grate the beets from one or two cans into the soup. Add lemon juice and seasonings to taste. Reheat before serving, making sure not to bring to a boil. Place 5 or 6 uszka dumplings in each bowl before serving and pour barszcz over them (uszka recipe follows).
Mushroom Dumplings – “Uszka”
For the stuffing:
16 ounces fresh mushrooms, finely chopped
1 stick butter
1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
white of one hard-boiled egg, finely chopped
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the mushrooms and onions in the butter for 10-15 minutes. Add bread crumbs, finely chopped egg white, and parsley. Mix well and add salt and pepper to taste.
For the dough:
1 egg yolk
2 cups of white flour, sifted
1/2 cup lukewarm water
Mix the flour with the egg yolk, adding water slowly and working it into the dough until a soft mass is formed. Keep kneading until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers. Roll dough into a ball and cover with flour. Place in a bowl covered with plastic and refrigerate for an hour.
Roll out a third of the dough into a thin layer on a floured surface and cut into 1 1/2 inch squares. Place a spoonful of the mushroom filling in the center of the square of dough, fold in half to form a triangle, and press the edges tightly to close. Then bring two corners of the triangle together and press tightly. Place dumplings on a floured dishcloth and cover with another cloth until ready to cook. Repeat with rest of dough. Cook dumplings in batches in boiling, salted water for 5 minutes, until they float to the top. Take out with slotted spoon and toss in meted butter. Serve immediately with barszcz or refrigerate and reheat gently before serving.
Sauerkraut with Mushrooms – “Kapusta z Grzybami”
2 ounces dried mushrooms
16 ounces fresh mushrooms (portabella mushrooms preferred)
1 large onion
4 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 pounds sauerkraut, rinsed in cold water, and drained
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
Soak the dried mushrooms in 2 cups of hot water for 2 hours drain, and squeeze dry in a cheesecloth. Chop finely. Wash and coarsely chop the fresh mushrooms and onion and sauté in the butter in a skillet for 5-7 minutes. Add sauerkraut to mushrooms; cook and stir for another 10 minutes.
Blend 1/3 cup water into flour, beating gently to remove lumps. Add slowly to sauerkraut and simmer for 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Polish Dumplings – “Pierogi”
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup lukewarm water
Mound flour on a large cutting board and make a well in the center. Drop eggs, sour cream, and salt into well. Add water a few drops at a time and work it into the flour with a knife, moving slowly from the center to the outside of the flour mound. While mixing the liquid into the flour with one hand, keep the flour mounded with other hand. Try not to let any liquid break through the walls of the mound.
When all the water and egg is mixed into the flour, knead until the dough is firm and well mixed and no longer sticks to yours hands (about 10-15 minutes). Add flour if it seems too sticky; a few drops of water if it seems too dry. Then cover the dough with a bowl or clean dishtowel and let rest for 30 minutes.
Divide the dough into halves. On a well-floured surface, using half of the dough at a time, roll it out as thinly as possible. Cut out 3-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter or a drinking glass. Then place a tablespoon of filling in the middle of each round of dough, fold over carefully and press edges together. Be sure to press firmly as filling will spill out during cooking if the dough rounds are not well sealed.
“Pierogi” can be frozen at this point. Layer carefully in freezer container, be sure to separate layers with wax paper. If you are going to eat right away, drop 12-20 “pierogi” into a large pot of boiling, lightly salted water. Cook gently 3 to 5 minutes, or until “pierogi” float. Lift out of water with perforated spoon.
Toss in butter and place in heatproof serving dish. “Pierogi” can be reheated in the microwave or in the oven, just before serving. They can also be reheated by frying in butter. Serve “pierogi” with sour cream and chopped chives.
Sauerkraut and Mushroom Filling
2 cups sauerkraut
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 ounces mushrooms
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 hardboiled egg, finely chopped
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons sour cream
Rinse sauerkraut in cold water and drain well. Sauté for 10 minutes in medium saucepan until dry. Set aside. In frying pan, sauté onion and mushrooms in the remaining butter. Add sauerkraut and pepper. Fry until sauerkraut is golden. Add chopped egg, breadcrumbs, and sour cream. Mix. Cool thoroughly before stuffing “pierogi”.
Noodles with Poppy Seeds – “Kluski z Makiem”
1 cup boiling water
4 tablespoons poppy seeds
3 tablespoons sugar
1 package wide egg noodles, kluski
2-3 tablespoons melted butter
Scald poppy seeds with boiling water and soak for 3 hours. Drain. Force through food grinder (or coffee grinder) and mix with sugar. Cook noodles in lightly salted water. Drain and rinse with cold water. Toss noodles in melted butter, place in shallow baking dish, and keep in warm oven until ready to serve. Toss with poppy seeds and sugar just before serving.
Dried Fruit Compote – “Kompot z Owoców Suszonych”
1 1/2 pounds mixed dried fruit
6 cups of water
6 whole cloves, 1 cinnamon stick
1 cup of sugar
Rinse and soak fruit in 4 cups of water overnight in a ceramic or glass bowl. Transfer fruit and the water into to a stainless steel or enameled pot, add 2 more cups water, sugar, cloves, and cinnamon. Peel the lemon, leaving the peel in one piece, if possible, and add the peel to the pot. Then cut the peeled lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the pot. Cook for 30 minutes, adding more water, lemon juice, or water to taste. Refrigerate for a few hours. Serve cold in glass bowls, along with Christmas cookies, for dessert.
Christmas Wheat Berry Pudding – “Kutia”
1 cup whole wheat berries
2 cups hot water
1/2 cup poppy seeds
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup white raisins
1 shot vodka, rum, or brandy (optional)
1/2 cup honey
Extra honey and heavy cream, for serving
Soak wheat berries in two cups of hot water for two hours or overnight. Drain wheat berries and place in an enameled pot. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook over low heat for two hours, or until all liquid is absorbed. Let cool. Cover poppy seeds with a cup of boiling water for 30 minutes. Drain through a fine sieve and place in a glass bowl to dry. Grind poppy seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor, until the seeds start to show their white interiors. Add ground poppy seeds to the wheat berries and then add almonds, raisins, and honey. Mix well. Add more honey if needed. Refrigerate.
Serve “kutia” cold in small glass bowls with extra honey on the side. Add 2-3 tablespoons of heavy cream (or half and half) to each serving. Wheat ferments easily, so be sure to refrigerate any leftovers. The “kutia” will hold well for up to a week, if it is refrigerated.
Polish Honey Spice Cookies – “Pierniczki”
These cookies are very popular in Poland during the holidays. They are very similar to American gingerbread cookies. To hang decorated “pierniczki” on your Christmas tree, the way it is done in Poland, you should make a hole in the cookies before baking with a plastic straw. After baking, decorate and thread a thin ribbon through the hole in the cookie to hang it on your tree.
1 cup honey
4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
pinch of ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon ground cloves
1/2 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon baking soda
Heat the honey in a small saucepan until it just begins to boil. Take off heat and allow to cool slightly. Combine eggs and sugar in a bowl and beat together until slightly thickened. In another bowl, mix the flour, spices, and baking soda together and add slowly to the egg and sugar mixture while beating rapidly. The dough should not have any lumps. Pour in the lukewarm honey and mix everything until smooth. You can cover the dough with plastic and refrigerate until ready to make the cookies.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, knead for a minute to warm it, and then roll out with a floured rolling pin to a thickness of a 1/4 inch. Use cookie cutters to cut into shapes. Bake in 350 degree preheated oven on greased cookie sheets for about 12 minutes. Allow to cool completely before decorating with white frosting or covering with a chocolate glaze.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
And Good Luck For The Next 12 Months To All of You From My Family, My Polish Friends and Me!
Have A Wonderful Xmas!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski, Asia Rumińska, Paulina Rubczak.
Source of the receipes: Polish Women`s Alliance of America
© Copyright www.communications-unlimited.nl, 2016. All rights reserved.
Christmas illumination in Warsaw
Belweder – an official residence of the Polish presidents.
Competitions for the most beautiful crib
The Market Square in Kraków
The Main Square in Kraków
The Coal Market in Gdańsk