Polish Customs and Traditions

Winter Traditions from Pagan Slavic Heritage

Koljada (kohl-YAH-da) Winter Solstice

Most sources agree that koljada comes from the Roman word “calendae” which refers to the first 10 days of any month. Others believe the word is derived from “Kolo” or wheel – much like the word “Yule” is an Anglo-Saxon word for wheel. In the English language, Yuletide refers to the Christmas season and is used even in contemporary Christmas songs. The holiday of Winter Solstice may have originally been called “Ovsen”.

The Winter Solstice festival was filled with revelry. Processions of people masked like animals and dressed in costumes roamed the village. Often they were accompanied by a “goat’s head,” usually hand-made and placed on a stick. The person holding the goat’s head on a stick would then be covered with a blanket to give the illusion of a “goat person.” Sometimes a child—symbolic of the reborn sun—would accompany them seated on a horse played by two men in a horse costume. One of the pageant participants would carry a spinning solar symbol lit from within by a candle. Later, after Christianity entered the scene, the spinning “sun” became a star.

This group of revelers would go from house to house and stop to sing Koljada songs. These songs usually included invocations to the god or goddess of the holiday, praises and good wishes to those who listened, requests for gifts and threats if refused. The gifts were also called “koljada” and usually took the form of little pastries or “korovki” shaped like cows or goats. The grandmothers and grandfathers traditionally baked these “korovki.” The actions played against those who would not give rewards could be brutal. Garbage might be brought from all over the village and piled in front of the offending host’s gate, their gate might be torn off and thrown in the nearest water or livestock could be led off. One of the carolers would carry a bundle of hazel twigs and after receiving their “koljada” would gently hit his host/ess with a small stick loudly wishing happiness and health in the coming New Year. The small twig was then left with the farmer who nailed it above his door for wealth and protection.

Bonfires were sometimes lit, and the dead ancestors were invited inside to warm themselves. Mock funerals were held where a person pretending to be dead was carried into the house amidst both laughter and feigned weeping. A young girl would be chosen and traditionally would kiss the “corpse” on the lips. The “corpse” would leap up after being kissed—a symbol of rebirth. Holiday foods included kutia, a food consisting of whole grains, a universal symbol of new life, and pork.

On the last day of the koljada season in Poland, all the unmarried men of the village would get together to go begging for oats. Since it was impossible to get rid of them with just a scoop of oats, the farmer would need to keep a sharp eye on his grain that night, because otherwise the carolers would steal it as part of the evening’s custom. The men would then sell the oats and with the money would hire musicians and organize a large dance party in the village during the pre-Spring festival period


New Year’s Eve – Sylwester (sil-VEST-er)

New Year’s Eve in Poland’s major cities is usually celebrated by way of a formal ball. Some of them have a long-lasting tradition, as for example the one sponsored by the Warsaw Philharmonic Society or the ball at the castle in Golub-Dobrzyn. This New Year’s Eve ball always begins with a polonaise, an elegant court dance.

In the countryside, New Year’s Eve day gave occasion to a variety of pranks. It was not unusual for the village jokers to disassemble somebody’s wagon and reassemble it on the roof of a house, or to smear windows and doorknobs with tar. In the Żywiec region it was known that groups of boys disguised as devils, bears, and beggars would scour the village and accompanied by the rattling of empty cans, they would accost any young woman they came across and knock her down in the snow. All tricks are forgiven, however, for they are believed to be the ousting of the old passing year.

One important highlight of New Year’s Day was bread baking. Animals were shaped from dough—sheep, rabbits, geese, cows, and birds. Godparents often gave these breads to godchildren as presents. In some areas of Poland, paczki or donuts were baked to assure wealth for the coming year. Bread in the shapes of a ring or a cross were hidden at the dinner table and used for fortune telling. If someone found a ring, marriage awaited; a cross—entry into the clergy.

Among the other traditions are included special proverbs such as “Wake up early on New Year’s Day, wake up early for the rest of the year;” and “Touch the floor with the right foot when getting out of bed, expect a lot of good luck for the whole year;” and “To get rich, put coins in a small bag and run through the fields shaking the bag, making a lot of noise.”


New Year’s Day

Traditionally, New Year’s Day was a time for prediction called podbljunaja or “under the plate.”  One such practice is where each person takes a ring off his or her finger and places it into a bowl filled with water. A plate covers the bowl and songs are sung. At the end of each song, a ring is pulled out and the fate that the song foretells is believed to apply to the owner of that ring.

Some Podbljudnaja foretell a wedding, some wealth, some a journey, etc. You may choose to write your own songs for the divination ritual and use some traditional symbolisms. Bread, grain, millet, and rye symbolize fulfillment and material security; gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fur, and expensive cloth symbolize luxury and wealth. Doing things together such as eating, drinking, working, standing or sitting together, symbolizes love and happy marriages. The songs are usually short since one quickly follows another. Traditionally, each refrain ends with a praiseworthy word such as “glory.”

Another such ritual of prediction has become a common element in contemporary life. If a thread hangs from one’s clothing, wrap it around a finger while reciting the alphabet. Whatever letter you stop on when the thread is fully wrapped is the initial of your future spouse. The color of the thread is also important; pale thread for a blonde spouse, dark for a brunette.

Rituals that would be performed on New Year’s Eve were considered especially powerful only if no crosses or belts were worn and no blessings could be requested. Typical rituals included: if you looked into the steamed mirror after a bath on New Years Eve, you would see the face of your future husband; or if you slept on a log, you would see his face in a dream. If you caught the moon’s reflection in a mirror, your future spouse’s name would also be revealed there.


Polish Christian Holidays Surrounding Christmas

St. Nicholas Day, December 6 — Mikołajki (mee-koh-WHY-kee)

On this day in Poland, youngsters are visited by Święty Mikołaj (St. Nicholas), a figure dressed in a purple and gold robe, wearing a cape and bishop’s hat, and carrying a crooked staff, the symbol of his bishop’s station. He travels the countryside with a white horse, blessing the children and distributing goodies only to well behaved children. St. Nicholas Day brings the Christmas spirit to children who may feel that Christmas Eve or Gwiazdka (star) – will never come. The actual St. Nicholas was revered because of his compassion and love for orphans whom he often comforted with little gifts. This feast day was celebrated more in some Central European countries than Christmas itself.

The person representing St. Nicholas would usually drive a sleigh to the homes in a Polish village. The sound of sleigh bells and horses’ hoofs could be heard on the cobblestones and youngsters would shout, “He is here!”

St. Nicholas would enter, filling the room with his presence, his smile, the twinkle in his eye and his booming voice. He would reprimand the mischievous and praise the obedient while listening to the children recite their catechism and prayers. He would distribute heart shaped Pierniki (gingerbread and honey cookies), holy pictures, big red apples and candy. In case St. Nicholas could not make the visit personally, his gifts were placed under the pillow during the night. Children would leave food for his horse under their window. The more food, the longer St. Nicholas would need to stay and the more goodies he would leave for the child.

Wigilia (Vee-GEE-lya) — Christmas Eve Dinner

Wigilia-table2Wigilia or Wilia is from the Latin word vigilare, which means to watch, or Czuwać in Polish. Close to the heart of every Pole, it is filled with such mystical symbolism that it is considered by many to be a greater holiday than Christmas itself.

December 24th had much significance centuries before Christ’s birth. It followed the longest night and the shortest day and the mystical symbolism associated with it was closely tied to the solar system. In early Poland the word Wigilia was formerly known as the day before a feast day. Today it is used only as the day before Christ’s birth. The Wigilia supper is the most special, and there is no other like it throughout the year.

With severe cold weather and deep snows, most Polish families hold their festivities within each family group. A custom from the past encompassed the belief that spirits permeated the home on this day. They were to be made as comfortable as possible since this day would prophesize everything that was to happen in the coming year. Everyone was careful of his/her conduct. They were to rise early, say their prayers, wash thoroughly, dress and then peacefully and patiently attend to the work at hand.

Preparations for Christmas Eve began right after midnight. A young girl from the family would go to the nearest stream and bring water to be used to sprinkle on the cows in the barn and also on the family, awakening them in this manner. It was believed that water on this day had the power to heal and prevent illness and later the entire family would wash themselves in this water.

The males in the family would go into the forest and bring back the top of a spruce or fir and other branches to decorate the house. This top of the evergreen tree was hung from a beam in the ceiling, with the tip facing down over the table where the Wigilia supper was to be held.

To prepare for this most important meal of the year, the table is first covered with straw or hay, and then with a white tablecloth. The blessed opłatek is placed on the best plate of the house. The youngest child is sent out to look for the first star in the sky and the Wigilia meal begins. Those sitting down to eat must add up to an even number, otherwise someone would not live to the next Christmas Eve supper. To prevent this from happening, someone was always invited, be it an honored guest or a wandering beggar. It mattered little whether a family was of noble station or peasant, traditional dishes were served and often with the same pageantry. One of the traditional dishes was kutia, which was made from hulled barley or wheat, cooked and sweetened with honey to which mashed poppy seeds, raisins and nuts were added. The dish was set down in a place of honor near the Wigilia table and it was the first to be eaten. Wigilia is a meatless dinner with an uneven number of dishes served; 13 being the preferred number as it represents the number that sat down at the Last Supper. Various fish comprise the main fare. Many households also prepare a great variety of accompanying dishes reflecting the produce of the family’s harvest such as borscht with uszka (dumplings), matjas (herring), makowiec (poppy seed cakes), nut rolls, dried fruits (apples, plums, apricots, dates, etc.) and salads. Certain regions have more specific offerings, and some include edible Christmas ornaments.


After supper the family would sing carols and exchange gifts, which were deposited by the Aniołek (angel) under the Christmas tree. The Gospodarz, or head of the family, would light the candles on the tree, and the smoke from them foretold the future. The period approaching midnight was a magical time. The children would give the leftover bits of the Christmas wafer to the animals, who, if you listened carefully, would talk. Even well water turned to wine. Now it was time to get ready to attend Pasterka (Midnight Mass), meaning the Shepherd’s Mass, as they were first to greet the newborn Christ Child. Everyone would hike through the dark of the night in freezing weather or ride in sleighs to their local churches. On the way to the Mass, they counted as many stars as there were in the heavens, which would indicate how many sheaves of grain would be harvested the next year.

Christmas Day, December 25 – Boże Narodzenie (BOH-zhe Nah-roh-DZEN-ye)

In days of old, Christmas Day was such an important holiday that menial work of any kind was not even considered. Usually a quiet family time, Christmas Day also has its traditional menu but with no special number of courses. Ham and kielbasa are very popular since pork has always been eaten at special occasions. In old Polish literature, Bigos, or hunter’s stew, was often served as the principal dish on Christmas Day with the heating of previously prepared food to limit the work in preparation.

Christmas Day was the beginning of the twelve-day period called Gody. In early times these twelve days were observed very carefully, for it was believed that Christmas Day and each of the following eleven days foretold the weather for the equivalent month of the year. If the day was fair but it rained or snowed during the night, then the first half of the month would be fair but the second half would be damp.

December 26 is St. Stephan’s Day, the second day of the Christmas season and the traditional day of visiting and wishing everyone the joy of the holiday season in contrast to the quiet tradition of Christmas Day—much like Boxing Day in the U.K. and Canada. St. Stephan’s Day marked the end of most contracts for the year with new ones effected for the coming year. It was also the official day for caroling to begin. The custom of caroling in Poland, or Chodzenie po kolędzie, would begin on St. Stephan’s and last until February 2, also celebrated as Candlemas Day.

There are several forms of Christmas caroling, two (Szopka and Herody) of which are also called Jasełka. The Szopka is a manger scene that portrays the birth of Jesus and is carried by young boys from house to house. They entertain their neighbors with caroling and thus make money and/or received something sweet to eat. They usually stay within their neighborhood, but sometimes go to other sections or even different villages. The other form of Christmas caroling is Herody, a live production done by older boys and young adults, about the last days of King Herod. The oldest form of Christmas caroling in Poland was to go caroling with Turon. One of the participants would be dressed in a type of animal costume and mask depicting a wild ox or tur, a large animal that caused great damage to villages throughout Europe.


The Feast of the Three Kings – Trzech Króli (Tchek KROO-lee)

The Three Kings or Three Wise Men are an integral part of the Christian church and their name day is celebrated on January 6. In Catholic homes, the local parish priest writes the initials K+M+B for Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, in chalk at the top of entrance doors. In the mountains, people may bring chalk to church on this feast day to be blessed. Upon their return, they write these initials on the door themselves, not to be disturbed until the following year. These initials written with blessed chalk, along with the palms from Palm Sunday and blessed candles from Candlemas Day, together are a force to avert disaster.

To symbolize the Star of Bethlehem that was seen above the manger on the night of the Jesus’ birth, which led the Wise Men to the newborn King, young boys dress in long, white pants with robes of black paper and paper crowns on their heads. One of them carries the star on a long pole lit from within by a candle so that it could be seen at night. These carolers would walk throughout the village singing carols telling the story of the birth of Christ and the Three Kings, accompanied by a musical instrument. Beginning at the manor house or church rectory, they would then stop at various homes, standing before a window to sing a carol. After obtaining permission to enter the house, the boys would then continue to sing both religious and popular Christmas carols. Three Kings day is also the traditional day to take down the Christmas tree decorated on Christmas Eve.

Wesołych Świąt! Happy Holidays!

© 2013 Association of the Sons of Poland


Here are some easy and traditional recipes you may try for your Christmas table:

Christmas Eve “Kutia” (Kutia Wigilijna) (Makes about 4 servings.)

1 cup cracked wheat of bulgur
2 cups hot water
1 cup honey
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

  1. Soak wheat in 2 cups hot water for 30 minutes. Bring to boiling; cook covered until tender.
  2. Cook honey with remaining 2 cups water for 20 minutes. Add salt. Cool and serve with wheat.

Fish in Horseradish Sauce (Ryba w sosie chrzanowym) (About 6 servings.)

2 carrots
2 stalks celery (optional)
1 parsley root
1 onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
5 peppercorns
2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 quarts water
2 pounds carp, sole, or pike fillets

Horseradish sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup prepared cream-style horseradish
1/2 teaspoon white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup sour cream
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sieved

Shredded lettuce

  1. Combine vegetables, dry seasonings, and water in a saucepot. Bring to boiling; simmer 20 minutes. Strain.
  2. Cook fish in the strained vegetable stock 6-10 minutes or until fish flakes easily.
  3. Remove fish from stock. Arrange on serving platter and cover with plastic wrap. Chill.
  4. Strain fish stock and reserve 3/4 cup for horseradish sauce; cool.
  5. For horseradish sauce, melt butter in a saucepan; whisk in flour until smooth.
  6. Add cooked fish stock gradually, stirring constantly. Cook and stir until the sauce boils and becomes thick and smooth.
  7. Remove from heat. Stir in horseradish sugar, salt, sour cream, and eggs. Cool 15 minutes.
  8. Pour the horseradish sauce over chilled fish. Garnish with shredded lettuce.

 Noodles with Poppy Seed and Raisins (Kluski z makiem i rodzynkami) (Makes about 6 servings.)

2 cups cooked egg noodles
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 can (12 oz.) poppy seed cake and pastry filling
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1-1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
1/3 cup raisins

  1. Toss noodles with butter in a saucepan.
  2. Combine poppy seed filling with vanilla extract, lemon juice, peel, and raisins. Add to noodles and mix well.
  3. Cook just until heated through.