From the street fairs to the music of Midnight Mass, Poland stays true to its roots for Christmas.
By Dominika Maslikowski
Whether it’s making gingerbread from scratch or browsing stalls full of handmade goods and farm-fresh food, there’s no better time than Christmas to get a glimpse of old Polish hospitality and Slavic traditions. It is a time of year when Poles embrace their country’s Roman Catholic holiday rituals and take delight in all things rustic, rural and old-fashioned. Christmas fairs selling handicrafts and souvenirs pop up in most Polish market squares as more people take the time to indulge in home-cooked meals and strolls through snow-covered parks.
Poland has emerged from the rubble of World War II and decades under a Soviet-backed regime to become a prominent member of the European Union whose modernity still surprises many tourists. Its capital Warsaw now features the skyscrapers, fast-food restaurants and Starbucks coffee houses found in most European cities, and young people are eager to travel and become more cosmopolitan.
But many Poles love to return to their older traditions during the Christmas season. They’re more likely to opt for homemade Polish dishes instead of trendy restaurants, or visits to a street market selling handicrafts for gifts instead of shopping malls. The quaint centuries-old practices, like placing hay under the white tablecloth at Christmas Eve dinner in memory of Jesus’ birth in a manger, are often celebrated in the most modern and liberal of households.
Small cities like Torun in central Poland, the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, are perfect for capturing the holiday spirit and shopping for one-of-a-kind gifts. The charming medieval city is famous for the astronomer who placed the sun, not the earth, at the center of his model of the universe, but it’s equally well-known among Poles for its famous gingerbread. Copernicus’ birth home has been made into a museum that showcases the mathematician’s tools and manuscripts. Downstairs there’s a separate exhibit where staff in period dress guide you through the process of making your own ornamental gingerbread from dough spiced with cinnamon, cloves and cardamon, and then shaped into figurines that have been used as traditional Christmas tree decorations since the turn of the 20th century.
Most cities like host Christmas fairs in their town squares in a tradition that dates back to Europe’s late Middle Ages. Torun’s fair isn’t as large as Poland’s most well-known market in Krakow, but that’s part of its charm. The medieval part of the city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, includes a spectacular Gothic City Hall and a Teutonic Order castle that are worth the three-hour trip from Warsaw and can all be taken in during a single daytrip.
Warsaw’s Christmas Market in the Old Town Square in December is a great way to sample regional delicacies from across Poland and Europe in one convenient stop. Nearly 80 wooden stalls are set up in the square, which was rebuilt in meticulous detail after being blown up by Nazi Germany in 1944. A giant lit Christmas tree stands on display in front of the Royal Castle.
At this market you can find oscypek, a smoked cheese made from sheep’s milk and salt, traditionally made in southern Poland’s Carpathian Mountains. Thick, woolen socks, hats and mittens from that region are also popular as temperatures dip far below zero and often include heavy snowfall.
Poland is best-known across Europe for its handmade glass Christmas ornaments. They are often colorful and glittery, varying in shape from the traditional round balls decorated with snowflake designs or religious scenes to more ambitious pieces in the shape of bumblebees or even Queen Nefertiti’s bust. Other popular items include simple but quirky wooden toys from the Czech Republic or black rye bread imported from neighboring Lithuania.
Food stalls fill the air with the smell of roasted chestnuts, mulled wine or pierogi, Polish dumplings made from unleavened dough that can be stuffed with potatoes, sauerkraut, meat, cheese or fruit. Pierogi is one of the dishes included in the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and are so popular that restaurants like Pierogarnia specialize in the numerous variations on the dish.
After weeks of cleaning, preparing and shopping, Poles sit down to Christmas Eve dinner, or Wigilia, which is just as, if not more, important than Christmas Day. The meat-less dinner is traditionally served at the appearance of the first star in the evening in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem. Fried carp is the centerpiece of the menu, and there is also beetroot soup (barszcz,) herring and wild mushrooms that make up the traditional 12 dishes served at the table — but not all families today put in the effort to make the entire dozen. An extra place is set at the table symbolically for any unexpected guest in need of food and also as a reminder of the holy family being turned away from the inns of Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus.
The meal begins with the breaking of a wafer, or oplatek, that’s symbolic of the family’s unity with Jesus. Such wafers are stamped with images of Jesus, Mary or angels, and shared with family members as each relative wishes each other health and prosperity in the coming year. The wafers are often also given to pets and farm animals in the country, and sent in the mail to family living abroad. The same custom is also practiced in Lithuania and Slovakia.
After the gifts are opened, Poles head out late in the evening for the traditional Pasterka, or Midnight Mass, to commemorate the arrival of the three wise men to Bethlehem to pay respects to the new-born Jesus. The Midnight Mass doesn’t include a lot of preaching: It is mostly spirited and melodic singing of traditional Christmas carols — the oldest of which goes back to 1420 — and worth seeing for the lights and holiday spirit at any of Warsaw’s bigger churches in the Old Town. Churches across Poland are packed for this occasion with crowds that spill out onto the snowy pavements. Christmas day is normally reserved for sleeping in and — for children — playing with presents opened the previous night and, of course, munching on leftovers. et
EgyptAir and LOT Polish Airlines have direct four-hour flights between Warsaw and Cairo.
Official travel website for Poland: www.poland.travel
World of Torun Gingerbread (at Nicolaus Copernicus House) • www.visittorun.pl
Pierogarnia na Bednarskiej restaurant • Bednarska Street 28/30, Warsaw. Tel: +48 (022) 828-0392.