Fascinating food and customs that make the traditional Polish Christmas Feast an experience worth having

For travellers who love to experience places through food, tradition and culture, Poland is great place to have a Christmas Eve meal. The Polish Wigilia is an unusually interesting gastronomic experience with a no-meat rule and dishes dedicated to the 12 apostles, finds Rishabh Shah

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Fascinating food and customs that make the traditional Polish Christmas Feast an experience worth having
Image by Dorota Kaczuba

In Poland where the everyday diet contains a lot of meat, Poles traditionally wouldn't dare to think about a meat dish on the 24th of December. But beware you true vegetarians, here fish is not considered meat, it's fasting food as per the church. The customary meal, Wigilia (literally meaning vigil or waiting for the birth of baby Jesus) starts once the youngest family member, in charge of observing the sky after sunset, spots the first star at around 3-4 pm (Poland experiences winter solstice at this time of the year). It is only then that the family gathers around the table for their meal. 

According to Anna Rydzewska, who lives in Warsaw, in some families including her own, before the dinner begins, a member reads from the Chapter of Luke which describes the birth of Baby Jesus. The eldest member of the family then breaks a piece of a plain thin bread/wafer called Oplatek symbolizing the communion with God. Family shares it with each other along with wishes for good health and prosperity. It is a time when grudges are forgotten and deceased family members are remembered. In some families coloured Oplatek is also served to household pets/barn animals by mixing it in their feed. Traditionally this corresponds to the animals present during the birth of baby Jesus and more recently to the importance of the pets in the family.

Dorota Kaczuba, who is also Polish, shares another related belief that she personally loves, "It is said that on that particular night, at midnight, animals speak with a human voice. They share with people their secrets and also give people the feedback about how they have been treated during that year. People are supposed to listen to them and promise to improve if they mistreated any of their 'smaller brothers' ".

In some homes, the hostess sets the table with strands of hay beneath the table cloth, depicting Jesus' birth born on hay in a stable and one extra plate is kept out. This extra plate is prepared for an 'unexpected guest', who might knock on the door; he/she should be welcomed like a family member. According to Dorota, "On that special evening the tradition says that nobody should be alone. But in my 30 years of experience, it has never happened and I am not sure of the reaction of my family in a country where the social capital and trust towards the strangers is among the lowest in Europe." Anna differs positively, "If you're a tourist or visitor wishing to partake in the festivities, you may simply tell someone you'd like to join the Supper and people may just invite you to join them because of this tradition." Though not common, some good restaurants with Polish cuisine may also serve Wigilia on this day.

During Christmas Eve, usually 12 fasting dishes are served, symbolizing the twelve apostles and sometimes even the twelve months of the year. Another previously common custom was to prepare an odd number of dishes anywhere from five to 11; the larger the variety of dishes, the greater prosperity it is believed to bring the family. In the olden days, the dinner was prepared only from the agricultural produce, fruits from forests and fish from rivers, ponds and lakes as a homage to Mother Earth. For most families, even the smallest dish like a bread would considered a dish in itself to be counted towards the tally of 12.

Although the tradition does not command a precise set of twelve dishes, Dorota says, "There are, however, some "musts" such as, pierogi–ravioli with sour cabbage and wild mushroom; fried carp (sweet water fish) cooked and covered with a blanket of riped carrots or cooked and served in a gelatine; herrings served with oil, fresh onions and black pepper; and barszcz–a hot and spicy soup of beetroots. It could also be possible to encounter lazanki, small rectangular pasta again with sour cabagge and wild mushrooms. To drink there's hot kompot, a highly aromatic liquid created from cooking dried apples, pears and plums with cinnamon, cloves and cardamon. The dessert is usually makowiec–a cake made of poppy seeds and dried fruit and piernik–a hard cake made of honey, wheat flour and aromatic spices. If conserved properly, it can last for a few months and like wine; it gets better with the time!"

Koledy or Christmas carols fill the air during and after the meal. Some of the oldest carols date back to the 15th century and have been passed from one generation to the next. The most popular ones that still sung today include, Wśród nocnej ciszy (In the midst of night's quiet), Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep, Baby Jesus) and Bóg się rodzi (God is being born), which is considered the National Christmas hymn of Poland by some. 

After the feast, at midnight, people go the church for the Midnight Mass and bring in the Christmas day for more celebrations. 

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