In Poland, the traditional Christmas dinner is actually served on Christmas Eve. The dinner, known as Wigilia (meaning “vigil”), often extends throughout the day and into midnight mass, a traditional Christmas mass in Poland and many Polish communities throughout the world. The dinner itself is traditionally a meatless meal consisting of quite a few courses.
Before sitting down to dinner, family members break an Oplatek, a wafer similar to the Communion or “host” used in Roman Catholic churches; upon breaking the wafer, those present wish good health and prosperity to the others for the coming new year.
The table setting for a Polish Christmas Eve dinner often adds one extra place setting, set out for the “unexpected guest;” this is a reminder of the fact that Joseph and Mary were unexpected guests looking for shelter, as well as a reminder of Polish hospitality. There is also a tradition of placing straw under the four corners of the tablecloth to symbolize the manger of Jesus. The meal does not begin until the first star appears in the sky.
The meatless Wigilia meal is served in odd course numbers, often in the seven-, nine-, or 11-course range, or 12 to represent the number of months in the year. The main course is usually some sort of fish (particularly carp) – this is as much a tradition in Poland as serving turkey at Thanksgiving in the United States. Among the traditional foods included in the dinner are soups like fish soup, mushroom soup, or borscht; herring or carp in many forms (pickled herring, fried carp, herring in oil, or stuffed carp to name a few); pierogi, or dumplings, stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage; sauerkraut; kluski noodles with poppy seeds; kutia, a dish made of boiled wheat, honey, and poppy seeds; dried fruit compote; and a dessert like a struedel or babka.
After dinner, Poles take part in many activities preceding the annual midnight mass. Included in these activities are singing traditional Polish Christmas carols (known as Koledy), feeding the livestock if on a farm (many are often fed Oplatek to ensure a good season), beating fruit trees with branches to ensure an abundance of fruit next season, and the exchange of gifts. Midnight mass, called “Pasterka” in Poland, features more carols and well-wishes for the new year, and is often followed by cake or pastry at home.
Christmas Day is a day of rest and prayer in Poland, used to visit family members for the holidays.
Sources: “Wigilia,” polishcenter.org