The traditions and superstitions of a Polish Christmas

Carp in the bathtub and hay under the table… what are the traditions and superstitions of a Polish Christmas?

Myself and Gosia are travelling to Poland for my first-ever Polish Christmas this year. You could say I’m experiencing a mixture of emotions at the thought of it… happiness (lots and lots of food and presents) confusion (swimming carp in the bathtub) and a touch of trepidation (having to sing Christmas carols again… the last time I did that I was still in short trousers, or at least a very bad 80s jogging suit).

I say in jest of course! Discovering new cultures and traditions is all part of the fun of travelling and one of the reasons we write about our experiences here on Exceptional Destinations. Without further ado then, here are some of the weird and wonderful traditions and superstitions of a Polish Christmas:

1. 12 courses for dinner

What is a Polish Christmas really like?

As you might know if you’ve read any of our posts from our travels in the last year, food is a big part of the Polish experience, and Christmas is the pinnacle, well, maybe apart from Polish weddings. There will be 12 dishes in store for me, beginning with beetroot soup (red borscht). The 12 courses represent the 12 disciples.

2. The first star appears

What is a Polish Christmas really like?

This next one might come in useful to help me build an appetite for those 12 courses. As is tradition, we won’t be sitting down to eat until the first star appears in the sky, which is in honour of the Star of Bethlehem which of course led the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.

3. Carp in the bathtub

What is a Polish Christmas really like?

Anyone for a bath on Christmas Eve? Not me, at least not while there’s carp swimming around in it. Yes, Gosia’s family believe in having their carp as fresh as possible, which means leaving our dinner alive until just a few hours before it hits the frying pan, and the bathtub of course is the logical place to keep it.

4. An extra place at the table

There will be an extra place set for dinner. Traditionally this is provided in case a stranger in-need arrives. A great example of the Poles’ spirit of generosity, and the importance of sharing at Christmas.

5. Hay under the table

If it wasn’t for being Christmas, I might have to wonder if my future parents-in-law had let their levels of cleanliness slip by allowing hay on, or to be more exact, under the dinner table. It’s rare to see these days, but this is another religious reference to the Baby Jesus, and being born on the hay in the manger.

6. Carp’s scale in your wallet

What is a Polish Christmas really like?

It’s not the usual thing I would line my wallet with, but according to tradition if you put the carp’s scale in your wallet, you will be lucky and rich in the forthcoming year. Sounds like it’s worth a try.

7. Don’t leave until everyone has finished!

What is a Polish Christmas really like?

It is considered bad luck to leave the table before everyone has finished their meal. Not much chance of me doing this, especially with 12 courses to get through, plus, I wouldn’t want to undo all the good luck from point 6!

8. Santa… what Santa?

It’s highly unlikely an old chubby man who has polished off one too many mince pies will be climbing down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Not just because there is no way Santa could squeeze down such a small space, but because in Poland, Santa, who is actually dressed as a bishop, comes on 6th December during the feast of St Nicholas.

9. Christmas carols

What is a Polish Christmas really like?

The one I’m actually a touch nervous about. After dinner on Christmas Eve, many Polish houses will break into song, with some good old Christmas carols. Polish Christmas songs are quite serious and religious, so this might just help me if my performance level is a bit below par!

10. Talking animals

What is a Polish Christmas really like?

This is where things get a little weird. Gosia tells me it is thought animals have the capability to talk on Christmas Eve. There doesn’t seem to be one definitive explanation for this superstition, but it’s possible animals have been given an elevated status on this night because of the animals that were present in the stable during Christ’s birth.

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Have a great Christmas everyone, Chris and Gosia.