Straw as a ‘magickal barrier’, and other Christmas decorations from Polish folklore

In the old times there were no Christmas trees in the Polish houses. They became widespread only in the first half of the 20th century, but were not in use in most of the rural households of the central, southern or eastern Poland as late as before the World War 2. At first, the decorated Christmas trees started coming to the Polish houses around the late 18th century, first appearing in the houses of protestants, and then being adopted by the Polish townspeople and the upper classes. Eventually, the Christmas Trees came with so-called ‘commercialization’ of Christmas in the 20th century – just like in the other countries celebrating the holidays around the world. What did the Polish people prepare to decorate their houses before that?

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Star symbolism and Christmas gift-bringers from Polish folklore

Poland: Gwiazdor (Star-Man or Man from the Stars) and Gwiazdka (Star-Woman or Little Star)
Gwiazdor and Gwiazdka on an illustration published by weneda.net

Today I’d like to introduce you to two mysterious characters from Polish folklore, and to a few other elements related to pre-Christian Slavic celebrations of the winter solstice and the later season of carnival. Informations about them survived in local folk customs, to be precise in Christmas rites called in Polish kolędowanie or kolęda (known in English as Slavic caroling).

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What to prepare for the Polish Christmas Eve (Wigilia)

WIGILIA (pronounced vee-ghee-lee-ah) is the traditional supper composed of 12 dishes, prepared in Poland for the evening of 24th December – the Christmas Eve. Name of this special feast in the Polish language is derived directly from the Latin ‘vigilia’ meaning wakefulness. It’s the most important part of Christmas in Poland.

What kind food is served, and how is it celebrated?

Image © Marcin Woroszczak / AG

12 MEALS – WHAT AND WHY

The 12 dishes of Wigilia symbolize the 12 months of the year. The custom is to try at least a little bit of each dish in order to avoid bad luck or hunger during the certain months of the following year. Wigilia is dedicated to the products of the soil – various types of grains, seeds and vegetables, with the main course being a fish – and ends with a crazy amount of delicious cakes and cookies for a dessert.

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Wigilia: Christmas Eve in Poland

The Wigilia supper and remnants of ancient Slavic customs

Preparations for Christmas, celebrated on 25th and 26th December, begin many days before – people collect the most important ingredients, start baking (for example the famous gingerbread dough that has to stay in a fridge for at least a week before being baked), clean the house thoroughly and prepare traditional decorations even weeks before the celebrations.

The most important day of the Christmas in Poland is the evening of 24th December – the Christmas Eve supper called in Polish Wigilia (derived from Latin “vigil” that means wakefulness). It’s the evening when the closest family gathers together for the festive meal and share the gifts, ofter staying by the table as long as until the midnight. The following two days of Christmas have more of a chill-out character in Poland – it’s usually the time of visiting the relatives and friends or just of resting at home.

Preparations and decorations

Traditional decorations prepared for Wigilia, museum of Mazovian countryside in Sierpc, Poland [via Wiano.eu].

Everything that happens on the day of Wigilia is considered to have an impact on the following year. It’s connected to multiple interesting superstitions.

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