I’m Sharing Opłatek With All of You

Whether you’re only a little bit Polish or have pierogi running through your veins, one of the most beloved and sacred Polish traditions is the breaking of the opłatek on Christmas Eve, or Wigilia. Practiced for centuries, it represents all the good of Christmas—faith, family and friendship.


An opłatek is basically the same bread wafer you have at church, except it’s unconsecrated.  Experts believe that the practice of sharing opłatek evolved from an earlier practice in which Poles shared podpłomyk, or thin, flat bread made on fire-heated stones. This meal was common in ancient Slavic societies before Christianity. The opłatek wafer was developed later by the Benedictines of Cluny in Burgundy, France and spread throughout Europe, reaching Poland.

Eventually, the practice of sharing the opłatek on Christmas Eve became commonplace and is today practiced within Polish families around the world. Family members, typically starting with the husband and wife, wish each other health, happiness and good fortune. The person receiving the wishes breaks off a piece of opłatek from the person offering them and eats it. Some families do it the opposite way. No matter how they do it, though, the meaning remains the same. It’s a custom that unites the entire family, from the youngest toddler, to the oldest patriarch, in a symbolic display of love and Christmas spirit.

Since it’s Christmas Eve today, or Wigilia, I want to symbolically share an opłatek with every person reading this. I wish all of you the best of health in the coming year, as nothing is more important. I wish you success in all of your endeavors, be they acquiring a new job, finishing school, finding that special someone, or comfortably retiring. Finally, I wish that all of you find a little bit of happiness every day of your lives. Reflect upon and be appreciative of everything God has given you, and you will never have a sad moment.

Wesołych Swiąt



The Best Polish Christmas Carols

KolędyWith Christmas right around the corner, you cannot walk into a store without hearing such classics as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” or “Frosty the Snowman.” Indeed, the wonderful sounds of the season pleasantly surround us, which is why I’m taking the occasion to share some Polish Christmas carols with you.

Caroling represents an integral part of the Polish Christmas celebration. In Poland, the word for carol is “kolęda.” Some kolędy date back to the 15th century. Although the people who wrote them have long been forgotten, the songs have survived  through the centuries in the voices of Polish carolers walking from door to door during the Christmas season.

Click on the title of each carol to be taken to an English translation (I couldn’t find translations for them all, unfortunately).

Bóg Się Rodzi (God is Born)

Perhaps the most famous Polish kolęda is Bóg się rodzi (God is born). The lyrics were written in 1792 by Franciszek Karpiński. The music was written centuries earlier by an unknown composer and served as the coronation hymn for Polish kings.

Gdy Się Chrystus Rodzi
(As Christ is Born)

This well-known hymn was likely composed in the early Baroque period, perhaps as far back as 1600. Some experts believe its origins lie in France, but, as with many of these songs, it’s very difficult to say for sure due to sparse records. The earliest printed version dates from 1843.

Anioł Pasterzom Mówił (The Angel Told the Shepherds)

Written in the 16th century, this is among the oldest Polish kolędy. It’s musical origins can actually be traced back to Latin hymns first sung during the Middle Ages. I get chills thinking of how many generations of Poles sung this carol throughout the centuries.

Gdy Śliczna Panna
(When the Lovely Virgin Mary)

This soothing kolęda was composed by an anonymous author in the early 18th century. Its lyrics describe the Blessed Virgin Mary rocking the baby Jesus as he sleeps. Female monasteries in Poland have a particular affinity for this song.

Przybieżeli do Betlejem
(They Came to Bethlehem)

First composed in the 16th century by Jan of Lublin, this kolęda has undergone various changes throughout the years—once in the 17th century and again in the 19th century. It tells of the shepards’ arrival to Bethlehem.

W Dzień Bożego Narodzenia
(On Christmas Day)

Happy and festive, it’s the perfect kolęda to mark Christ’s birth and celebrate the joy of the season. It was composed in the 17th century. Unfortunately, it’s not heard as often anymore, only rarely being sung in Polish churches.

Wśród Nocnej Ciszy
(In the Night’s Stillness)

Composed at the turn of the 19th century, this kolęda was first written down in 1853 in a church hymn book by Fr. Michał Marcin Mioduszewski. Traditionally, it opens the midnight Mass at Polish churches on Christmas Eve.

Dzisiaj w Betlejem
(Today in Bethlehem)

The earliest reference for this Polish kolęda comes from an 1878 church hymnal. As is the case with many other kolędy, the author is unknown, but it describes the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.

Pójdźmy Wszyscy do Stajenki
(Let us All go to the Stable)

This kolęda’s lyrics date to the 18th century, and the music was added a hundred years later. Its marching song-type beat is appropriate given that it’s all about visiting the stable where the baby Jesus lies.

Lulajże Jezuniu
(Sleep, Little Jesus)

This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful Polish kolędy, as it’s written as a lullaby for the baby Jesus. Dating back to the 1600s, the hymn has been a staple of Polish families’ Christmas Eve caroling traditions for centuries and an inspiration for composers like Frédéric Chopin.

Above was just a taste of the hundreds of Polish kolędy sung throughout time. Poland is widely recognized for having among the most varied number of Christmas carols of any country. Unfortunately, most have probably been forgotten, having never been written down.

Maybe, just maybe, if you happen to visit an old Polish village on a cold Christmas night and listen closely, you may hear the echoes of generations of Polish carolers reverberating in the frosty wind.


Święty Mikołaj: A Spoiled Child’s Worst Nightmare

Święty Mikołaj
Traditional Saint Nicholas (Polish-Święty Mikołaj).

American comedian Jimmy Kimmel has a special segment he does during Christmas time called “I Gave My Kids a Horrible Present.” Basically, parents give their kids unbelievably bad Christmas gifts (such as an onion or an old banana) and film their reactions, resulting in a hilarious display of some very angry kiddos.

Watching these children’s reactions for the first time, I could tell that they would never have fit in with the traditional Polish celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, known as Święty Mikołaj, which happens every year on December 6.  During this celebration, the gifts reserved for good kids were a lot different than the gifts expected by “good” kids today. And you certainly didn’t want to be on the naughty list. Before I get into that, though, it’s important to understand the background of Saint Nicholas Day.

Saint Nicholas, the figure that Santa Claus is based on, was a wealthy Catholic bishop in Turkey in the third century who was renowned for his great love of children. In one famous story there was a father with three daughters. In those days, you could not marry off your daughters without also providing a large sum of money to the husband, called a dowry. Since the father was too poor to marry off his daughters, they were destined to be sold off into slavery and prostitution. Fortunately, they were saved at the last moment when three bags of money fell through an open window (supposedly into a stocking). It’s believed that Saint Nicholas had thrown the money into the home to save these girls from a horrible life.

This is just one of the many stories surrounding Saint Nicholas. In most stories he is seen saving children in some way, which is what led to him being honored around the world for centuries to come. He died on December 6, 343, and that day has become known around the world as the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

It’s not as big a deal in the U.S. Here, Santa Claus is supposed to come on Christmas Eve. For much of the rest of the world, the magic happens on Saint Nicholas day. This has been especially true in Poland.

Long ago in Poland, a man would dress up as Saint Nicholas, wearing a long coat, a mitre (bishop’s hat), and holding a long stick. He would walk through the entire village or town, stopping by each house to test whether children had been good or bad.

You’d want to say your prayers to make sure you passed this test.

No, really, the test was literally to say your prayers. Remember, Poland is a very Catholic country, and this was especially true in olden days. As a child, the way you proved you were good to Saint Nicholas was by knowing your catechism.

If you passed, you would get a gift. Now here’s where the kids on Jimmy Kimmel’s segment would have thrown a monstrous fit. The gifts ranged anywhere from apples, to cookies, to spices. That’s right. Spices. All I want for Christmas is some nutmeg.

Ungrateful children should have been thankful that they didn’t make the naughty list. The punishment for not knowing your prayers was Saint Nicholas threatening to beat you with a stick (knowing old Polish custom, I’m sure those threats were realized on more than one occasion).

In all, Saint Nicholas Day in Poland was, and is, a holiday rooted in faith and charity. Just like children in the U.S. wait impatiently on Christmas Eve for Santa to come, Polish children look forward to Saint Nicholas coming to reward them for their good behavior.

As for those kids who have very precise specifications on what is an acceptable Christmas gift and what isn’t, I think at the end of the day they’d take that onion over a stick-whipping.


Andrzejki: Crazy Polish Love Superstitions for Women

She loves me, she loves me not; she loves me, she loves me not…Even in today’s digital age, superstitions abound when it comes to finding love.

A quick Google search will yield many of them. One says that girls who don’t  shave their legs will more quickly find a mate (disregard this one, ladies). Another superstition  claims that if you swallow a chicken’s heart whole, you can marry anyone you want (no, I have no freaking clue what the connection is).

These myths and superstitions about finding love exist in every culture and are nothing new. Poland certainly has no shortage of them, although many have, thankfully, fallen out of practice.

The last week of November, known as “Andrzejki,” was a big deal in old Poland when young Polish women would do a ton of strange things to find out about their future love lives.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

On November 29, a Polish maiden would place two mirrors in front of her face in a darkened room. In between the mirrors, she would place a candle. The girl would then stare deeply at the lighted candle while counting backwards from 24. While staring, she had to concentrate on seeing her future husband. After reaching zero, she would turn to the darkest corner and supposedly see her future husband in the shadows. Creepy factor: 10.

It reminds me of one of these optical illusions.

Release the Hounds

Hungry-DogA bunch of Polish girls would get together and bake loaf cakes. Each girl would pick a cake and mark it, identifying it as her own. After placing the cakes on a bench, they would release a starving dog. Whichever cake the dog grabbed first, that girl would be the first to marry. Honestly, I feel sorry for the poor dog who had to starve just to boost some chick’s ego.

The Goose Knows Best

angry goose
Polish Matchmaker

Once again, an innocent animal became a fortune-telling tool for a bunch of single Polish chicks. The girls would blindfold a goose. They would then stand in a closed circle, holding hands. After setting the blindfolded animal free, they would wait in earnest to see which girl it would approach first—that girl would be the first to marry. They must have been really desperate to let a goose decide their love lives.

Choose Wisely

An older woman would place three items under three plates on a table: a leaf from the rue plant, a piece of lace, and a special hat called a “czepek.” Three young women would then enter the kitchen and pick a plate:

Picking the plate with the hat underneath meant you would be married soon.

Picking the plate with the lace underneath meant you would become a nun.

Picking the plate with the rue plant underneath meant eternal spinsterhood.

Weird stuff. I know. The guys did stuff like this from time to time too, but nothing as strange as what I described above. But who knows, maybe it worked. So ladies, maybe try one of these crazy superstitions this week. Just please make sure no animals are harmed in the process!

The Dead Are Out Tonight

All Souls Day Poland, Dziady
“All Souls Day” in ancient Polish times

If you want a treat in Poland on Halloween, you’d better be ready to play some tricks because America’s spookiest holiday really isn’t a big deal there (although that’s slowly changing).

Instead, Poles strongly observe the two religious holy days immediately following Halloween–“All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” (Dzien Zaduszny)—which have more than their share of traditional ghostly customs.

It all begins on the eve of “All Souls Day,” November 1. Traditionally, entire families would gather for a large dinner in the evening. Now, when I say entire families, I mean living……and dead. Extra spaces would be reserved at the table for deceased family members and other wandering spirits that would emerge from the netherworld on that night. Indeed, the entire point of “All Souls Day” is to offer prayers for restless spirits trapped in purgatory, stuck between heaven and hell. Traditionally, on that night, families would chant:

Holy sainted ancestors, we beg you
Come, fly to us
To eat and drink
Whatever I can offer you

Special food would  then be served such as buckwheat groats, kutia, and  “soul bread.” The “soul bread,” known as zaduszki, would be made of rye and shaped into a long loaf to represent a dead person. Naturally, the food would be shared with the deceased at the table, and vodka (probably what the spirits were actually after in all this) would be  poured out for them as well.

Hundreds of candles burn in this cemetery for “All Souls Day.”

Following the meal, Poles made, and continue today to make, pilgrimages to local cemeteries to honor their dead. They light candles and place them on the graves; this custom goes back to pagan times, the idea being that the heat from the candles will warm the forlorn spirits wandering the earth. They typically attend Mass at this time as well.

On this night, centuries ago, Poles would also give leftover food to beggars (called dziady) who would pray for deceased loved ones in return. These mysterious beggars acted as intermediaries between the living and the dead.

Driving through the Polish countryside on  the night of “All Souls Day” can be a truly magical, surreal experience. As the candles from thousands of individual graves burn in the distance, you cannot help but feel a mystical connection to the supernatural. You can understand why on this night the lines between the realms of the living and the dead are blurred and why it’s the opportune time to pray for those lost souls, whom we may one day join.

Today, many Polish superstitions have died along with those who observed them, but the religious significance of the holy days remains stronger than ever. Poles often tend to group “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” into one giant observance meant to honor and pray for the dead. People don’t work and schools are closed on those days.

These holy days are not unique to Poland. Catholics around the world observe them to some extent. Poles just happen to add their own unique and interesting flavor to them. It’s a beautiful custom that not only fosters a common religious experience, but also adds to Poland’s national identity.

So during this mystical week, you won’t see many trick-or-treaters in Poland. You might, however, run into a wandering spirit. In that case, you’d better have a bottle of Smirnoff on you.

See Also


Polish Customs Traditions & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab