Echoes in the Winter Wind: Polish Christmas Caroling Traditions


Imagine it’s a cold, dark night in a rural hamlet, far away from the nearest center of population. A full moon shines through the crisp, dry air, competing only with the light emanating from the hearth in your neighbor’s thatched hut. The pristine snow glistens in the lunar rays.

It’s the dead of winter, in between Christmas and New Year, and all you hear from inside your own thatched home is the wind and distant sounds of…singing? The singing grows louder until you hear a knock at your door. You open to find an odd spectacle—a group of people dressed as various characters. You see a goat, a devil, an angel, a soldier, a Jew, shepherds, kings, an old man and woman…What is this?

You are in a Polish village 150 years ago, and you’ve just been visited by kolędnicy, or carolers. I use the term “carolers” loosely because they differ quite a bit from the top-hatted men and bonneted women going from door to door singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” in a Charles Dickens novel. This is caroling with an ancient Polish spin. The Polish word kolęda, which translates roughly to carol, derives from the Latin word for the first day of the year—calendae.

During the middle ages in Poland, the new year traditionally began on Christmas, hence the connection to the word calendae and the Polish kolęda. The period of caroling, or kolędowanie, typically lasted from Christmas until the Feast of the Three Kings. It was an extremely festive time when groups of carolers (kolędnicy) would celebrate, going from door to door to sing and put on mini performances in exchange for blessings and small gifts.

To be sure, kolędowanie retained some aspects of paganism, held over from pre-Christian Poland. For example, the themes of natural death and rebirth, represented by the transition from winter to spring, or darkness to light, pervaded this Polish custom. As with many other Polish Christmas traditions, the goal during this magical period was to foretell fertility for the coming year. One form this took was the dressing of people as animals, in particular as the ox, or turoń.

>>Check out other interesting Polish Christmas Customs

A traditional turoń costume.

A boy would wear a wooden ox head, complete with movable jaws, horns, and a sheepskin covering. Typically, two other boys would “walk” the turoń on a leash from door to door. Upon entering a home, the turoń would begin dancing and acting festive in the hopes of bringing on a fertile year.

The Catholic Church never cared for such customs but tolerated them so long as the message of Christ’s birth was not lost. To that end, two more Catholic types of kolędowanie emerged—Szopki and Herody.


Szopki refer to portable manger scenes. Beginning during the late middle ages, Polish churches would put on manger scene performances composed of mechanical puppets. Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the angels, shepherds and a host of other characters were controlled by a series of wheels, levers and springs.

Eventually, these mechanical nativity scenes got out of control with the countless characters and elaborate mechanisms, and the church felt they had lost focus. As a result, these original szopka performances fell out of practice.

Over time, however, villagers began creating their own miniature szopki, three-dimensional, house-like constructions made of wood and containing cut-outs of the Nativity scene inside. A group of boys would carry this portable manger scene from door to door, singing religious carols. Sometimes, carolers would carry a giant, homemade star on a long pole. Caroling with this star was called “gwiazdory.” In Krakow, this custom eventually prompted an annual competition in which designers create extremely elaborate szopki, sometimes made with gold and silver. This competition continues today.

>>Check out this video showing today’s szopki in Krakow

koledowanie2Herody: Another type of mini performance during kolędowanie was called Herody. It revolved around the evil actions, death and punishment of King Herod, known for the murder of infant boys in Bethlehem during the time of Christ’s birth. Principle characters included Herod, an angel that tries to stop his murderous decision, a reaper that kills him and a devil that takes his soul.

Groups of between six and ten young men would dress up as these characters and go from door to door to put on live performances for the homeowners in return for money, treats and refreshments. Interestingly, women did not participate in these performances. The men played the women’s parts. Musicians would accompany the groups to play traditional carols.

The performers would often enjoy really getting into character. The devil would chase children around the house, while the angel would try to stop him. Other characters included the Blessed Mother, a joke-cracking Jew, a soldier and a bishop.

In an age before Christmas playlists and smartphones, kolędowanie served the important purpose of spreading the cheer of Christ’s birth throughout the Polish village. Back then, there was no music unless someone made it. The only entertainment was live entertainment. Although many of these practices lasted well into the 20th century, today they have mostly ceased, with the exception of shows put on by cultural preservation societies.

Still, I like to believe that there’s still some hidden village somewhere in the Polish foothills where time stops and the kolędowanie of my ancestors is more than just ghostly echoes in the winter wind.



My Wigilia Wishes To You

opłatekOn this Wigilia, I would like to share an opłatek with all of my readers and social media followers. For those who may not know, breaking the opłatek  wafer at Christmas Eve is an age-old Polish tradition occurring right before supper. First, the father breaks the opłatek in half with the mother. Both wish each other health, joy, or whatever  else they might desire before eating it. Afterward, the rest of the family follows suit in a ceremony of hope and love. They even make colored opłatek for animals!

This is a day to not only reflect on the previous year, but anticipate the next one.  I have written about various Wigilia superstitions, and most of them involve setting the standard for the upcoming year—from avoiding arguments, to keeping a clean house, to behaving courteously and hospitably. You may or may not buy into these superstitions, but you have to admit that they certainly encourage you to act in accordance with the Christmas spirit (and it would be great if we could act like that all year).

I’m especially thankful for your continued interest and engagement with my blog. Nearly 4,000 Facebook followers and often thousands of website views per day is humbling, yet inspiring. I am continually motivated to bringing you a host of educational content about Poland and Polish culture, as well as some crazy humor.  I’ve never specialized in one theme about Poland, and I never will. I love all aspects of Poland, and I hope that passion comes through in my writings, photos, and videos.

Now, without further adieu, here are my Wigilia wishes for you:

Health: This is always what I wish everyone first. Without it, no other wishes matter. Indeed, nothing else matters. So, may God heal you of any ailments and keep you safe from disease and accidents in the coming year.

Happiness: I don’t know all of you, so I can’t get specific as to what will make you happy. While some of you might want a private yacht, others would be happy with kołaczki right about now. So think of something that makes you happy, and that is what I wish you (as long as it’s nothing bad, of course).

Unity: A major goal of my blog is to bring Polish people together from around the world to learn about the culture and traditions of that great nation and share their stories. The Polish diaspora is among the largest in the world. Poles are in every country. So on this Wigilia, remember who you are, no matter where you are. And if you’re not Polish, we’re happy to adopt you 🙂

Wesołych i Radosnych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia


Wesołych Swiat

More Strange Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions

Polska Wigilia

Many of you enjoyed my article on the Strangest Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions. When I wrote that, I thought I had heard it all. Well I hadn’t.

So here’s even more Polish Christmas Eve, or Wigilia superstitions that were once very common in different parts of Poland:

Clean Up Your Act

In Polish villages on Christmas Eve, the day would start very early, before dawn. Villagers would run barefoot to the nearest river or stream to bath.

A thorough cleaning foretold good health in the coming year and protection against skin infections and other diseases. In an age without proper medicine, people relied on such beliefs for comfort that they would live to see another Wigilia.

Sunny winterA Sunny Day Keeps the Husbands Away

Of course, Polish women found numerous ways to predict whether or not they would get married in the coming year.

If the weather was gloomy and dark that day, it meant that women would find husbands regardless of age, wealth or beauty. If the weather was beautiful and sunny, then only the most beautiful women in the village would get married in the upcoming year.

Picking colored strands of hay from under the table-cloth during Wigilia was another way girls predicted their marriage fortunes. A green strand meant marriage before Mardi Gras. A yellow strand meant that the girl still had some waiting to do. Finally, a black strand meant eternal spinsterhood.

Kids Beware

Children had to behave extra nicely on Christmas Eve because if they were naughty and got punished, it foretold that they would have a year filled with spankings. Ouch!

It was also customary for mothers preparing the Wigilia supper to smear their children’s faces with dough. This was meant to ensure that the kids would be healthy and full during the upcoming year. Considering that periodic famines gripped the Polish countryside, this superstition was another type of comfort to the family.

Decorating the Wigilia Table

The supper table was arranged and decorated in a very specific way to ensure good fortune during the coming year.

Hay and oats covered the table to ensure a good growing season and plentiful food. On each corner of the four-cornered table was placed a loaf of homemade bread to represent full bellies during each of the four seasons.

To protect the household from evil, an ax or chain was sometimes placed under the table (this had a secondary purpose of protecting the family members from their drunk uncle Franek when he went on one of his political rants).

Preparing for Dinner

Wigilia tableIf a man was the first guest to enter a home on Wigilia, it meant good luck for the upcoming year. A woman meant bad luck. LOL.

Most people are familiar with sharing opłatek right before supper on Christmas Eve. There’s a darker side, however, as anyone who dropped their opłatek was destined to die within a year.

The Common Bowl

I have heard from many Polish Americans that they vaguely remember this practice from their Polish grandmothers. It involved everyone eating each dish out of the same bowl on Christmas Eve and lasted into the twentieth century, representing solidarity and the whole family “being in it together.”



Many of you wrote about your own experiences with Polish Christmas Eve superstitions in response to my first article. I’ve reprinted some of them here:

Before the meal began, a Holy [blessed] candle was lit, everyone knelt, and the family said prayers. The meal was meatless and began with mushroom borscht, followed by homemade pierogi, mushrooms with gravy, saurkraut with peas (kapusta grokham) and boiled potatoes. At the end of the meal, the Holy candle was blown out and…if the smoke rose straight up everyone would be together next Christmas. Also, if the pink host stuck to the bottom of the potato bowl, there would be good luck in the coming year. -Stacey

After the food, a bell would ring and two figures would enter the room. One was Santa Claus and one was called Bulea (sp?). I always thought she was Santa’s mother, but an older cousin said she was some kind of spirit. She would make sure that we knew our prayers in polish and would give us a treat, usually a potato. But she was a scary figure, dressed in black with a cloth mask and carrying a stick to wield against anyone who displeased her.. My younger brother would hide under the table when he heard the bell. –Christine

If you cooked the wigilia you could not let go of the spoon you started using in the beginning; you had to use it till the end, and you had to serve with it and eat with it. Or at the end of the wigilia all the teenage girls in the family would gather the spoons, go outside and wait and listen to hear a dog bark. If the bark came from the North, your future husband would come from the North. Or after wigilia the teenagers would walk around with a big Gwiazga Betlejemska and they would Kolendować.Anna

We do not eat anything with wings. Such as turkey,chicken etc. Otherwise all your money would fly away in the new year. -Christina

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


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.