Strangest Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions

Polish Christmas OrnamentChristmas Eve in Poland, known as Wigilia, has some very beautiful traditions. Breaking the Opłatek wafer, caroling, opening gifts, the midnight mass, or Pasterka–these are practices beloved by every Pole and person of Polish descent, including myself.

But there exists a stranger side to the way Poles used to celebrate Christmas Eve, filled with mystery and superstition.

Most of these beliefs have not been taken seriously for well over 100 years. When I ask Polish people today, especially younger ones, they haven’t even heard of them.

Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to travel back in time and study some of the odd beliefs our ancestors held. For that reason, I present to you some of the strangest Polish Christmas Eve superstitions.

Wigilia Predicts the Rest of the Year

An old Polish belief claims that whatever you do on this day will affect your entire year. If you fight with your loved ones, it’s a sign that the upcoming year will be filled with strife. If you stay fit and healthy on Wigilia, you will stay fit and healthy all year long. Lending out money or objects to others was once avoided for fear that the upcoming year would find you lacking food or other necessities.

When you consider how perilous life was in old Polish days—harsh winters, the chance of crop failures, etc.—you can begin to understand why such beliefs existed. Any form of reassurance that you would make it in one piece to next Christmas was embraced. Acting properly on Wigilia gave you a feeling of greater control over life’s unpredictabilities in the coming year.

There should be an even number of people and an odd number of dishes at supper time.

Even Numbers

Wigilia tablePoles used to strongly believe that at supper time on Wigilia, there must be an even number of people seated around the table or else there would be bad luck in the upcoming year.

Having 13 people was the worst scenario because the number 13 represented Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ. Odd-numbered families would place an extra plate anyway, just to keep things even.

Interestingly, an opposing belief held that there should be an odd number of dishes served. Poles somehow believed that this would create “room” for things to even out in the upcoming year, bringing greater food or wealth.

The Spirits are Coming

Here’s where things get sketchy from a Roman Catholic perspective. Poles used to believe that spirits walk among the living on Christmas Eve. The spirits would enter your home in the form of animals, mysterious strangers or invisible entities.

As a result, Poles would be careful not to sweep the floor or dust a chair during Wigilia for fear of disturbing a spirit while it was chilling in the house.

At supper time, an extra place would be set at the table for a wandering spirit. Food and drink would be served to this “person” like anyone else. After supper, the party was over. Everyone in the house would start banging loudly on pots and pans to chase the spirits out.

The belief in spirits is probably a holdover from pagan days. In the past century, though, it has become more symbolic.

During Poland’s many wars, at least one family member was always absent. The extra spot was reserved just in case that loved one might miraculously reappear. An extra plate also symbolizes charity to the less fortunate. It’s believed that if a poor person, or someone who has lost their way, knocks on your door asking for food or company, you will already have a place set for him or her.

Talking Animals

Toward the end of Wigilia, as midnight approached, things got bizarre as heck, or so Poles believed. This was the one night during the year that animals would talk like humans.

It’s hard to say why this belief existed, but it’s possible that animals were given an elevated status on this night because of the animals that were present in the stable during Christ’s birth.

When I was little, I had a dog, and at midnight on Christmas Eve I would always try to start a conversation with him. Unfortunately, it was always pretty one-sided.

Waking the Trees

An old rural Polish custom involved “waking up” the trees right before midnight mass. The head of the household would go outside and tie the trees around the house with straw or hay. Then, he would knock on the trees three times and shake them shouting “Do you not hear? The Son of God is born!”

Notable Mentions

  • Supper could only begin once the “First Star” or “Star of Bethlehem” was observed in the sky.
  • It was once believed that people would die in the same order as they sat down to supper during Wigilia.
  • Leaving the table before everyone finished their meal was considered bad luck.
  • Toward midnight, water in the house would turn to wine, almost certainly a reference to the biblical Wedding at Cana.

But wait, there’s more strange Polish Christmas Eve superstitions!

For further reading on this, check out


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