Polish Christmas - Traditions, Family, and Food

by Lorraine Grochowska-Kiefer

It hardly seems possible that once again I am writing a Christmas column! For some reason it seems the same main ideas and thoughts keep coming to mind. When my Babci Stella Grochowski was alive there were always a lot of wonderful treats at the holidays. She thought nothing of kneading by hand huge bowls of yeast dough for babka, paczki, and pierogi. She passed away over 20 years ago, but it seems like only yesterday that I watched her roll yeast dough in her spotless kitchen.

Now it is my job to make many of these family traditions. Much reading and experimenting with recipes has given us the directions for the many breads and cakes she made by memory or touch.

Polish customs are closely knit with Catholic traditions and holidays. Recipes are geared for feast or fast. The menus for advent and Christmas are usually meatless because of the fast, but the rich menu of Christmas Day makes up for it!

I found many recipes and traditions in Polish cookbooks over the years, as well as from my Aunt Jenny and cousin Regina Grochowska Palko. The Polish American Journal has also been a good source of information on recipes and traditions.

A wonderful book, with Polish as well as many other ethnic dishes and customs for the Christian year, is A Continual Feast, by Evelyn Birge Vitz. This delightful book tells about many Polish Christmas dishes. It was given to us as a gift from friends Emily and Siggy Lukasiewicz. It tells of a Polish Christmas Eve menu where the number of courses is 14, one for each Apostle, one for Mary, and one for Jesus.

Mrs. Vitz mentions the many fishes, including herring and carp, as well as meatless soups of sauerkraut, peas, and mushrooms. She gives recipes for noodles with poppy seeds, kutia, and other dishes. A 12-fruit compote is one of these. It is a great gift for anyone who loves to cook ethnic.

Since our involvement with the PBA and especially Pan Szmid's Polish language classes some years back, our family has become even more aware of Polish holiday customs. I have been told by friends who recently came from Poland that we are more involved with old Polish customs than are the young people in Poland (who all want to be like Americans).

A custom we especially like and hope our children will remember to keep is that of oplatek. Ted usually starts this by breaking the first wafer. We all kiss, hug, and pass the wafer around the wigilia table. With this oplatek, there is a wish to all for good health, forgiveness, love, thanks, reconciliation, and good luck. This is an especially nice custom to start with children.

I remember that as a child there was a lot more visiting during the 12 days of Christmas. According to all I have read, this is true in Poland where the song and fun continues until the Feast of the Three Kings or Little Christmas.

Our family, thanks to God, is still close and we cherish our Christmas customs. Everyone helps put the tree up and the youngest one at home puts the Baby Jesus in the manger. Ted built it for a ceramic set I painted the first year we were married. Many of the pieces have little chips and nicks, with an ear missing from a donkey and the wing glued on the angel, but we love it. Dried manger herbs and little bundles of hay add a fragrance of times past. Christmas Eve, after Mass, the dough for paczki for a Christmas morning brunch adds its aroma to the house.

written by Lorraine Grochowsa Kiefer

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Lorraine is the host of Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden. Visit her website and shop


Check all the articles about Polish Christmas traditions in the Polish Culture website.

I recommend
Polish Wycinanki Designs by by Frances Drwal

and mentioned by Lorraine
A Continual Feast, by Evelyn Birge Vitz

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