Strangest Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions

Boże narodzenieChristmas 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 clean and healthy on Wigilia, you will stay clean and healthy all year. 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.

Wigilia table

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

Keep it even, Steven: Poles 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 opposite 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 doubtless a leftover 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, no doubt a reference to the biblical Wedding at Cana.

For further reading on this, check out

http://www.polishcenter.org/Christmas/WIGILIA-ENG.htm

http://www.polishamericancenter.org/Wigilia.htm

http://polishorigins.com/document/wigilia

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32 thoughts on “Strangest Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions

  1. My dad was first generation American. Every New Years the first thing he had us all do was wash with money. It insured the family had money all year long. He also believed about the fight no fight thing. When I rediscovered the depth of my Catholic faith I stopped the money thing for everyone.

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  2. In addition to the Oplatek and sitting after the First Star, we have blessed straw on our table from the Manger. We have an extra place setting for an unexpected visitor.

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    • My family also believes the animals talk at midnight and also you CANNOT wash clothes on ANY holiday or a loved one will pass away during the next year

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  3. My Polish grandfather, in addition to following many of the afore mentioned traditions, would not decorate the Christmas Tree until Cristmas Eve, never before. Mom also says he would not even get the tree til then, and that it was often a “Charlie Brown” tree, though she suspects that it may have beenhim being a cheep Polack who had to survive the Great Depression. They owned a store at the time and the story goes they were offered the entire building in which the rented a space for the store in exchange for a few bags of groceries, but could not afford to accept the deal. He learned to save every penny he had later.

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    • My Dad also bought the tree on Christmas Eve and that is when we decorated it before our candle light supper. He would always say what a bargain he got and let me tell you, he came home with nice ones. To me, I think it was an old tradition to do so. Don’t forget that they used lit candles before the stores had modern day lights.

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  4. “Wigilia predicts the rest of the year […]” there is said: “Jaka Wigilia taki cały rok”. You have awoken the Christmas spirit in my mind. 🙂 It’s a beautiful post and I’m very proud that someone young, someone who doesn’t live in Poland is particular about Polish Christmas traditions! The meaning of Christmas is held in our hearts and shared with family and friends. Have a wonderful Christmas and lots of inspirations in the New Year!

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  5. Christmas Eve dinner was our big meal, not Christmas Day. We would also eat by candlelight and look for our shadows. If you did not see your shadow, you would not be at the table the following year.

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  6. Pingback: A Polish Christmas Eve « WRCH Lite 100.5

  7. Here’s what my sister put on Facebook:

    The Christmas Eve celebration is called Wegelia. It begins at sundown, when the first star appears. The male head of the household enters the home with straw and hay, and says, “Let Jesus Christ be praised.” (Niech bedja poch-fa-lona Yesus Christus). The woman of the household responds, “Forever and ever, Amen.” (Na vieckey, vieckey, Amen).

    The straw is placed under the table, the hay on top, under the tablecloth – to represent the manger. Over the hay was placed a pink piece of host, or Oplatek, and a dish of plain boiled potatoes. Each family member was given a piece of Oplatek on which was put honey and garlic; honey for the sweet and garlic for the bitterness in life. As it was distributed, the customary greeting and response was repeated individually.

    Before the meal began, a Holy [blessed] candle was lit, everyone knelt, and family prayers said. The meal was meatless and began with mushroom borscht, followed by homemade pierogies, mushrooms with gravy, saurkraut with peas (kapusta grokham) and boiled potatoes. At the end of the meal, the Holy candle was blown out and, according to Wincenty, 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. (a little superstitious, was Wincenty).

    Wonderful blog – keep it up!

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  8. Pingback: The Best Things About Poland: Episode II | Crazy Polish Guy

  9. In Serbian tradition, it is customary for the male head of the household to go seek out an oak tree and ask its permission to cut off a branch for the Yule Log (“badnjak”, as we call it). We also throw nuts into the corner of the room on Christmas Eve for good fortune in the upcoming year too. Another longstanding tradition is to cover the floor in straw to represent the manger Jesus was born in.

    I’m not aware of any particular dining superstitions (even guests with odd-numbered plates, etc), but those are some of the more memorable Christmas/Christmas Eve customs I remember growing up

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  10. Great traditions! Also on New Years Eve an Day we do not eat anything with wings. Such as turkey,chicken etc. Otherwise all your money would fly away the new year. We still don’t to this day, but still poor. Lol

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  11. I did these traditions growing up but the sad thing about all of this that in many house holds family members have to work late hours and some churches have no midnight mass and last the young people won’t be bothered with these late traditions. It was great till work places took family members and made them work at odd hours. I’ll never forget these wonderful years together.

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  12. Wow, this stuff is interesting. Both of my grandmas and all great-grandparents came from Poland but I don’t remember any of these traditions when I was a child in the 50’s. My only guess is that when the grandmas got here there were just hell-bent on becoming Americanized that they left the traditions behind in Poland.

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  13. Busia used to tell us about the predicting the year but I think she said it was on New Year’s Eve. Also knew about setting a place for a visiting spirit and having an even number at the table. Thanks for posting this. You have a new follower.

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    • Omg…my grandmother was Busia…we spelled it Busha….but everyone said there was no such word! So nice to see someone else had a Busia…I miss mine a lot… She always did the Christmas Eve meal!

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  14. I must first say Merry Christmas and a Happy New year, or, in the Polish language that I love,
    Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia i Szczesliwego Nowego Roku! Our family of 17 will gather
    at my house for Christmas Eve dinner (wigilia). I’m 84 and the father or grandfather or father-in-law of everyone. Two items I insist on having for dinner are a Cheese Babka bread and ground horseradish with beets (chrzan), my favorites since I was a boy. The high point of the evening is the prayer and sharing of the wafers (oplatki). We all hold hands and stand in a circle in the middle of the house. I will say the prayer, with emphasis on the Lord bringing us all together again. After the prayer I will ask the youngest children to say the Christmas greeting in Polish or Italian, since both languages are represented. Afterwards we will share the wafer (oplatek), white wafer for the men, pink for the ladies. Each of us will share his wafer with all of the others, extending the holiday greeting with a hug or a handshake. After all of this, dinner beckons.

    For me, this is the high point of the year, since I can remember the event back to when I was
    a boy, and the people who were there.

    Ray Pilewski

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  15. On my father’s side of the family, we always celebrated on Christmas Eve. 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. I haven’t been able to find out about this tradition anywhere.

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  16. We couple more traditions. For example 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 and you had to serve with it and eat with it. Or at the and of the wigilia all the teenage girls in the family would gather the spoons go outside and whait and listen to hear a dog bark. If the bark came from the North your fortune husband would come from the Nort. Or after wigilia the teenagers would walk around with a big Gwiazga Betlejemska and they would Kolendować. To finish it up I will just say now that I am a mom of 3 beautiful kids and have been living in the US for 15 years I keep to our traditions and I am passing them down to my kids little by little each year .

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  17. Pingback: More Strange Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions | Crazy Polish Guy

  18. Pingback: My Wigilia Wishes To You | Crazy Polish Guy

  19. Yes, this is all true. Had the wonderful opportunity to experience the amazing Polish XMAS. Now, unfortunetly all are dead that I loved so dearly. Christmas time is a dreaded occasion. My Wigaillia prophesy came true, My Christian beliefs now make me strong enough to withstand rejection of my adult children who are not under God’s care.

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