Polish Influences on American Christmas
In a time where it is difficult to gather, it has been enjoyable to reminisce with our local older people about their holiday traditions. Our intern wrote this piece reflecting on the traditions of the Polish people in her life. In her research, she found many long time traditions in Poland that influence American Christmas traditions. We live in a beautiful melting pot - keep encouraging your staff and members to appreciate the differences.
Christmas is arguably the most recognized and celebrated American holiday, and there are many traditions that people in the United States practice around the holiday season. Although most everyone is aware of how Christianity has shaped Christmas practices, many are not familiar with how much their traditions have been shaped by old customs from other countries. One specific example of this is how historic Polish Christmas traditions and customs are reflected in current American celebrations. Polish Christmas traditions were brought to America in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, by Polish immigrants who came to America (Zand, Wesele, and Życie, 1949). These traditions continue today, and some traditions can be reflected in American customs. When decorating Christmas trees, or caroling in the holiday season, it is important to recognize how multicultural our traditions are, and how they have been shaped by customs from around the world.
Saint Nicholas Day and Santa Claus
In America, perhaps one of the most prominent and well-known Christmas figures is Santa Claus. In the United States, Santa Claus traditionally brings children presents in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve; however, in Polish customs, Santa is given his own holiday, which is referred to as ‘St. Nicholas Day’ and is celebrated on December 6 (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). Based on traditional beliefs, St. Nicholas delivers small gifts to children on this day such as fruit, either apple or oranges, chocolate, or other small gifts (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). St. Nicholas Day is also viewed by Polish people as the beginning of the Christmas season (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). Although the day that Santa Claus visits children is different than in the United States, there are many aspects of St. Nicholas Day that reflect American practices today.
In Polish tradition, St. Nicholas is believed to bring gifts to children who have been good all year; however, children who were mischievous or naughty are given a small twig which would be used to give them “swishes” for when they misbehaved (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). This is clearly similar to the tradition in America in which children are taught that Santa will only bring them presents if they are on their best behavior throughout the year, and children who do not behave are given coal. In addition, children in Poland also write St. Nicholas letters detailing the gifts they wish to receive (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). This is something that is still practiced in America, where many children look forward to writing their letters to Santa asking for the gifts they hope they receive on Christmas (Lubecka, 2013). One major difference between the Polish St. Nicholas and American Santa Claus, is that St. Nicholas is described as dressing in a rich purple and gold robe, topped with a bishop’s hat ((Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). In addition, St. Nicholas is said to be accompanied by an angel to help him deliver gifts to the children (Lubecka, 2013). This is different from the American Santa, who is known for wearing his red suit and is flown around the world by reindeer.
Christmas Eve Traditions
In both Polish and American culture, Christmas Eve is an important day with many classic traditions. By Polish customs, Christmas Eve marks the most important meal of the year, and is started when the first star is visible in the night sky (Pace, 1996). Supper on Christmas Eve is referred to as “wigilia” in Polish, and traditionally involves a 12-course meal, with the courses representing the 12 apostilles (Pace, 1996). The table is set with a white table cloth, and before eating, families pray together and eat a traditional “Christmas Wafer”, referred to as ‘oplatek’ (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). This meal is intended to be meatless, and often consists of dishes such as beetroot or mushroom soup, dumplings, sauerkraut, herring, and dried fruits and nuts (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). In addition, other popular dishes served are boiled potatoes, fish, stewed prunes, and cheese or sauerkraut pierogis (Zand, H., Wesele, J., & Życie, 2013). Following their meal, many families open their Christmas gifts, which are believed to have been delivered by angels (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). In addition, Polish people believe that Christmas Eve is a magical time, particularly as midnight grows nearer (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). On this day, many believe that spirits will visit the home, and that whatever happens on Christmas Eve, will represent how the following year turns out. For this reason, families keep their house clean, dress well, and avoid arguments in an effort to ensure a good and prosperous coming new year (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015).
Although some of these Polish traditions may sound foreign to those in the United States, some of these traditions have been adapted and incorporated into American Christmas Celebrations. Despite the fact that Americans may not eat 12-course meals on Christmas Eve, the tradition of praying before dinner, eating, and attending Church on Christmas Eve is practiced in many American homes. Furthermore, in Poland, the hanging and decorating of the Christmas tree is an important part of their holiday traditions, much in the same way that Christmas trees are viewed in American culture. Christmas trees in Poland were decorated in candy canes, tinsel, gingerbread men, and bright red apples, similarly to decorations traditionally used in the United States (Zand, H., Wesele, J., & Życie, 1949).
Christmas Day Celebrations
For people in Poland, Christmas Day is meant to be a day spent with close family. Traditionally, the family will wake early to attend church, before returning home to eat. Many Polish families will eat a traditional Christmas breakfast, consisting of sausage, sauerkraut stew, ham, and pierogis; after breakfast, the family enjoys a variety of different homemade cakes, made from ingredients such as honey and poppyseed (Krawczyk-Wasilewska, 2015). After eating breakfast, the family uses the remainder of the day to spend time together and relax. These traditions are reflected in some American customs, in which Christmas day is seen as a time to spend with family, to both eat and pray together. Many families in the United States make either large breakfast meals, or dinner, and families gather round to eat and enjoy the company of their loved ones.
Many of these traditions are timeless, such as decorating the Christmas tree and eating with family, and it is important to realize that even places across the world are not so different from our own. When reflecting on the core beliefs and traditions around Christmas time, it is clear that American Christmas traditions are similar in many ways to Polish culture and customs. It is important to recognize the similarities that we have with other cultures, instead of focusing so much on differences. When looking at holiday traditions, such as Christmas, it is usually easy to find themes across many cultures, and notice where cultures have borrowed from and been influenced by others. Recognizing how different cultures celebrate holidays can often help to better understand ones’ own culture and traditions.
Written by Brianna Burke, BSW Candidate, KovirPage LLC Intern
- Krawczyk-Wasilewska, V. (2015). Polish Folklore. Poland: History, Culture and Society. Selected Readings”, ed. E. Bielawska-Batorowicz, Uniwersytet Łódzki. https://dspace.uni.lodz.pl/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11089/16582/261_271_wasilewska.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- Lubecka, A. (2013). Polish ritual year–a reflection of Polish cultural policy. Estonia and Poland: Creativity and tradition in cultural communication, 2, 83-98.
- Pace, R. (1996). Polish holidays are rich in old customs and tradition. Business America, 117(12), 6–7. Gale Academic OneFile,
- Zand, H., Wesele, J., & Życie, T. (1949). Polish Folkways in America. Polish American Studies, 6(1/2), 33-41. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20147182