As you well know by now, I live in Krakow - Poland and I am an Expat :) And proud of that I am!
Today I will attempt to share with you some traditions that Polish people have for this specific time of year. You might barge in and start with misconceptions that Polish people only drink vodka until they drop and eat kielbasa... well you are almost right :p if there is one thing for sure is that Polish people are very warm and they do like to drink their share of pure alcohol. But that is not the point here! They have really wonderful traditions as well so sit tight and enjoy :)
The preparations for Christmas start long before the actual celebration, when the Polish women start scrubbing and washing and making the house tidy. When making the table for Christmas straw is put under the tablecloth - which should be white! - and there are sayings that maidens can predict their future from the straw - nope, I did not do this, I do not master this skill ;) There is a saying that after the supper the straw can take different shape: a green one foretells marriage, a withered one signifies waiting, a yellow one predicts spinsterhood and a very short one predicts an early grave... A wonderful tradition is to put an extra table sitting and chair for the guests that might come unexpected :) and I believe that might be a symbol of Virgin Mary & Joseph not being able to find their place before Baby Jesus was born. According to tradition the Christmas Tree is not decorated until Wigilia (Christmas Eve) and usually that is more of a children event :) + there is a weird thing that took me quite by surprise and sidetracked me the first year I was in Poland... Christmas and Santa Claus Day are not celebrated in the same day! :O Right! Jaw dropping! Actually they are celebrated 3 weeks apart! Santa Claus is actually Saint Nicholas (called Mikolaj) and you celebrate it on December 6th. That is when children get the gifts and also if they are nice they get sweets and if they are bad/naughty/not nice they get a stick... St. Nick comes in the night and the children find their presents in their boots - if they cleaned them properly ;) Christmas Day is called the first holiday by the Polish people and it is usually spent at home with the family. No visiting, cooking or cleaning should be done that day - the previously cooked food can be heated, of course, we don't wanna starve! The second day of Christmas, Saint Stephen's Day, is the day for visits and exchanging greetings. Carols are very popular for this day!
The food on the Christmas Eve table is also very specific and traditional and each house needs to prepare at least 12 types of food to be eaten - of course no meat during that day, but due to the fact that the nation is catholic, you can always have some fish and usually there is going to be some carp ;) You will ask why 12... why that is easy! :) 12 meaning one course of food for each of Jesus apostles. The foods are to represent the four corners of the earth - mushrooms from the forest, grain from the fields, fruit from the orchards, and fish from the lakes and sea. Meals vary from family to family but usually include a special soup followed by many elegant fish preparations, vegetables, and pierogi - never miss on the pierogi, my friends, especially the ones with meat or the russian ones. Typical dishes include barszcz wigilijny z uszkami (Christmas Eve borscht with mushroom uszka dumplings), carp in aspic, herring (sledze), breaded whitefish, meatless cabbage rolls (golabki), and noodles with poppyseed. Desserts might include nuts, tangerines, chocolates, makowiec (poppyseed roll), mazurek (a jam-filled flat pastry), piernik (honey-spice cake), pierniczki (gingerbread cookies), kompot (fruit compote), cognac, liqueurs, mead and krupnik (a honey-spiced vodka). Kutia, a kind of gruel with cracked wheat and honey, is also eaten in some parts of Poland on Christmas Eve.
Each country has its own traditions and specifics and as an expat you need to learn them and stay in touch. It is the right thing to do in order to immerse yourself in the culture of the community! You should try that :)
The LadyBug who can hardly wait for Wigilia