A Pagan Polish
Christmas Eve

When I was recently home sick, I decided to use this time to catch up on my Netflix watching. The timing was actually quite ideal as it was early December and I was in the mood for some feel-good Netflix Christmas movies. In previous years, I’ve come across some international gems (like the Norwegian Hjem til jul (Home for Christmas). So this past week, when I was scrolling, I was pleasantly surprised to come across David and the Elves, a Netflix Poland release. I hadn’t heard about it – which is probably not that unusual as I don’t have a television – but decided to give it a go. The movie is family-friendly, light-hearted and sweet – exactly what I was looking for on a day when I wasn’t feeling all that great. 

But as I watched, I realized the movie takes for granted their primarily Polish audience and doesn’t go into detail around a few of the traditions mentioned in the script. So here is some cultural context for your viewing. It probably won’t change your viewing of the movie at all, but it might be fun to get to know some Polish Christmas traditions.

Empty seat for the wanderer

The movie starts on Christmas Eve, Wigilia as it is known in Poland, taken from the latin word for vigil. This is the most important evening of Christmas celebration for Poles. David, excited to sit down for food, almost sits in an empty chair near his grandfather. His grandfather tells him he can’t sit in that spot, as it’s meant for the wanderer. During the Christmas Even dinner, Polish people traditionally set one extra place at the table in case a stranger knocks on the door and needs a place to stay. In modern day, it’s meant to reflect the kindness and charity the season inspires but the actual tradition stems from our ancient pagan beliefs. The original purpose of the empty seat at the Christmas Even table was for deceased relatives to have a place to enjoy the meal. It was believed that relatives who had passed on would visit their family homes and it was customary to leave the dinner leftovers on the table, so the spirit guests could also help themselves (Dziura 38). This supernatural aspect is quite common in Polish pagan holidays like Andrzejki and Dziady

Opłatek

Once everyone sits down at the dinner table, which takes places as soon as the first star in the night’s sky appears, the most important tradition commences. Each person at the table takes an opłatek, a thin wafer made of flour and water and stamped with a scene from the biblical tale of Jesus’ birth. Next, they exchange wishes of good health, happiness, success, prosperity and love for the new year, taking turns breaking off a piece of the other person’s opłatek and eating it. They go around the table with their well-wishes. Traditionally, this was done by the head of the house wishing each person a prosperous new year; in modern times, there is no difference who begins and each person wishes well to each other person at the dinner. Only when this is finished can the guests sit down to their 12 course meal, another traditional aspect of the Polish Christmas Eve dinner.

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Christmas Eve dinner

There are 12 courses served during the Christmas Eve meal – traditionally symbolizing one for each of the 12 apostles or, less commonly but more pagan, one for each month of the year. In early celebration of Wigilia, it could have been custom to leave garlic out on the windowsill to ward off the devil or to eat it, to ward off evil spirits and promote good health (Dziura 37). Anyone who has had a Polish meal knows we don’t spare it; we truly believe it is for our health (and it’s delicious!). The dinner starts with mushroom soup and red barszcz (beet soup) with uszka (small mushroom filled dumplings in the shape of ears, hence its name). Following are pierogi – either potato cheese or cabbage and mushroom – a few dishes with fish (karp is most popular), and an assortment of other dishes including: kutia (a dish of cooked wheat, poppy seeds, raisins, and almonds), kluski z makiem (noodles with poppyseed, honey, and raisins), cabbage with mushrooms, and fried croquettes with mushroom and cabbage filling, as well as lots of cold vegetable salads and pickled herring. You’ll notice that meat is missing – during the Wigilia dinner, we don’t eat meat (besides fish). This is a Polish pagan tradition, not a Catholic tradition, which reminds us of the fruits of the earth, forests, and water that primarily fed our ancestors (Dziura 38).

Talking animals

On Christmas Eve, David visits his grandparents’ stables, where he asks his grandfather if the animals will talk that evening. This is not just an innocent child’s question, it is in fact an old belief from our pagan folk forefathers. They believed that during Christmas Eve, the most magical of all evenings, animals would be given the gift of speech, however it was bad luck to listen in on their conversations. Traditionally, after the Christmas Eve meal, the family members would go carol for their animals. This was their way of paying their respects for the animals that helped them work the land, ensuring a prosperous year ahead (Dziura 40).

So now that you know a few traditions associated with Polish Christmas Eve, you can watch David and the Elves with a bit more context. Most of the traditions Poles celebrate during the holidays stem from their ancient pagan folk traditions that were adapted by and evolved alongside the Catholic Church. These few that I’ve listed above are the most popular traditions during Christmas Eve, but there are many lesser traditions and beliefs that families took seriously during the winter solstice, all meant to ensure that their harvest in the new year would be fruitful and plentiful.

In modern times, Christmas in Poland has become the commercial holiday is it known to be around the world. With consumerism and “new” traditions like the Christmas tree and St. Nicholas Day, Christmas looks much like it does around the world. In fact, most Poles don’t know or don’t give thought to what they celebrate on Christmas Eve – that they are carrying on the pagan traditions of their forefathers when they sit down to dinner. It’s amazing that we do, and that these traditions are still so prevalent in Polish culture, passed down from one magical Polish Christmas Eve to the next. To experience some of that particular magic, along with a large dose of modern Christmas, catch David and the Elves on Netflix.

Source:

Dziura, Małgorzata. 4 Pory Roku: O Pracy i Świętowaniu Na Ziemi Przemyskiej. Muzeum Narodowe Ziemi Przemyskiej w Przemyślu, 2019, 37-40.

8 thoughts on “A Polish Pagan Christmas Eve”

  1. The Lithuanian side of my family had a similar tradition with the wafers and breaking pieces off before dinner could begin. We usually all got together a few days after Christmas for scheduling reasons, but saved the traditions for whenever we could celebrate together even if it wasn’t Christmas Eve or Christmas day.
    Thanks for all the cultural details that will make my viewing of David and the Elves even better!

    1. Polish and Lithuanian traditions probably have a lot of overlap – they were once part of a Commonwealth and one of the largest empires in Europe at its height in the 17th century. Thanks for sharing that, glad you’re keeping these traditions alive and the history with it 🙂

  2. You are right with the pagan tradition which has been exploited by Christians, great story!

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  4. brian jereb

    I am watching the movie but it seems they skipped a good part of the dinner including the oplatki part unless I missed it. Was it edited out or did I miss it? Our family loves Wigilia and the tradition has been handed down for generations. We annually do it with out first cousins.

    1. It’s true, they did not go into the details of Wigilia in the movies. Perhaps as it’s a film in Polish for Polish-speaking audiences, they did not feel the need to explain it. I’m glad you enjoy the traditions and keep them in your home 🙂

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