Is There a Traditional Polish Santa Claus?
When I was little, I would write a letter to Santa Claus every year. My mom and I would sit down and I would write down what I wanted. Then we would put it in an envelope and place it on the fireplace. I would come downstairs every morning and see that my letter was still there; in retrospect, I’m not sure when exactly it would disappear… I also don’t remember what I asked for except for a puppy. I’m positive I asked for a dog every single year until eventually, when I was ten, I got one.
Like all Polish children, my gifts were under the tree a few days before Christmas – conveniently while I was at school and my mom could wrap them and place them under there. Polish tradition is to open presents on Christmas Eve after the Christmas Eve dinner, known as Wigilia. There is no tale of Santa Claus coming through the chimney while you sleep to open on Christmas Day; there is no tradition of leaving him cookies or staying up waiting for him to deliver presents to your home. For Polish households, Santa Claus doesn’t have to worry about time-bending, physics-defying contortion on the evening of the 24th, lucky for him.
In fact, Santa Claus as he is known through American pop culture and the famous 1930s Coca-Cola ad, doesn’t visit Poland. Instead, Polish children can be visited by variety of characters on Christmas Eve, depending on where or how they grew up in Poland and their family traditions. In my home, my presents were always left under the tree by Saint Nicholas, or Święty Mikołaj as he is known in Poland.
But even before he delivered my presents on Christmas Eve, he always stopped by on 6 December, on Saint Nicholas Day. In many countries in Europe, including Poland, Saint Nicholas Day is the feast day of the bishop from Turkey, who showed the ostracized kindness and left his inheritance to the poor. On Saint Nicholas Day, Mikołajki as the day is known in Polish, I always received a card and chocolates from Saint Nicholas himself (thanks mom!). I always liked this day of the year, it was like an early Christmas and honestly, chocolate was just as good as any of the gifts on my wish list (I still stand by this statement).
Later in the month, Saint Nicholas would leave presents under the tree for me to unwrap on Christmas Eve. But if you’re thinking that sounds redundant, why didn’t he just leave all the presents the first time, how inefficient – you’re right… at least in my home where Saint Nicholas comes twice in the month of December.
I mentioned that Polish children can be visited by other characters on Christmas Eve. Although most children in Poland are visited by Saint Nicholas, there are parts of the country where presents are left under the tree by either Gwiazdor, Dzieciątko, Anioł, or Dziadek Mróz. Here is a brief run-down of whose name you can expect to find on your gift tag.
Gwiazdor and Gwiazdka
Gwiazdor loosely translates to “the one with the star” or “star-man”. This tradition is most likely taken from the Polish Kolęda tradition, where a group of carolers go door to door, dressed as specific characters from both biblical and pagan tradition. One of the carolers carries a decorated paper Star of Bethlehem, which led the three wise men to the baby Jesus, on a long pole. So when children in North and West Poland, particularly in Poznań, receive their gifts from Gwiazdor, they are basically receiving their gifts thanks to the power of the Star of Bethlehem. In rarer cases, some homes attribute presents to Gwizdka, which just means “star”, but this probably has the same origins as Gwizdor.
Dzieciątko refers to baby Jesus, who, according to many Poles in the Silesian region in the south of Poland, is the giver of gifts on Christmas. It makes sense, as Jesus is the reason Christians celebrate Christmas (unless you factor in all the pagan reasons, but that’s for another article). This tradition of baby Jesus giving gifts is not limited to Poland; in other areas of Europe, including Czech Republic and in parts of Germany where he is known as Christkind, baby Jesus is responsible for the presents under the tree.
Aniołek is the Polish word for “little angel”, and it’s thanks to this little angel that you have something to open on Christmas, as Poles in South and South Eastern Poland believe, including Kraków. He also keeps busy by visiting children in Hungary and Slovakia.
Although quite rare in Poland, Dziadek Mróz is a familiar figure in some parts of Poland. He is the traditional gift-giver in Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries. His name means “Grandfather Frost” and he is traditionally dressed in a coat of blue trimmed with white fur and stems from Slavic mythology; as his name implies, he is associated with the harsh winter weather. There are small pockets of Eastern Poland, near the border with Belarus and Ukraine, where Dziadek Mróz makes an appearance, although today he most probably visits families with cultural and linguistic ties to Ukraine or Belarus, as the tradition never caught on in Poland properly.
So as you can see from the above, if Saint Nicholas comes on 6 December, there’s a chance that someone else will visit some Polish households on 24 December. However, most of Poland does believe that Saint Nicholas leaves the presents on Christmas Eve. You can check out the map above to see the distribution of who brings what where, in case you’re curious or need a visual to know what parts of Poland I referred to in the post. Whoever comes to visit you this Christmas, whether it’s on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I hope they bring you lots of presents to open and leave you feeling filled with Christmas cheer. Unless you’ve been bad – then, according to Polish tradition, all you get is a rózga, a birch branch to be hit with. Stay good.