The Christmas season in Poland follows religious tradition, beginning four Sundays before Christmas with a period of preparation called Advent and continuing until Candlemas Day (February 2). During this period there are days of special festivity singled out: St. Andrew’s Eve (November 29), when young girls drip candlewax on water to foretell whether they will marry and to what kind of a husband: St. Nicholas Day (December 6) when a jolly man dressed like a bishop walks through the streets passing out pierniki to the children who shout “Juz idzie” (He comes); New Year’s Eve, with its late buffet and champagne at midnight; Epiphany, when the coming of the Wise Men (Kaspar, Melchior, and Baltazar) is remembered by inscribing the initials KMB over the door; and Candlemas Day, when candles are blessed in the Church and then reserved for use during storms and at times of sickness and death.
The reason for all the celebration is Christ’s birth and, naturally, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the days of most celebration. Christmas trees and creches are found in homes, churches, and city squares. In the city, trees are placed on tables or on the floor; in the country they are hung from the ceiling. In either case they are decorated with lights, apples, nuts, candies, and toys. Also hung from the ceiling are pajaki, a decoration similar to a spider web, and a dozynki, a colorful harvest wreath embellished with flowers and stars. Straw is placed under the white tablecloth as a reminder of the stable in which Christ was born. Gifts are given on Christmas Eve. The young children believe they were brought by angels (St. Nicholas had already distributed his gifts on December 6).
One of the most memorable meals of the year is eaten after sundown on Christmas Eve (Wigilia). Although it is meatless (Advent, the season of penance, continues until midnight), it is still festive and delicious. In the past, there were 12 main dishes; this is often replaced today by a twelve-fruit compote. In some areas of Poland only an odd number of courses can be served and there must be an even number of people at the table. An empty place is always left for any stranger who might come by.
Christmas Day itself is usually spent visiting relatives and friends. In most homes little or no cooking is done on this day.