Food Culture and Tradition

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Special Occasions in Poland


The majority of Poles are members of the Roman Catholic Church. An estimated 3 million out of the total population of over 35 million were of the Jewish faith before 1931, but members of this group were almost all victims of Nazi annihilation before and during World War II. Very small groups of Poles are members of the Orthodox Church and of some Protestant denominations.

Since Poland is a Christian country, Christmas and Easter are occasions for lavish preparations of feasts, singing and dancing and family gatherings. A day of abstention from meat is culminated in a somber and ritualistic dinner (called the Vigilia) on Christmas Eve. The meal contains no meat dishes and opens with the ceremony of bread-breaking; the mother holds in her hand a white communion wafer – symbol of love, forgiveness and friendship – and all at the table share it. An old tradition of a sheaf of wheat or a bit of hay sprinkled under the white table cloth is still carried on in many homes today as a remembrance both of the agricultural blessings and the holy manger.

Some still carry on the tradition of twelve meatless dishes served in remembrance of the twelve apostles: three types of soups, three different fish dishes (one of which is sure to be jellied sweet and sour carp slices), three side dishes of grains or vegetables or noodles, and finally three desserts. Diners helps themselves to at least one serving of each dish.

And out of Poland’s pagan past, there will surely at least one dish with poppy seeds to symbolize the peaceful sleep of the dead. Another dish will be sure to contain honey to provide a year of sweet content for all.

Christmas Day is one of quiet family togetherness. Even the mother of the house enjoys peace and rest, for all the cooking and baking has been done in the frenzied days before. On this special day the family enjoys a buffet of cold meats: sliced ham and chicken, salads made with potatoes, pickles or sauerkraut, delicious pastries and finally coffee. And what better way to combine all the leftovers than in a hunter’s stew (bigos) to be served the next day.

To the Poles, a party is always a reason to dress up, and at no time is this more meaningful than on New Year’s Eve. Candy, flowers, and wine are brought by the guests, and the evening’s food will include an impressive diversity of zakaski, hot and cold meat dishes, pickled salads and vegetables, bigos, and finally dessert pastries, liqueurs, coffee, and of course vodka.

Members of the predominantly Catholic population celebrate Easter with deep devotion. The fast period of Lent is usually observed with two to three meatless days a week; meals on these days consist of pasta or noodle dishes or a main course of cold fish, poached, baked, or pickled.

The final week of Lent includes many special prayer services at church and a frenzy of cleaning and painting in the homes. Special baking and cooking for the Easter luncheon increase the anticipation of the Holy weekend. Good Friday is traditionally spent visiting the church displays of Christ in a tomb, surrounded by floral displays, bathed in colored lights, and guarded by groups of costumed children. A humble dinner of vegetable or barley soup followed by bread and herring or potatoes and the decorating of Easter eggs completes the day’s activities.

The large traditional buffet table for the Easter Sunday luncheon is arrayed with the finest foods of the year: cold sliced Polish ham, roasted pig, beef or veal, pickled salads and relishes and cwikla (traditional Easter relish of grated beets and horse radish). Sliced babka, fingers of mazurka, tortes and cakes with nuts, fruits, and poppy seeds will be served for dessert with vodka or liqueurs. But before the Easter meal is enjoyed with family and guests, a special food basket containing hard-boiled eggs, salt, butter, sausages, and sliced babka will be taken to church for blessing. The Easter table itself will not be considered complete unless a display of painted eggs shares the center of the table with a molded lamb (a symbol of Christ) made of sugar and candies.

Easter Monday is a restful day, the quiet broken only by a meal of bigos and often a surprise dousing of cold water – a bit of traditional fun which is considered good luck and called smigus or dyngus.

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