Polish Holiday Traditions From a Michigander
Originally published on December 20th, 2015
Michigan’s climate and geography are very similar to Poland’s, which made it a prominent place for Polish settlers. Just a few miles south of Michigan, Chicago remains the largest Polish-speaking city outside of Poland.
I’ve grown up with subtle traditions and reminders of my Polish heritage and, recently, my fascination with the culture has grown, making me even more proud to be Polish. It’s been amazing to more fully understand how intricately the Polish culture has been weaved into my life.
I’m sure there are many of you who can relate to my own background since Michigan is immersed with tons of Polish immigrants and ancestors.
Over four generations ago, my ancestors emigrated from Poland to New York. My grandmother grew up speaking Polish because it’s the only way could communicate with her grandmother, who couldn’t speak a lick of English.
I’ve spent the last year studying the Polish language so that I could read and write it fluently. Through my studies, I’ve become equally intrigued with many other Slavic languages including Czech, Slovakian, and Russian.
It’s been fascinating to uncover mysteries within my own family’s past that are steeped in Polish tradition, many of which I wouldn’t have fully grasped had I not decided to learn Polish.
My favorite Polish holiday traditions involve certain food, special decorations, going to church with family, visiting Hamtramck, and getting my polka on!
Polish Food for the Holidays
Polish meals are definitely not for the faint of heart since they are very rich and hearty. I grew up enjoying so many different traditional meals like red borscht soup (czerwony zupa barszcz), stuffed cabbage rolls (gołąbki), potato pancakes (naleśniki ziemniaczane), and potato and cheese dumplings (pierogi). I love desserts, so my favorite Polish holiday foods are always Angel Wings (chrusciki) and cream cheese cookies (kólaczki).
Traditionally, Christmas Eve supper is one of the most sacred pastimes for Poles. Known as Wigilia, the feast begins when the first star in the night sky is spotted. Pieces of hay are placed under the tablecloth representing the manger and an extra chair is left empty for any unexpected visitor because no one should spend the holiday alone or hungry.
After the first star is sighted, Wigilia begins with prayers and dividing the Christmas wafer, Opłatek, among family and friends. The lavish meal includes twelve courses, each representing a disciple, with the main course being fish since there is no red meat to be served on this special day.
Poles are also very concerned with foreseeing their futures and fortune-telling, so many believe that whatever conspires on this day will affect the New Year.
Polish Holiday Decorations
One of the main traditions I’ve kept going in my family is decorating for Christmas. Polish holiday decorations are normally more subtle than American decorations because they’re from very simple means.
Traditionally, the Christmas tree isn’t decorated until Christmas Eve with handmade ornaments made from glass, paper, fruits, cookies, wood, and straw.
One of my favorite gifts to give is handmade Christmas star ornaments. Made out of paper, each ornament is carefully crafted and normally takes up to three hours to make. The intricacy and fragility of such a bauble make them beautiful and worth the effort.
The star represents the star of Bethlehem, known as Gwiazdka. The appreciation for such an ornament becomes surreal since they are somewhat tricky to perfect.
Polish Catholic Church Holiday Traditions
Many Polish traditions stem from the Catholic faith since most Poles belong to the Catholic Church. Christmastime marks the beginning of Advent, which is the spiritual preparation for Christmas. This time of year isn’t about materialistic needs, but instead about remembering the true meaning of Christmas.
A wonderful tradition that’s very important is Midnight Mass held on Christmas Eve. This is the pinnacle of Wigilia and all of the lead up of festivities. It marks the joyous and magical time of year spent with family and the celebration to be carried into Christmas Day. Normally, churches are packed with others taking part in this beautiful tradition, sometimes with standing room only.
Holiday Shopping in Hamtramck
There’s not a better place in Michigan to celebrate being Polish than Hamtramck! It’s one of the few places in Michigan you can get authentic Polish food. Within a block radius around Joseph Campau Avenue, you’ll find a hotspot for everything Polish.
My favorite places to stop include New Palace Bakery, Srodek’s, the Polish Market, and the Polish Art Center. It’s so fun to get lost in the shops and find such unique items that were handpicked or handmade by the owners directly from Poland.
This is the perfect place to find the most amazing gifts for family because it will probably be a one-of-a-kind item they won’t be able to find anywhere else. I always set aside a few hours to visit my favorite places and to make sure I can stop for lunch at Polish Village Café because it’s absolutely delicious food. It’s also a lot of fun to try out speaking Polish with the staff.
Polka Music During the Holidays
My dad was raised with a big influence of polka music in his life since my grandparents actually met in a polka club. My grandfather used to love playing polka music on his accordion. It’s been a long time since his passing, but his accordion still sits on my grandmother’s brick fireplace ready for him to play again.
We always seem to listen to polka music more around the holidays as a joyful reminder of my grandfather. My dad still loves polka music and I can always tell how it takes him back to another time period whenever he hears it.
Polka music can still be heard on the radio. In Grand Rapids, we listen to the program Polka Pops on the radio every Saturday and Sunday from 12-3 pm on channel 94.9FM.
There are so many amazing Polish holiday traditions that are each so meaningful. The one thing they all have in common is the importance of being with family and loved ones celebrating the real reason for the holiday that’s far beyond what any materialistic item could fulfill.
Wesołych Świąt! Merry Christmas!
What is your favorite Polish Holiday tradition? Let me know in the comments below!