The 12 Dishes You Must Eat for Christmas

Holiday traditions are as unique as the cultures and families that create them. Everyone I have talked to this week shared something that’s completely their own, a long-standing set of rules and habits governing everything from when and how gifts are opened to what, when and how the holiday meal takes place.

As Christmas Eve, the particular holiday our family and most of our friends celebrate approaches, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my own story, and encourage you to share yours. While we no longer practice many of these traditions in the States, my Polish relatives continue to celebrate Christmas this way and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The most important meal at Christmas time in Poland is the Christmas Eve dinner. There’s a sense of great anticipation for the day of Christmas that’s almost anticlimactic with all the work that goes into the night before. It’s customary to start the Christmas Eve meal at the sight of the first star in the sky, symbolizing the star the shepherds saw that night which led them to the manger.

Sunset this time of year occurs about 3:20 in the afternoon, which generally means that Christmas “eve” dinner actually begins between 3 and 4, normal by Polish standards but early for those of us used to eating at 7 or 8 after work. While the 6 hours of daily sunlight in the winter are troublesome, you’ll be pleased to know that you’re at least very likely to get a white Christmas, since snow is frequent and abundant in Poland during the winter, and it tends to stay on the ground for weeks, sometimes accumulating from snowfall to snowfall. There’s a 40-60% chance of snow for this Friday and Saturday night in my hometown.

Eve dinner is usually preceded by readings from the Bible, and the dinner itself can last anywhere from an hour to a few hours at most if little kids are present. By 6 or 7, most families will be opening presents and singing Christmas carols well into the night. Those who are able to keep their eyes open will attend the pasterka, the midnight mass at their local church.

Decorations and gifts around the season are surprisingly low-key. Most children receive two or three presents at best under the tree, which seems absurd by our consumerist standards. Adults in the family will frequently exchange one gift or even none at all. The Christmas tree itself will usually be set up the week of Christmas Eve, and sometimes even in the hours preceding dinner. While things are changing, there isn’t a strong tradition of house and yard decorating in Poland–to the outside passerby, it might look like just another moonlit night.

The meal itself is truly the focal point of the entire Christmas Eve experience. It’s not unusual for moms and grandmas everywhere to spend 2-3 days ahead of Christmas Eve preparing, cooking and baking countless goodies. Another strong tradition in Poland is to serve 12 dishes the night of Christmas Eve, a tie to the symbolism of the number 12 (for example, Jesus was accompanied by 12 apostles). It’s also customary and expected for the guests to eat each one of the 12 dishes served. This is true even though many of the dishes overlap in ingredients.

It’s also important to note that absolutely no meat is served on Christmas Eve, as it is considered a day of fasting by the Catholic Church. While most people I talk with see this as a “restrictive” rule, I actually see it as an opportunity to be more creative with the meal, and many Poles agree.

The typical lineup on our family’s table would include most of the following dishes:

  • Red Barszcz, the traditional red beet soup, typically served with dumplings.
  • Carp, the “classic” Christmas fish, which can be served broiled, boiled, or fried.
  • Herring, another Polish classic, which is usually prepared at least two or three different ways.
  • Potato salad, which is often made with peas, carrots, eggs, and could include other ingredients.
  • Vegetarian pierogies.
  • Homemade bread.
  • Makowiec, a poppy seed cake.
  • Kluski z makiem, which is essentially a pasta dessert with honey, poppy seeds and nuts.
  • Warm compote, usually from fruits like apple or plum.

Every family will add their own dishes and variations that make the dinner uniquely theirs. It’s a point of pride for the family chefs to point out the various preparation methods and the amount of time it look to prepare certain foods.

The most wonderful thing of all, of course, isn’t all this delicious food or the time and effort it takes to prepare it, but the wonderful memories and relationships created at the dinner table while enjoying it all.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season, and I can’t wait to hear about your own holiday traditions and foods if you’d care to share it with us.

Photo by milele