Poland, Polish Traditions & Culture
Customs, Traditions, Books On Customs
Sharing the Bread, Salt
and Wine at a Polish Wedding
The sharing of the bread, salt
and wine is an old Polish tradition. The parents of the bride and groom, greet the newly
married couple with bread, which is lightly sprinkled with salt and a goblet of wine.
With the bread, the parents are
hoping that their children will never hunger or be in need. With the salt, they are
reminding the couple that their life may be difficult at times, and they must learn to
cope with life's struggles. With the wine, they are hoping that the couple will never
thirst and wish that they have a life of good health, and good cheer and share the company
of many good friends.
On a small table in front of the
main table should be a tray with the following: a small dish of salt, 2 small slices of
rye bread and a glass of wine. When everyone is ready, the Master of Ceremonies should
read the prescribed text as the ceremony is conducted.
The parents sprinkle the bread
with salt and give it to both of the newlyweds to eat. The bread represents the parents
hope that their children will never experience hunger or need, the salt reminds the couple
that their life may be difficult at times and they must learn together to cope with life's
The parents now present the
glass of wine to the Bride and Groom for each of them to drink. With the wine, the parents
hope that they will never thirst and that they will have a life of good health and cheer
and share the company of many good friends.
The parents now join in kissing the bride and groom as a welcome to the family and as a
sign of their love and unity."
A long-time tradition in Poland during the Christmas season is th building of
"Szopki" (pronounced shop-key), which are elaborate form of the Nativity scene.
This tradition started back in the 13th century in Krakow, Poland, and remains an annual
tradition whereas major prizes are awarded for the most elaborately decorated and designed
Among Poles, wherever they are, the most beloved and
beautiful of all traditional festivities is that of Christmas Eve. It is then that the
Wigilia, or Christmas Eve Dinner is served. It is a solemnly celebrated occasion and
arouses deep feelings of kinship among family members.
For days in advance, Poles prepare the traditional foods and everyone anxiously awaits the
moment when the first star, known as the Gwiazdka, appears in the eastern sky. For that is
when the feast to commemorate the birth of the Christ Child begins.
There is always a thin layer of hay under the white tablecloth in memory of the Godchild
in the manger. Before sitting down at the table, everyone breaks the traditional wafer, or
Oplatek and exchanges good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the New Year. This
is such a deeply moving moment that often tears of love and joy are evoked from the family
members who are breaking this symbolic bread. The Oplatek is a thin, unleavened wafer
similar to the altar bread in the Roman Catholic Church. It is stamped with the figures of
the Godchild, the blessed Mary, and the holy angels. The wafer is known as the bread of
love and is often sent by mail to the absent members of the family.
The dinner itself differs from other evening meals in that the number of courses is fixed
at seven, nine or eleven. According to myth, in no case must there be an odd number of
people at the table, otherwise it is said that some of the feasters would not live to see
another Christmas. A lighted candle in the windows symbolizes the hope that the Godchild,
in the form of a stranger, may come to share the Wigilia and an extra place is set at the
table for the unexpected guest. This belief stems from the ancient Polish adage, "A
guest in the home is God in the home."
The Wigilia is a meatless meal, no doubt the result of a long-time Church mandate that a
strict fast and abstinence be observed on this day before Christmas. Although the Church
laws have been revised and permit meat to be eaten on this day, the traditional meal
remains meatless. Items that would normally be included in a traditional Wigilia menu
include mushroom soup, boiled potatoes (kartofle), pickled herring (sledzie), fried fish,
pierogi, beans and sauerkraut (groch i kapusta), a dried fruit compote, babka, platek,
assorted pastries, nuts and candies.
After the meal the members of the family sing Polish Christmas Carols called the koledy
while the children wait impatiently around the Christmas tree or choinka for the gifts to
Aside from the beautiful Wigilia, the Polish people have a number of other traditions that
they practice throughout the Christmas season.
Polish Christmas Carols or koledy are numerous and beautiful, especially when sung in
Polish parishes at the Christmas Eve Mass. This Mass is called the Pasterka, which means
the Shepherds Watch, and there is popular belief in Poland that while the congregation is
praying, peace descends on the snow-clad, sleeping earth and that during that holy night,
the humble companions of men - the domestic animals - assume voices. But only the innocent
of heart may hear them.
Christmas Day itself is spent in rest, prayer, and visits to various members of the
family. In Poland, from Christmas Day until the twelfth night, boys trudge from village to
village with an illuminated star and a ranting King Herod among them to sing carols.
Sometimes, they penetrate the towns in expectation of more generous gifts. In some
districts, the boys carry on puppet shows called shopky. These are built like a little
house with two towers, open in the front where a small crib is set and before which
marionettes sing their dialogues.
During the Christmas season, the theaters give special performances. On the feast of the
Epiphany, the priest and the organist visit the homes, bless them and write over their
doors the initials of the three wise men - KMB (Kasper, Melchior and Balthazar) - in the
belief that this will spare the homes from misfortune.
The Christmas season closes on February 2, known as Candlemas Day. On that day, people
carry candles to church and have them blessed for use in their homes during storms,
sickness and death.