If you are planning to travel to Poland post-pandemic, or simply learn about Polish culture because you are curious, this article is going to explore Poland’s unusual traditions, delicious cuisine, and facts about language that may surprise you.
Origins of Polish Culture
Poland is a country in Central Europe. Polish culture has contributed to art, music, science, politics, philosophy, mathematics, and literature of the Western World. The country’s culture is the result of its geography and the influence of various European regions. The Poland of today continues to evolve, combining old traditions with modern life.
Poland has its origins in Slavic culture, thus some of the traditions are rooted in the pre-Christian sacrificial rituals of Slavic Pagans. Such traditions are often shared in various Slavic countries. Pagan culture or folk traditions are what is considered most surprising by foreigners visiting Poland. Nowadays, Poland’s population is mostly Roman Catholic, with the vast majority (approximately 75 percent) attending church services regularly. Therefore, the church is influencing the holidays and traditions that are such a significant part of Polish culture. Despite this strong Catholic character of Poland, many pagan traditions have endured.
Some of these traditions include:
Marzanna – Drowning of Winter’s Witch
One of the most bizarre celebrations in Poland is the drowning of Marzanna. Children in primary schools make a doll of straw, flowers, sticks, and canvas or old clothes, and decorate it with colorful ribbons and beads. Her name comes from a Slavic goddess associated with death, winter, and nature. The doll is burned and drowned to chase off winter and welcome spring. The tradition is still popular in some parts of Poland and some other western Slavic regions, such as Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia, Lusatia, and Southern Germany.
All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day
The All Saints’ Day is observed on November 1st. In Poland, families meet together to honor the deceased and light candles at their graves. The next day, on All Souls’ Day it is believed that the deceased visit the living. This holiday, although sad, is a remarkable sight to experience.
Śmigus-dyngus (Wet Monday) is a Polish Easter tradition that dates back to the 14th century. On Easter Monday, boys throw water over girls they like. Just like the drowning of Marzanna, the wet Monday tradition is also related to spring. The use of water is believed to bring the rains required for a successful harvest later in the year. Originally, girls could save themselves from soaking by giving boys eggs that they have painted for Easter (known in Poland as “pisanki”). Śmigus-dyngus is still celebrated today and everyone can take part.
Zielone Świątki (Whit Sunday) – The Green Holiday in Poland
Another interesting holiday is celebrated on the seventh Sunday and Monday after Easter, when people Whit Sunday is related to pagan spring rites, however, it also marks the birth of the Christian Church. On this day, many people in rural Poland, use green and blooming birch-tree branches to decorate their houses. This was later “Christianized”. according to the New Testament of the Bible, on the 50th day after Easter, the apostles were praying together and the Holy Spirit descended on them. The apostles received the “gift of tongues” – the ability to speak in other languages – and they immediately began to preach about Christ to Jewish people from all over the world. Therefore, the holiday has its roots in pre-Christianity, pagan rituals, but nowadays, is also linked to the Church.
Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday) – Poland’s Tastiest Tradition
Fat Thursday is considered Poland’s tastiest tradition. Every year on the day last Thursday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, people in Poland overindulge in Polish-style doughnuts (“pączki”) and sugary pastries, known as angel wings or “faworki”. The reason is that it is the last opportunity to eat doughnuts and candies as Catholics will be fasting during the following weeks before Easter time. Statistically, every Pole eats two and a half doughnuts on that day If you happen to visit Poland during this time, you can expect queues outside bakeries.
Christmas Traditions in Poland
Christmas celebrations in Poland start on Christmas Eve (“Wigilia”), which is considered more important than Christmas Day. Advent is the beginning of Christmas Time and for some Catholics, it may be a time of fasting. On Christmas Eve, the tradition is to prepare 12 dishes for dinner and only open Christmas gifts after the first star in the evening sky can be seen. Some of the traditions include putting hay underneath tablecloth for Christmas Eve (to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem stable), leave an empty chair and plate (for an unexpected visitor that should be given food and shelter), as well as sharing Christmas wafer, known in Poland as “opłatek” with those at the table, forgiving and wishing each other best wishes for Christmas and New Year (to signify forgiveness, friendship and unity).
Trzech Króli (Three Kings Day)
The Three Kings Day is worldwide known as Epiphany and occurs every year on January 6th. Polish priests visit houses to bless them and pray, they use the blessed chalk, a gold ring, incense, and a piece of amber and inscribe the date and letters “K+M+B” on each door they visit. The letters stand for the names of the Three Kings – Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. The tradition is to protect those living in the house from illnesses and misfortune.
Each society has a system of signs, understandable only for its members. For people living outside of a given society, those signs or even objects can be confusing or have no significance. Many Polish traditions are unusual, surprising, and confusing to foreigners but are considered perfectly normal in Poland. Most of those traditions and customs stem from pagan culture, however, nowadays, they are combined with Christan observances. The Rituals and traditions of clear, old Slavic origins found in Polish culture and customs have been incorporated into celebrations of Stado by Rodnovers (modern believers of Slavic Native Faith).
Poland’s culinary traditions share some similarities with geographical neighbors (Germany, Czech Republic, Silesia) as well as Ashkenazi Jewish. Before the 17th century, Armenian cuisine arrived in Poland, due to a wave of settlers from this region, influencing Polish cities, such as Lwów, Kraków, and Zamość, as Armenians started to live there permanently. Polish cuisine was also influenced by Ottoman Empire, which resulted in coffee (known in Poland as “kawa”) becoming a popular beverage. During the 18th century, Poland was highly influenced by Lithuanian, Jewish, German, and Hungarian cuisine. Polish cuisine is very colorful, rich in meat, especially pork, chicken, vegetables, spices, mushrooms, and herbs. After World War II, lunchrooms for workers were popular in Poland, as a result of communist rule. Meals, including soups, meatballs, potato pancakes, and pierogi, were promoted in all cafeterias, known in Poland as “milk bars”. After the fall of communism, in 1989, many fast-food chains and restaurants started opening up in Poland. Thanks to its rich history, Polish cuisine is very diverse.
Some of the most famous Polish traditional dishes are:
Bigos (Hunter’s Stew)
Bigos is a Polish dish containing chopped meat (may include pork, beef, veal, poultry, and game, as well as “kiełbasa”) stewed with sauerkraut and shredded cabbage, vegetables, spices, and wine. The dish also became traditional Belarussian and Lithuanian cuisine, due to the fact that these countries were once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Gołąbki – Cabbage Roll
Another famous Polish dish is called “gołąbki” which is the plural form of “Gołąbek”, meaning “dove” or “pigeon”. The name refers to the shape of the cabbage roll. This dish is often served on Christmas and other festive occasions and it is made from boiled cabbage leaves wrapped around a filling of minced pork or beef, chopped onions, and rice or barley, and served in tomato sauce.
Barszcz Czerwony – Beetroot Soup
Barszcz is a Ukrainian beet soup, very famous in Poland, Eastern Europe, and Northern Asia. The Polish version of Barszcz, however, is more translucent, less sour, and does not include meat, tomatoes, and cabbage, like the original Ukrainian Borsht. This is another dish served for Christmas Eve.
Zapiekanka – Polish Pizza
Zapiekanka is a toasted baguette with mushrooms, cheese (Polish “Oscypek”, Gouda, Edam, Emmental or Cheddar), ham or meat, and onion. It is served hot with ketchup, usually on a paper tray. Zapiekanka is popular street food in Poland that appeared in the 1970s.
Oscypek – Traditional Polish Smoked Cheese
Oscypek dates back to the 15th century. It is a traditional Polish smoked cheese, made of sheep’s milk in the Tatra Mountains. Oscypek is has a salty flavor, and it is usually served with cranberry jam.
If you are going to visit Poland and would like to explore some of the Polish drinks, here is a list of the topmost famous traditional drinks:
Kompot – Compote
Compotes are prepared from fresh or dried fruits. In Poland, they are often made in the summer, out of apples, cherries, currants, strawberries, or pears. The drink is stored for the fall and wintertime and then served in the summer, cold, with the fruits.
Oranżada – Orangeade
Another famous, alcohol-free drink in Poland is Orangeade. It is a carbonated, orange-flavored drink that came to Poland from France in the 18th century. Orangeade was especially popular in Poland during the Cold War when grocery shops were poorly equipped with any goods. Orangeade was often sold as a powder and dissolved in a glass of water.
Piwo – Beer
In Poland, very popular alcoholic beverages are liqueurs and vodka, and beer. There are many small breweries in Poland that are producing delicious beers worth trying. Those small breweries are often underrated and do not get the same recognition as beer from other countries. You can try the Polish beer without actually visiting Poland as they can be found in many local liquor stores outside of Poland.
Wódka – Vodka
Finally, the most popular, pure alcohol drink in Poland is vodka. Produced of grains, potatoes, or sugar beets, it is especially famous in Russia and Poland, as well as other Central and Northern European countries, including Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Sweden.
Poland’s official language is Polish. It stems from the West Slavic branch of Slavic languages and is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world. It has a complex gender system, seven cases, and tongue-bending pronunciation. However, the Polish language uses a Latin alphabet, meaning the letters are more familiar to English speakers than other non-Latin languages, such as Chinese or Arabic. There are four major dialect groups in Poland, these are:
- Greater Polish, spoken in the west
- Lesser Polish, spoken in the south and southeast
- Masovian, spoken throughout the central and eastern parts of the country
- Silesian, spoken in the southwest
Anthropology: Communication Style in Poland
In Polish culture, being frank and direct with another person is seen as a form of respect. Poles are comfortable with directness and this frank approach to communication is natural. However, to foreigners, Polish people might give the impression of being self-confident because they deliver criticism quite honestly. Meanwhile, humor and sarcasm are very prominent in the Polish communication style. Poles also love to show affection during social interactions, and even when they are spoken to in English, there is no language barrier, they respond warmly and welcomingly, as most Poles speak English very well. They greet each other by shaking hands, embracing or pecks on the cheek.
Poland is one of the most underrated countries in the European Union. There are tons of vibrant cities that are not crowded with tourists because Poland does not receive a lot of attention as a tourist destination. In addition to this, most of the countryside is completely unspoiled, with mountains, such as Bieszczady, inhabited by roaming wolves and bears. Therefore, anyone who visits is able to truly discover Polish culture, unusual traditions, delicious food, and other unique and attractive charms.