Even though I have lived in Ireland since I was eight, my family still celebrates Christmas in our Polish way. Poland is a very Catholic country and Christmas Eve is more important than the Christmas Day. By tradition, you are not allowed to eat anything throughout the day until the first star is seen in the sky. This is exciting when you are a child as I would sit by the balcony and stare into the sky until I saw the Bethlehem star. In my house, instead of fasting my mum would make mushroom soup that you could eat throughout the day before the Christmas Eve supper.
In Poland, Christmas Eve is called Wigilia and the main supper is known as Kolacja Wigilijna. For the supper, there is 12 dishes on the table; the number 12 symbolizes Jesus' 12 disciples. Some people believe that there is 12 dishes as they will bring them good luck for the next 12 months. The meal should be meat free in order to remember all the animals that looked after baby Jesus once he was born in the manger. Traditionally, everyone should eat or at least try all dishes. During the meal, it is traditional that you eat Barszcz (beetroot soup). Barszcz is usually eaten alongside with Uszka (little dumplings with a cabbage and mushroom filling).
Bigos is another big dish served in almost all houses across Poland and it can be eaten both when its cold or hot. It consists of cabbage, bacon, onions, polish sausages, mushrooms and many more ingredients. Bigos would be served on Christmas Eve but people would tend to leave it for the 26th of December as you should not eat meat on Christmas Eve.
When it comes to desserts there's two main ones served on Christmas Eve; Kompot z Suszu and Makowiec. Kompot z Suszu is basically a compote made out of dried fruit. Makowiec whereas is a poppy seed roll made out of sweet yeast bread that is then mixed with dried fruit and nuts if you like. Oh, and don't let me forget about the Piernik which is a moist cake made with honey just like gingerbread.
Oplatek is a Christmas wafer that is made out of pure wheat and water. (They are of the same consistency as the Body of Christ that Christians receive during the Communion.) In my family, Oplatek is split into pieces and the oldest family member takes the first piece. Once everyone has a piece, each person goes to everyone wishing them a peaceful year while breaking off a piece of the wafer and consuming it afterwards.
Another tradition that Poland has is that there is always an empty seat left for an unexpected guest. It is believed that no one should be hungry or alone during Christmas so if someone knocks at the door, they are welcome in to eat a meal with the family. In some houses, the empty seat represents a dead relative or a family member that could not make it for the meal. As well as that, most houses have hay under the table cloth to remind everyone that Jesus was born in a stable.
After the meal comes my least enjoying moment of the evening; singing Christmas carols. Not because I don't like them, it's because I'm a bad singer!!! Anyway, there is a lot of Christmas carols that are sang and each region has its own carols. However the most popular ones are Cicha Noc (Silent Night), Wśród Nocnej Ciszy (Within Nights Silence), Dzisiaj w Betlejem (Today in Bethlehem) and Bóg Się Rodzi (God is Born).
Now, let's get to the exciting part; PRESENTS. Yes we get presents on Christmas Eve but we are not allowed to open it till we had our supper, shared the wafer and sang the carols so it is a bit of a wait. (Especially when you are a child!!!) The rule in our house is that the oldest member of the family is in charge of giving the presents out. In Poland presents are bought by Święty Mikołaj which in English can be translated to Santa Claus. However, some regions have a different saying for Santa. For example, in the East people would say Dziadek Mróz which in English is Jack Frost and where I come from (the North) we would call Santa Gwiazdor which translates to The Starman. Now this can be interesting for you; Polish children don't get coal if they aren't good. They receive a rózga which is a birch-rod.
Christmas trees are usually brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve. So while the mother is preparing the supper, the children would put all the ornaments on the Christmas tree. Almost every Christmas tree in Poland has a Bethlehem star at the top as the star guided the three Kings to Jesus.
Some people also believe that at midnight the animals can talk like humans for a minute. Oh, and Christmas Eve is finished by going to Church for a Midnight Mass Service that is attended by the whole family.
In conclusion, this is how Christmas is celebrated in Poland. Even though I have lived in Ireland for the last 11 years, I don't know if I'll be able to go by the Irish or British tradition.