December 18, 2014
Photography by Agnes Kantaruk
Krakow comes into its own during the depths of winter. While it is a charming city at any time of year, there is no doubt that Cracovians embrace the holiday season with an impressive sort of gusto.
So today, as we frantically plan our holiday menu and fret about the last of our gift shopping, we are turning to this southern Polish city for some festive inspiration.
Below the Gothic church spires and the towering Baroque palaces, Krakow’s ancient market squares have attracted holiday shoppers for centuries. Here, in the artic sub-zero temperatures, fur-wrapped grandmas haggle over locally made Christmas gifts and friends click steaming mugs of grzaniec mulled wine, cheering “Sto lat!” (May Poland live for 100 years!) Craft lovers feast their eyes on handmade szopki nativity scenes and foodies nosh on sizzling sausages, fried oscypek cheese and freshly-baked obwarzanki.
All this holiday revelry comes to a head on Christmas Eve, known as Wigilia. In the Polish calendar, this is seen as the holiest, and quite possibility the most joy-filled, day of the year. Starting at dawn, homes across Krakow become hives of cooking and decorating activity. The chefs pack into the kitchen to start preparing the dinner feast and the rest of the family gets to work decorating the tree with an array of fruit, candles, paper chains and ornaments.
When the first star appears in the sky, the family gathers around the table, ceremonially breaks the oplatek wafer and wishes good things for each other over the coming year before they tuck into a traditional twelve course, meatless dinner. Many families set an extra place for an unexpected guest and put hay under the white tablecloth for an added dose of good luck.
Christmas Day itself is reserved for spending time with family and friends. Cooking and cleaning are not allowed and the day is given over to relaxation.
As a sort of bonus treat, on January 6th, known as the day of St. Nicholas (aka Father Christmas), Santa Claus comes around to visit local children in person, or secretly at night. Throughout Krakow this is a day for visiting and exchanging Christmas greetings and, as night falls, Christmas carolers take to the snow-flecked streets.
As they would say in Poland, “Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia!” If that’s too tricky to get your mouth around after your second glass of grzaniec, “Merry Christmas” will do just fine. Have a wonderful holiday season!