St. Nicholas’ day is on the 6th December, but in The Netherlands and Poland, the major celebrations are held on the 5th December. Sinterklaas or Santa Claus visits and in Poland, Mikolaj, the Polish Santa, visits children and brings small gifts to reward them for good behaviour, or to remind them not to be naughty he’ll leave a twig, maybe with a present. Advent is the start of Christmas in Poland, when people try to be peaceful and reflect and try not to have excess of anything, some giving up their favorite foods or drinks. Children take part in “Jasełka” (Nativity Plays). The smell of tangerines in schools or workplaces is widely thought to mean that Christmas time is about to start!
Christmas Eve known as Wigilia (pronounced vee-GHEE-lee-uh) is a very important and busy day, even though it’s not a holiday. The house is cleaned and the Christmas tree decorated. The main Christmas meal is eaten in the evening and is called “Kolacja wigilijna” (Christmas Eve supper). It’s traditional that no food is eaten until the first star is seen in the sky!
On the table there are 12 dishes, meant to give you good luck for the next 12 months. The meal is traditionally meat free. For catholics the 12 dishes symbolize Jesus’ 12 disciples. Some people in central Poland say that at midnight the animals can talk.
One of the most important dishes is “barszcz” (beetroot soup) eaten with “uszka” (little dumplings with mushrooms) or “krokiety” (pancakes with mushrooms or/and cabbage, in breadcrumbs).
Carp is the main dish of the meal. The fish itself is traditionally bought a few days earlier alive. The carp’s scales are said to bring luck and fortune and kept.
“Bigos” is a dish which can be eaten either hot or cold. It’s made of cabbage, bacon, sometimes dried plums – so it is saved for Christmas day or the 26th as it has meat in it. It is made about a week or so before Christmas Eve, because with each day it gets better.
Herrings are very popular and served in several ways. In most houses there is “kompot z suszu” a drink made by boiling dried fruits and fresh apples.
Presents aren’t to be opened until after the meal and after carols are sung, sometimes prolonged to tease the children. Christmas Eve finishes by going to Church for a Midnight Mass service.
In Polish Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Wesołych Świąt’.
Polish Children often get dressed up and go carol singing on Epiphany, January 6th.
In the Netherlands it all starts on the second Saturday of November when Sinterklaas and his servants (elves) called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Peters’) travel to a city or town. Dutch tradition says that St. Nicholas lives in Madrid, Spain and every year he chooses a different harbour to arrive in Holland, so as many children as possible get a chance to see him.
Church bells ring in celebration, Sinterklaas, dressed in red robes, leads a procession through the town, riding a white horse. Every town in The Netherlands has a few Sinterklaas helpers, dressed the same as Sinterklaas who help give out the presents.
Children are told that the Zwarte Pieten keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a sack and the Zwarte Pieten take them to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave! On the evening that Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands, children leave a shoe out by the fireplace or sometimes a windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs. They hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents. They’re told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that a ‘Zwarte Piet’ will then climb down the chimney (or through a window) and put the presents and/or sweets in their shoes.
The evening of December 5th is called St. Nicholas’ Eve ‘Sinterklaasavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ (present evening). The children will receive their presents during the evening. There might be a knock at the door and you might find a sack full of presents!
Sinterklaas parties are often held on St. Nicholas’ Eve (5th), where treasure hunt games are played with poems and riddles giving the clues. Children follow the clues to find little presents left by Sinterklaas. Special biscuits and sweets are also eaten at the party. One type of biscuit is called ‘letter blanket’ or ‘banketletter’ (meaning letter cake), which is made from marzipan or pastry. The biscuits are made in the shapes of the first letter of the people’s names attending the party. Another sweet biscuit that is eaten at the parties are ‘pepernoot’ which are made with cinnamon and spices in the pastry biscuit mix.
In Dutch Happy/Merry Christmas can be said as ‘Zalig Kerstfeest’ or ‘Zalig Kerstmis’ (both mean Merry Christmas), ‘Vrolijk Kerstfeest’ (Cheerful Christmas) or ‘Prettig Kerstfeest’ (Nice Christmas)