Santa Claus is coming to town… but in Poland, the version that arrives depends on where you live
The answer to who brings presents at Christmas may seem obvious, but in Poland it’s not always Father Christmas or Santa Claus with many regions having their own unique traditions for who they recognise as the primary Christmas Day gift-bearer.
Whilst Święty Mikołaj (Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus) still remains the most widespread, families in some parts of Poland recognise visits from Gwiazdor (‘Starman’), Dziadek Mróz (Grandfather Frost), Aniołek (the Angel), Dzieciątko (the child) and Gwiazdka (star).
Gwiazdor, translated literally as ‘Star-man’ is the name traditionally used in Greater Poland, Kujawy, Western Pomerania and Kaszuby for the figure who brings gifts on Christmas Eve and is distinguished from Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, who is only recognised in these regions as bringing gifts on the 6th of December, Poland’s ‘Mikołajki’ (Saint Nicholas’s Day).
The tradition from which Gwiazdor originated was from groups of carollers, who used to walk around singing carols whilst wearing a large Christmas star.
In popular legend Gwiazdor possessed knowledge about children’s’ behaviour and good and bad deeds during the year and would test children on their ability to recite their prayers and Christmas carols. As a result, he was traditionally represented as having a cane to use on naughty children alongside his sack of gifts.
Today Gwiazdor is considered a less fearful figure, though a cane remains a traditional part of his outfit.
Another figure, Dziadek Mróz , translated as ‘Grandfather Frost’, is a figure derived from Slavic mythology and strongly associated with eastern Slavic folklore from the time of the USSR, where he was conceived of as a secular substitute for Saint Nicholas.
During the Stalinist period, he was popularised in Poland by the Communist authorities who wanted to remove traditional Christmas celebrations and prevent Christian references to sainthood used in Poland’s ‘Swięty Mikołaj’ (Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas).
The tradition of referring to Dziadek Mróz was common in regions which are today part of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and is also a memory for Poles who grew up in some of Poland’s easternmost regions in particular. Though Dziadek Mróz traditionally brought presents on New Year’s Eve rather than at Christmas, some families may have recognised him at Christmas as well.
Differing from the appearance of the Santa Claus from popular culture today, Dziadek Mróz was popularly represented as wearing a floor-length coat, sometimes red, but often blue or silver and tied around his waste with a rope rather than a belt. He was also tall and slim with long, straight white hair and a long beard.
He was often characterisedbeing accompanied by his assistant ‘Snieżynka’ (‘Snowflake’), and during the Stalinist period, would feature alongside her in nativity plays and nativity scenes as a secular replacement of the traditional Christian holy family employed by the Communist regime.
In stark contrast, in Podkarpacie, Małopolska and parts of Silesia, the tradition for many families holds that is an angel who silently and invisibly leaves presents under the Christmas tree on Christmas eve before quickly returning to fulfil his heavenly duties.
Different again is the tradition for Upper Silesia, parts of Opole and the Swiętokrzyskie voivodeships, where children would traditionally be told to wait for the ‘Dzieciątko’, the little child, symbolizing the new-born baby Jesus.
This tradition arrived in Poland from Czechia, where, alongside Slovakia and Hungary, it remains popular today. It is also a tradition among Catholics in some German-speaking countries.
The last of Poland’s popular alternative names for the Christmas gift-bearer is Gwiazdka, which is also now used as a more general reference for the time of Christmas. However before it took on this meaning, it denoted a Christmas eve gift and the name began to take on the role of a character bringing gifts in some Christmas stories.
Gwiadka became popular in the southern regions of Poland including Podkarpacie, Małopolska and Swiętokrzyskie where he took on life as a physical figure bearing Christmas gifts.
Some places in the Roztocze and Sandomierz Valley even recognise dwarves as bringing and placing presents beneath the Christmas tree, though this is a much less common tradition.
This article was first published in December 2021.