How we celebrate Christmas Eve

How we celebrate Christmas Eve with my little family of four is vastly different from how my family growing up celebrated Christmas.  I’m one of eight kids, so Christmas was an entirely different prospect altogether, but Christmas eve especially so.  Everyone’s holiday traditions are so different, and my new family traditions took a bit of getting used to in the early years.

As a kid on Christmas Eve we grew up singing Christmas carols around the tree, 10 family members and a dog in various poses of slouching all over the family room furniture.  Sometimes we’d go to my grandparents house for dinner, have a blessing on the food and spend the evening in song and general merriment.  Once in a while we’d watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, and we always, always went to bed early so Santa would come fill our stockings.

christmas tree decoration

After Viktor and I got married, we decided to do things a little differently.  He grew up in very, very, very Polish Catholic home.  And if there’s one thing you need to know about the Polish people, it’s that Catholicism is nearly equated with national pride.  Religion has been the one part of Polish culture invading countries have never been able to eliminate, and as such Catholicism is sacred ground.

So you can imagine then, how sacred religious holidays are, especially Christmas, to Polish people.  Specifically the Czarnecki family.  Babcia {Polish for grandma} is serious about her holidays, and I’m not about to interfere.

cute present wrapping

One of the central Christmas traditions Viktor wanted to integrate into our new life was the handling of Christmas Eve.  For Viktor growing up in Poland, the entire city of Warsaw shut down for a week-long celebration of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Eve.

An ENORMOUS dinner, followed by the opening of gifts, ending with midnight mass.

Even though the thought of opening all our gifts on Christmas Eve {for me} bordered on sacrilege, I agreed and now Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the entire year.

christmas ornaments

Here’s how it all goes down:

We spend the entire day cooking together as a family, listening to Christmas music, delivering homemade baked goods to our neighbors.  We set the table with Christmas china and candles, and under the tablecloth we place a piece of hay sent to us from Babcia in Poland, to represent the hay in the baby Jesus’ manger.  A piece of communion-like wafer oplatki, sits on a plate of its own, and an extra place is set for any weary stranger who might happen by our home. The children sit by the window to watch, and when the first star appears in the sky, we sit down to enjoy a traditional Polish dinner of unpronounceable things; beet soup and dumplings being the main course.

I like to class up the joint with sparkling cider and a Christmas trifle, my own little decidedly non-Polish additions to the meal.

christmas eve traditions

After we’re all finished eating we roll ourselves gather in the study to sing Christmas carols.

My Christmas Eve tradition.

rudolph the red nosed reindeer

We read the story of Christ’s birth in Luke, and after much wiggling and cajoling on the part of the children, we open presents.  The baby opens first and we work our way up the ladder, one gift at a time, taking a moment to thank the gift giver before moving on.

The kids absolutely love that they get to open gifts before any of their friends, and Viktor loves that we’re preserving a part of his childhood even though I’ve only made it to midnight mass once in our relationship.  Lovely as it is, I’m not made of tough enough stuff to start a church meeting at midnight.

holiday with family

I’d really love to know: what are your traditions?  Have you ever opened presents on Christmas Eve?  What do you do on Christmas day?


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Hello there! I'm Allison Czarnecki, founder + editor of Petit Elefant, a blog all about style on a budget for every part of your life: style / home / travel / family. I do a lot of how-to beauty + style tutorials, travel posts, easy recipes, home remodel projects, and cool DIY crafts you totally want to try. I'm super happily married (to a hot Polish immigrant) and am the mother of two kids, a daughter and son, all of whom are featured here on the regular. We live in the country but we're a little bit rock + roll. Welcome!


  1. Roberta :

    Hi there! I came to your site for your recipe on homemade Biore strips, and found this article on your Christmas traditions – we have a Polish Christmas too! I am half Polish, and grew up with Wigilia, and of course, all the food! Isn’t it great? Wishing you a nice holiday season!

    • Allison :

      Roberta, I’m so happy you found me! Aren’t the Polish traditions magical? My children completely adore everything about them. :)

      Happy holidays to you as well!

  2. Christie Elkins :

    Love everything about this post. AND I love everything about Polish food :) Love how you keep Christ as the center of this holiday. Now I have said “love” three times in this comment. Sorry!

  3. Michelle B :

    When we were little, we got to open one present in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then depending on what we had going on as far as visiting family, we either went to Catholic mass Christmas Eve night or Christmas morning. Then we would normally open presents Christmas morning before going to my grandparents.
    Now that we are grown with kids, we go to my parents on Christmas Eve where my parents both make tenderloins and then we have to pick which is the best. Nothing like a friendly Then all the grandkids get new PJs from our parents and then we open gifts. We spend Christmas day just the three of us.

  4. Cassie :

    Christmas Eve is also my favorite day of the year too. My mom, sister and I (we were recently able to added my sister in law :) get up early and bake ALL DAY!!! We have our 5 things we HAVE to make, or the men of the family will get angry, but we also like to mix it up. At 6 we go to church for candle light service then come home and eat sloppy joes, I don’t know why, we just do. Once all the baking is done we turn off all the lights in the house and sit around the tree and listen to my mom read The Night Before Christmas and we all sing Christmas songs. When we were kids we were could open one present before we went to bed.

  5. Donna :

    We didn’t have any Christmas Eve traditions growing up until the year my Grandma died. She died a few days before Christmas and my Dad was the only one we could afford to fly to her funeral. That year in order to make things more merry my Mom started letting us open one present on Christmas Eve. In retrospect that must have been a hard Christmas for my parents. After I got married we used to have a big Christmas Eve party with my hubby’s family. But only a few of us kept the tradition going after Grandma and Grandpa died. Now that Calvin isn’t with us our newest tradition is to light candles over at the cemetery. Then we go home and eat dinner. Then a little later we go back and drive through the cemetery. It is beautiful with all the candles everyone has lit. It helps us remember Calvin and remember there’s more to Christmas than presents. I love your traditions. If you ever go to another Christmas Eve Mass, call me cuz I want to go to. I went once as a teenager and loved it.

    • Michal :

      I’ll do it. All the smoke, chanting, and reciting kind of weirds Ali out. Also, the whole midnight things weirds her out too. She just needs to count herself lucky that after being out until 1.30 or so, she doesn’t have to get up for 10am mass the next day; it’s Christmas after all.

  6. Shea :

    On Christmas Eve, my whole family on my dad’s side gathers at either my cousin’s large home or my grandmother’s home. Even distant cousins come out on Christmas Eve. We get together, eat, drink, stay warm, and eventually we play Secret Santa for the adults. Whenever we get home we’re allowed to open ONE gift, and have to wait until morning(we get up around 4 anyway on Christmas Day) to open the rest.

  7. Jeni :

    Donna forgot to add that after we became teenagers, we started making homemade pizza every year. We still like to do that with our family. Working at Pizza Hut taught me and Donna so much! Okay, not really, but we sure make a mean pizza! BTW, I got to go to midnight mass at the Vatican. . . on my mission. It was beautiful!

  8. Catie :

    My maternal grandparents were from Poland and we always celebrated Wigilia as well so I’m thrilled to read about your Christmas Eve traditions! I’m hoping to make homemade pierogi again this year just like I used to with my grandma when I was younger. My grandma passed away three years ago and even before that, we got into the habit of just buying pierogi at the store instead of making them. I’d love to know more about your menu! We usually have a tomato soup with dumplings (my Irish dad refuses to do the traditional beet soup!), two kind of fish (maybe smoked salmon, sometimes shrimp), mashed potatoes with onions, three kinds of pierogi (sauerkraut, potato, cheese), and bread. We usually try to have twelve courses for the twelve disciples but sometimes we cut it short due to time.

    Thanks for sharing and Happy Holidays!

    • Michal :

      Yup. 12 courses FTW. Did you ever have the fish suspended in jelly with carrots? Since the whole meal is without meat (fish excluded) we make uszka for the barszcz. Take equal parts fried mushrooms and fried onions (diced) and run them through a meat grinder. Take the paste and put it into Won-Ton squares, fold, and fry. Serve as you would crackers with soup with the barszcz.

      • Catie :

        The uszka sounds delicious and I’m always looking for smaller items to add to our table! That will be perfect! I haven’t done the fish in jelly but my grandma used to make salmon patties using canned salmon and I remember sitting in her kitchen with her and smashing the bones to get it to “just the right consistency”. That probably sounds so strange, but I remember it as being one of my favorite parts of the prep!

  9. Amie aka MammaLoves :

    I have a mixed marriage too. Husband’s family opens on christmas eve and I come from a christmas morning family. We used to do a nice, fancy christmas eve meal at my parents and then spend time together.


    We go to my in-laws for an early dinner on Christmas Eve. Dinner is the same menu every year–Midwestern casseroles! Then open presents, then church, then back to in-laws for dessert, finally home. THEN, i have to get the kids to bed so we can prepare for Santa. Next morning Santa comes, then we open our presents from my family and then a traditional meal of beef tenderloin and then visiting.

    Holy cow I am tired just thinking about it. My kids love it of course because they get 24 hours of Christmas.

  10. Yvonne :

    Growing up my mother’s side of the family (my favorite) always got together at my grandparents house for Christmas Eve… It was my Christmas! We all gathered and ate a large meal of turkey, ham, dressing, and all the fixin’s. After we all ate and cleaned up dinner, we would gather in the formal living room and open presents in rounds, starting with the youngest first. Then, after all the excitement of our family gifts, we would go to bed and wait for Santa to come in the morning! (Some years, after dinner, we would go drive around Houston to look at all the Christmas lights)

    It really works out for my family now because my husbands family has everything on Christmas Day! My kiddos are spoiled rotten by the time it is all said and done because they get to have FOUR Christmas’s!!!

  11. Adventures In Babywearing :

    I love hearing how you celebrate! My family was also different than my husband’s, which worked out for us because my family’s big deal is Christmas Eve and his fam’s is Christmas Day! I do miss going to Christmas Eve service at church, though. That has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle and I wish we could do it again. The candlelight carol singing at church is one of my favorite things.

    PS my family always opened presents from each other on Christmas Eve, and Santa presents on Christmas morning. In my husband’s family it was unheard of to open presents before Christmas morning! Also, my mom was such a softie that we usually got to open a present or two the week before Christmas! LOL


  12. Zoe :

    In my family we have a mix of traditional Russian Orthodox and Americana for Christmas, and although we do wait until Christmas morning for most of our presents, we all open one Christmas Eve together, and trying to figure out which present under the tree is the one that we all are just DYING to open early is definitely the best part.

  13. Katrina :

    I should so do a blog post about our “three day tour” We have 5 family X-mases to do in 3 days.. good thing that my husband celebrates Bujrum & New Years instead of X-mas… I don’t think I could celebrate 2 more families in those two days. lol

  14. Ludicrous Mama :

    Growing up, one of the neighbors would dress up as Santa and go door to door giving one present per kid on Christmas Eve (gifts that their parents had previously left in a pre-arranged place for him to pick up outside each house.) It was really awesome. He had a notebook with our names in it, and it was just magical. He ‘retired’ and moved away sometime in my early 20’s, but he was still going to our house for my cousin, who was still little (and my youngest sister, who was 10-years younger than me.) I made sure to be there that year, to say goodbye!
    Now, my husband’s family gets together Christmas Eve and we open all the presents to and from them. Then we can do our own household thing Christmas morning, then get together with my family in the afternoon.

  15. Kathleen W. :

    Your Christmas Eve sounds a lot like ours growing up. My dad’s parents were Polish, and we had an elaborate Christmas Eve fete like yours, with oplatki, pierogi, halupki,fish, and tons of cookies all baked by my grandma. Sadly, since they’ve passed on, my mom hasn’t kept up all of the traditions (we still do oplatki and some of the foods), though Christmas Eve (which we spend with my parents) is the time we open presents too. I think the eve is more special than the day, to be honest. The anticipation and darkness adds to the magic.

  16. Crystal :

    Towards the end of my time living with my parents, there became a tradition of my dad trying to convince my mother to let everyone open everything on Xmas eve. And of course, my mother being the softy she is, gave in every time! Dad can be pretty convincing. ;-)

    Not to mention it makes Christmas Day less stressful because you don’t have to wake up extra early to open presents in addition to visiting two sides of the family to celebrate in one day.

  17. dgm :

    Ever since kids, our tradition of opening presents from Dec. 21-25 has evolved. My husband is not religious and never really got excited about Christmas, but he loves winter solstice because it signals the shortest day of the year (he hates the short winter days, so solstice signals that things are looking up). So that’s where we start, with the kids each picking out one gift to open. If we plan to travel to my parents’ on the 25th, our kid open one present each on the 21-23, and the rest from us on the 24th (neither of them ever believed in Santa, so that wasn’t an issue). Christmas Day is devoted to opening all the presents from extended family members. That way the kids are not barraged with too many gifts at once, and they can concentrate their expressions of gratitude without feeling overwhelmed. It’s not for everyone, but it works for us. :)

  18. Kiki :

    Every Christmas Eve, we light candles on our Christmas tree. It’s not as scary as it sounds! Actually, it’s not scary at all. We cut our tree the week before Christmas so it’s very fresh, and I put the candles in strategic places so they aren’t close to any ornaments or other branches. My dad was born in Norway and his family had been doing this for over 100 years so it’s nice to keep the tradition going. He taught me the proper way to place and light the candles. I light the candles, turn off the lights, and we stand around the tree, enjoying the way it glows in the light. After about 7 minutes or so, I snuff the candles out and put the lights back on. My husband thought I was crazy when he first heard about this tradition but now he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. When I was little we didn’t have any lights on the tree other than candles, and no ornaments other than the ones we had made ourselves. Now, I have lots of ornaments, both hand-made and store-bought, and I put Christmas lights on as well as the candles, but there’s absolutely nothing to compare to the way the tree glows in the candlelight on Christmas Eve.

  19. Jenn :

    Growing up, Santa (and an elf, or Mrs Claus) always stopped by our house on Christmas Eve (where he’d pass out all the gifts Grandma left by the back door). All of my family on my Mom’s side came – it was great fun. we’d be exhausted but would cram into our overstuffed church for the 11pm Mass.

    We’ve been living in Wales the past 2-1/2 years, so no family for Christmas, but we’ve tried to keep some traditions. Our kids still get new PJs Chritmas Eve (my mom couldn’t stand ratty Jammie’s in the Xmas photos). I cook a turkey Chritmas Day, and a Ham on Boxing Day (new tradition). I think I like the idea of Pizzas on Christmas eve – too much cooking for me to alone right now.

  20. Celeste :

    Loved reading about your Christmas, and I hear you about the Catholic/Polish cultural identity–it’s really hard to explain. I’m second generation Polish, but ALL polish. My parents and family celebrated a VERY traditional Polish Christmas not unlike your husband. Wigilia, Oplatek, all very much a part ,but the Christmas eve unwrapping didn’t happen until you were past the point of believing in Santa. Now, I’ve made our own traditions, but we always have zupa Grzybowa and we always go to midnight mass. I think I’ll get some Oplatek this year….I found a place in Hamtramack , Michigan (where my family is from ) Where I can order it. Thanks for sharing—a Polish Christmas is really the best.

  21. Lori :

    We’ve have always opened presents on Christmas Eve. I’ve never understood why, but Mom says that’s how they did it growing up.
    Each year on Christmas Eve we have a huge family dinner, afterwards, the kids have to clean up the kitchen. (hated that part growing up!!) Once the kitchen is completely clean and dishes are done. We sit around the tree, telling stories. Then the presents are passed out. Then the kids and I make home-made eggnog. They then rush off to bed and await a visit from Santa.

  22. Erin O. :

    My Dad is Catholic and when my Grandparents on his side would spend Christmas with us, we would occasionally accompany them to Midnight Mass. I thought it was magical. I didn’t grow up with any specific Christmas traditions, other than spending it with family and staying in jammies. I have good vibes from my Christmas memories. Now, we spend Christmas Eve with my side of the family, at my Mom and Dad’s house. We eat, drink and are the epitome of “merry”. I think this year, I’m going to add a Christmas Eve tradition to the mix for my kids—Christmas Eve morning is for baking Santa’s cookies. :)

  23. Emilie Pecka :

    We celebrate St. Nicholas Day (Dec 6). We put our wooden shoes out for St.Nick and he fills them with chocolate, a little present, and some socks. Fun :)