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From Poland to New York: Holiday Traditions


I’ve asked fellow travel bloggers to share their holiday traditions. Nicolette Orlemans, founder of  popular Twitter chat #CultureTrav, shares how she celebrates the holidays.

Pierogies, Christmas music, and time with family: that’s what the holidays look like for me each year. I was born and raised in a Dutch/Polish household, and always celebrate Christmas according to Polish customs.

Food traditions

As far back as I can remember, we’ve made our own sauerkraut and dried mushroom pierogies. Mom, grandma (Babcia) and I used to make them together – spending quite some time in the kitchen perfecting their filling and the dough (which resulted in late-night laughs this particular year, as the dough wasn’t as sticky as we wanted it to be). But, nothing quite beats the way my Babcia used to prepare them; they were simply irresistibly good!

Pierogies play an important role in Polish tradition and cuisine to this very day – and there are different sweet and savory flavors you can try. Many fellow travelers will often tell me they’ve tried pierogies with mashed potato, onion and cheese filling, or with meat, or even with fruit. But, on Christmas Eve or Wigilia in Poland, we only make sauerkraut and dried mushroom pierogi, according to Christmas tradition. In addition to pierogies, smaller versions known as uszka (smaller size pierogi with dried wild mushrooms) are added in the red beet soup, barszcz czerwony.


Sauerkraut and dried mushroom pierogi – a Christmas tradition, with beet soup.

An unexpected guest

Wigilia is a traditional Christmas Eve celebration, which often culminates in Midnight Mass (Pasterka) full of churchgoers singing Christmas Carols in Catholic churches across Poland. While setting the table, it’s also custom to leave an extra place for an “unexpected guest,” as this is seen as a sign of hospitality and family spirit. This seat is left empty in case someone in need unexpectedly drops by and this person is consequently welcomed to join the family celebrations.

Setting an extra place for an unexpected guest.

Setting an extra place for an unexpected guest.

Breaking opłatek

Prior to eating, family members break opłatek, a special wafer, and wish each other a great upcoming year with personalized wishes (whether it’s good health, successes, love, or more). Sometimes, even animals (family pets) are given a piece of this wafer. After everyone has enjoyed opłatek, the meal can begin. Typically, the meal in our house starts with barszcz czerwony (red beet soup) with pierogi. After the soup, we move on to potatoes with kapusta (a mixture of dried mushrooms and cabbage), and also on the table are a dried fruit compote, water and wine. We always enjoy carp fillet for the supper. For dessert, we’ll have makowiec (poppy seed cake) and other treats! And, after everything is settled a bit from dinner, we begin to open gifts. While most people I know wait until Christmas Day to unwrap presents, it’s part of the tradition to begin opening them on Christmas Eve. In The Netherlands, we often celebrated another holiday known as Sinterklaas with similar traditions (where children open gifts on December 5th and are given treats!), but the celebration is slightly different.

Breaking opłatek

Breaking opłatek.

Christmas Day

On Christmas Day, we love to start with a big breakfast with everything ranging from cold cuts to eggs to cheese, salmon, kiełbasa and more! All in all, Christmas is a wonderful time with our family and to feast on delicious food!

After celebrating Christmas with my family, it was time to go back to New York City to work and celebrate the end of 2015. When we first moved to the United States in 2000 with my family, we were surprised by what we found at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. We lived in a small town in New Jersey, and left our house with champagne and glasses in hand, assuming we’d greet our neighbors. After all, it’s custom in The Netherlands to wish your neighbors a great New Year and watch fireworks together slightly after midnight. Funnily enough, we were in for a shock: most of the lights in the neighborhood were off, there were no fireworks to be seen, and there we were, all dressed up and with champagne in hand to toast…

That was in 2000, and now I’m in New York City in 2015: the place to be for New Year’s Eve in the USA! Every year, tourists wait in Times Square to watch the ball drop and count down until the New Year. They watch with loved ones and friends, and party until the early hours in the city. And while it’s always fun to me to watch the countdown on TV, I’ve never particularly been pulled to watch from Times Square. Maybe I’ve lived in New York City long enough to call myself more of a New Yorker, and trust me, none of us celebrate in Times Square. This year was no exception! I celebrated the transition from 2015 to 2016 in Queens at a house party where we watched the countdown on TV and toasted with champagne, and enjoyed each other’s company in the calm of home. What I loved most about it was its simplicity: friends, great food, fun conversations and low-key atmosphere in the always-lively city that never sleeps, New York City.

New Year's Eve in New York

New Year’s Eve in New York.

How did you celebrate the holidays? Let us know in the comments.

Nicolette Orlemans grew up in a multicultural, bilingual home in The Netherlands to a Polish mother and a Dutch father. She is currently based in New York City, where she works as a communications strategist. When she’s not working, Nicolette loves to travel, and has visited much of Europe, seen many of the U.S. states, and traveled to Egypt. In November 2014, Nicolette founded #CultureTrav, a Twitter chat that focuses on how travelers personally experience travel – adapting to cultural differences, bridging any language gaps, creating new homes as expats, and much more. You can view her community blog at

Kirsty Marrins

Reader, writer, occasional runner, travel lover.




  • Marta

    We also celebrate Christmas eve in Italy and we call it ‘Vigilia’: it’s always been my favourite part of Christmas and one I miss very much now that I live abroad. I didn’t know about the tradition of leaving a sit empty but love it: so thoughtful and welcoming!

    • Kirsty Marrins

      I didn’t know of the ’empty seat’ tradition either and it is so nice!

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