Like most ethnic groups, when Poles immigrated to the United States, they continued to celebrate holidays in traditional ways. One of the most enduring customs in my family has been the celebration of Wigilia. This beautiful Christmas Eve custom celebrates the Nativity with religious symbolism and ceremony.
In the Catholic tradition, Christmas Eve is a fast day, meaning no meat is eaten. Indeed, people don’t eat very much during the day to conserve their appetites for the dinner! The table setting is very symbolic. First the table is lightly covered with straw, to symbolize Jesus’ humble birth in a manger. On it is laid a pure white tablecloth, symbolizing the purity of the Virgin Mary. The table is decorated with natural materials and candles. My mother also set out a porcelain Nativity with Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the middle of the table. It is important to set out an extra place setting and chair, and to place a candle in the window. This is for the Uninvited Guest. One year, we actually received an uninvited guest for dinner! This is a good omen that the household is blessed with the presence of God and will be fortunate in the coming year.
Dinner begins when the first star is sighted in the evening sky. As the youngest child, I held the duty of watching for the star for several years. It was exciting to be the one who called everyone to the table! To begin the meal, the family and friends take their places standing around the table. The eldest takes oplatek, a large thin wafer similar to a Communion wafer that is embossed with Nativity scenes, and goes to each person a the table in turn, breaking off a piece of the oplatek and exchanging wishes for health, happiness and prosperity in the New Year. Then everyone else takes a turn exchanging pieces of the oplatek with one another. This is a joyful, moving, heartfelt ceremony! Often distant family members and friends will mail oplatki to one another like Christmas cards, so they can participate in spirit in each other’s Wigilia.
The actual Wigilia meal always consists of an odd number of courses, either seven, nine, or eleven. It typically begins with rye bread and a mushroom or beet soup, but our family has a potato soup with onion and dill. This is followed by pickled herring (sledzie), breaded fried fish, pierogi filled with potatoes, cheese, mushrooms or cabbage, noodles and cabbage (kluski i kapusta), a compote of dried fruits, and poppyseed roll, cookies filled with apricot, prune, or nuts (kolaczki), or crullers dusted with confectioner’s sugar (chrusciki). This multi-course meal is leisurely and topped off with a cordial for good cheer!
After dinner, we exchange presents. (These are separate from the ones that Santa brings overnight!) Finally, we would bundle ourselves up and head out into the cold winter night for midnight mass. The Polish congregation would sing koledy, the beautiful Christmas carols of Poland. It is believed that during the midnight mass, the domestic animals at home are blessed with speech so that they can also sing praise – but only innocents can hear them!
My parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends would leave midnight mass, the fast broken, and gather again at home to drink, eat (kielbasa this time) and make merry well into the wee hours of the morning! Although I loved those middle-of-the-night parties, my generation does not seem to have the stamina for parties that begin at 1:30 AM!
The ingredients for Wigilia are readily available in most grocery stores, except for the oplatki. My family ordered oplatki embossed with intricate nativity scenes from a local church with a Polish-American congregation. If you don’t have one in your town, oplatki can be purchased online from the Polish Falcons Marketplace or from the Catholic Company .