A POLISH CHRISTMAS EVE: Wigilia – The Vigil
For people of Polish ancestry, Christmas Eve is a special night. It is a night of magic when animals are said to talk and people have the power to predict the future. It’s a time for families to gather and reconcile any differences, and to remember loved ones who have gone before them. It’s call Wigilia (vee-GELL-yah) which means, “vigil,” or waiting for the birth of Baby Jesus.
As dusk approaches, the mother of the family places a lighted candle in the window to welcome the Christ Child. Straw or hay, a reminder of Christ’s birth in a stable, is placed under a white linen tablecloth, which symbolizes Mary’s veil which became the Babe’s swaddling cloth. The eldest woman of the house places the blessed Communion-like wafers called oplatki (Oh-PWAHT-kee) on a fine china or silver plate. In modern times, straw and evergreens are assembled on a serving platter and covered with a white napkin. The oplatki is then placed on the napkin.
An extra place is set of any weary stranger who happens to pass by, in the same way Joseph wandered from home to home looking for a place for Mary to give birth, and in memory of those who are departed. (The extra place is also set in hopes that Christ will dine with the family.)
After sunset, the youngest child is sent to watch for the first star. This is why the wigilia dinner is also known as the Star Supper. Only then are the candles on the table lit and the dinner begun. But not a morsel is eaten before the “breaking of the oplatki.”
The eldest family member takes the wafer, breaks it and shares it with the next eldest with wishes for good health and prosperity, and a kiss on each cheek. Each person then exchanges oplatki with everyone else at the table. It can be a very emotional time as grudges are forgotten and deceased family members are remembered.
Instead of sending Christmas cards to friends and family not present, Poles send oplatki, first tearing off a small corner to show that the donor has broken it with them as a token of affection. (In America, Polish families often enclose oplatki in their Christmas cards.)
In some regions of Poland, at the end of the supper, Father Christmas, known as The Starman (very often the parish priest in disguise), accompanied by singing Starboys, pays a visit. He brings rewards to good children from Starland, and scolds the naughty ones, who eventually get their reward, too.
Typical food dishes on Christmas Eve include borscht, mushroom dishes, herring, white fish, meatless cabbage rolls, gingerbread cookies, pierogis, poppy seed rolls, spice cake, fruit, chocolates, tangerines, and cognac, liquers, and vodka made into a variety of drinks.
[Information taken from “About Food – Polish Christmas Recipes and Traditions” - by Barbara Rolek, Eastern European Food Expert.]