Wigilia: The Polish Christmas Eve Tradition

Published in the Delaware County Daily Times Friday, December 25, 2020

Delaware County’s Daily Newspaper                 

Wigilia… The Polish Christmas Eve Tradition!

By Joseph Batory

Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia translates to “Merry Christmas” in Polish.

During my lifetime, Polish Christmases have of course always been filled with piety and joy.  But my most memorable experiences have happened on Christmas Eve (December 24).

My fondest recollections are of Wigilia, the Polish Christmas Eve Dinner, which has been and continues to be a solemnly celebrated occasion In Polish households here in the USA and worldwide.  It is a shared religious experience which brings families together. 

In my boyhood, my mother and father would host the Wigilia. It was wonderful to have all of my brothers and sisters and later also their children gathered together for this occasion.  We were far from being a wealthy family, but we had Wigilia together. And happiness abounded.

The word Wigilia derives from the Latin “vigil.”  The Polish Christmas Eve family dinner begins when the “First Star” is sighted (usually an assignment for the youngest family member and sometimes helped by an adult who could “point out” the “First Star” even on a “cloudy evening”). A small bundle of dried hay or grass is always placed on or beneath the tablecloth, symbolic of the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger.

The Wigilia dinner gets underway when the eldest family member holds up a large Polish Christmas wafer (Oplatek) and breaks off a piece. The remaining wafer is then passed from member to member at the table while prayers and good wishes for each are said reciprocally. This continues until everyone at the table has shared piece of the wafer with everyone else. The Oplatek symbolizes the gifts of daily bread and blessings all of us have received and hope to receive in the coming year.

During the 40 years after WW II when the Soviet tyranny subjugated Poland, my mother would regularly hide Oplatek wafers in false (hidden) bottoms of cardboard boxes, then fill the box with worthless stuff, and have me go to the post office to mail it to Polish relatives abroad. She knew all too well that the Russians would look inside any incoming packages from the USA. But only our relatives in Poland knew what was really hidden in the box. The Soviet attempts to stomp out the Polish Christmas Eve Wigilia would not be allowed to occur!

The Wigilia dinner excludes meat bcause abstinence is required for Polish Catholics. Many families prepare twelve distinct dishes in memory of the twelve apostles.

Polish soups are typically served, most often Borscht (made with beets) or some other variation.  And usually, there is a special fish soup. 

One very humorous highlight from many years ago occurred when my oldest sister’s husband (Bob who was not Polish) was raving about how delicious the Wilgilia fish soup was…he then noticed a small “something” floating in the broth and asked about it…and was astounded (and perhaps worse) when he was told that this was an eye from the fish head that was used to make this delicious soup.

The Wigilia meatless meals often include: pierogis (potato dumplings); mushrooms cooked many ways; baked and fried fish; creamed and vinegared herrings; sauerkraut; homemade apple sauce; rice and noodle dishes; rye bread; nuts and fruits; and many cooked vegetables.

Desserts include fruit compote, Polish poppy seed rolls, Polish donuts (paczki), Polish pastry (chrusciki), and Polish Babka (cheese flavored was my favorite) cakes.

An important tradition is always to make an extra place-setting and open seat at the table for the “unexpected guest” to celebrate Polish hospitality.

My fondest recollections are that in some years at the end of the Wigilia dinners, my family members sang many beautiful Polish Christmas Carols (Kolendy. Sung in Polish, these carols are wonderfully joyful, each with a meaningful and religious tone. And what could be better than a family of all generations singing together?! 

As my family has grown much older and devolved with both of my parents and several close family members now deceased, my wife and I have been very fortunate in recent years to have been regularly invited to the home of Polish cousins for the Wigilia in Marple. It is so wonderful that we can still be a part of this tradition!  And nothing has changed! The customs/practices of the captivating and religious Wigilia celebration live on!!!!

Joseph Batory is proud of his Polish heritage.

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