Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia!

Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia!
That's Polish for Merry Christmas.

Among Poles, wherever they are, the most beloved and beautiful of all traditional festivities is that of Christmas Eve. It is then that the Wigilia, (literally meaning "vigil") or Christmas Eve Dinner, is served. It is a solemnly celebrated occasion and arouses deep feelings of kinship among family members.

For days in advance, Poles prepare the traditional foods and everyone anxiously awaits the moment when the first star, known as the Gwiazdka, appears in the eastern sky. For that is when the feast to commemorate the birth of the Christ Child begins.

There is always a thin layer of hay under the white tablecloth in memory of the Godchild in the manger. Before sitting down at the table, everyone breaks the traditional wafer, or Oplatek and exchanges good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the New Year. This is such a deeply moving moment that often tears of love and joy are evoked from the family members who are breaking this symbolic bread. The Oplatek is a thin, unleavened wafer similar to the altar bread in the Roman Catholic Church. It is stamped with the figures of the Godchild, the blessed Mary, and the holy angels. The wafer is known as the bread of love and is often sent by mail to the absent members of the family.

The Oplatek

The dinner itself is fixed at seven, nine or eleven items. According to myth, in no case must there be an odd number of people at the table, otherwise it is said that some of the feasters would not live to see another Christmas. A lighted candle in the windows symbolizes the hope that the Godchild, in the form of a stranger, may come to share the Wigilia and an extra place is set at the table for the unexpected guest. This belief stems from the ancient Polish adage, "A guest in the home is God in the home."

image found at Flickr

The Wigilia is a meatless meal, no doubt the result of a long-time Church mandate that a strict fast and abstinence be observed on this day before Christmas. Although the Church laws have been revised and permit meat to be eaten on this day, the traditional meal remains meatless. Items that would normally be included in a traditional Wigilia menu include mushroom soup, boiled potatoes (kartofle), pickled herring (sledzie), fried fish, pierogi, beans and sauerkraut (groch i kapusta), a dried fruit compote, babka, platek, assorted pastries, nuts and candies.
(above text borrowed from

Hubby and I took over the Wigilia dinner about five years ago after the passings of his grandmother and then aunt. His uncle continued the tradition for several years, but it became too much for him. We were honored to take it over and keep the tradition going. When he and I first started dating some 30 years ago, I'd never seen anything like this gathering. I came from a small family with relatives scattered across the country, so our holidays were always very small, very intimate. There would be 30 or more people crammed into his grandmother's teeny house in the Polish section of the city. Everyone laughing, talking over one another, feasting on delicious homemade Polish food.

The complexion of the dinner has since changed. Quite a few family members have passed, grandchildren, cousins, gone their separate ways. The menu's changed a bit. Since we've taken over, we no longer have fried flounder, which Hubby hated. So the night before Christmas Eve, he and I make trays of crab cakes. His father has taken over the job of making pierogies (ohhh, so yummy!) the way his grandmother did years ago - they keep "threatening" me that I'm going to have to learn the recipe and start making them!


Hubby and I can't wait for time when our boys are married with children and we can host extended families and grandchildren to this very sacred family ritual.

What are your most beloved Christmas Eve/Day family traditions. Link up below and share.

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1 comment:

Hopemore Studio said...

Carla.. What a beautiful post about heritage and tradition! I love pierogi, though never had them homemade. I can only imagine how wonderful that is.

Merry Christmas to you and your family,

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