Wigilia — a Polish tradition on Christmas Eve

by Kathy Schmugge

For generations, my family has taken part in a Polish tradition on Christmas Eve called Wigilia. It is an excellent way to start the holiday because it unites present generations with the past and brings the family closer together. With the main focus on the Infant Birth, the celebration has unique customs, foods and decorations associated with it.

On Christmas Eve, everyone awakes early, dressing especially nice.

Beginning with prayer, the day is normally very peaceful. Legend says that if you argue on this day, your entire year will be plagued with arguments, so everyone tries to be on their best behavior. Each family member has a certain task to complete; some will decorate while others may help with the cooking.

At dusk everyone crowds around a food-filled table and gives thanks to God for all the blessings in the year. The head of the household, usually the father, begins the ceremony by breaking a thin flat wafer called oplatek.

The wafer is usually decorated with a Nativity scene. He offers a piece to his wife, asking for forgiveness for any pain he may have caused during the year, thanking her for her contribution to the family and wishing her happiness and good health.

She then breaks off a piece for him and shares similar sentiments. The bread is distributed to all with personal feelings and loving wishes, and they in turn express their love and gratitude.

There are certain dishes served on Wigilia although substitutions are common, based on availability and cost. The meal consists of 13 courses, is meatless with a main course of fish, herring or carp is common. The appetizer is a soup, like beet, mushroom or barley, served with the following side dishes: sauerkraut, pierogi (dumpling with different fillings such as cheese or potato), potato pancakes and noodles with poppy seed and honey. A common desert is fruit compote or poppy seed rolls with honey liqueur on top.

The decorations take a very natural look consisting of grains, nuts and fruit. A sheaf of grain is placed in the corner of the room to symbolize the guardian angel of the home. A manger scene is placed in the center of the table with a bough made of paper links and a spruce branch hung above it.

Garland is hung from the four corners of the room representing the four corners of the world. Also there is always an extra seat at the table for symbolic reasons. It is a reminder for us to set aside thoughts and prayers for those who could not attend and for those who have nowhere to go.

Wigilia is a beautiful way to get the entire household involved, appreciating each other and seeing the religious significance of the season.

Kathy Schmugge is a writer for The Catholic Miscellany.