A Traditional Polish Christmas - Wigilia

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Soapsmith's Christmas Traditions

Wesolych Swiat! Bozego Narodzenia! is the Polish Merry Christmas greeting.




Among Polish people, one of the most beloved and beautiful of all traditional Christmas gatherings is Christmas Eve. The Feast of the Evening Star, the Wigilia, is the time honored Christmas Eve Dinner. This solemnly celebrated occasion arouses deep feelings of kinship among friends and family gathered to honor the birth of our Lord. Christmas Eve is my birthday. My family gathers at my home for the festivities.








We spend a lot of time preparing the delicious traditional foods. My Mom always brings the pierogi because she is the master of these delicacies. You can find detailed recipe and instructions by clicking this link.




The herald moment for the dinner to begin is marked when the youngest child in the family points to the first star, knows as Gwiazdka, as it makes its majestic appearance in the eastern sky - the evening star.





We always place a thin layer of straw under a white tablecloth in memory of the Christ child in the manger. We begin with a graceful blessing of food and family. The centerpiece of the celebration is a humble manger, the breaking and sharing the traditional wafer, or Oplatek and exchanges of good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the New Year. This deeply moving moment often brings tears of love and joy 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 Nativity including the baby Jesus, the blessed Mary, and the holy angels. The wafer is known as the bread of love and is often sent by mail to the members of the family who cannot attend the dinner. During the Polish Revolution when food was very scarce, the soldiers would save their meager ration of bread, flattening and drying it so they could mail it back to their families for the holidays in hopes of fighting off starvation in the harsh winter season. The Oplatek can be spread with honey to symbolize the sweetness of life.


The dinner itself includes a specific number of dishes fixed at nine or eleven depending upon each family's customs. According to legend there must not be 13 people at the table, because that is the number at the Last Supper, Christ and his 12 disciples.

In old Poland, right after midnight on Christmas Eve morning, one of the young girls went the nearest stream to gather a pail of water. She would sprinkle the barn animals and wake each member of the household by sprinkling them with the icy water. It was believed the water on this day had the power to heal and prevent illness. It was the responsibility of the men in the family to go deep into the forest and bring back the top bough of an evergreen to hang above the table when Wigilia would be served.

A lighted candle in the windows symbolizes the hope that the Godchild, in the form of a stranger, may come to share the Wigilia. We always set extra place at the table for the unexpected guest. Tradition holds that innkeepers who had a room available, would light a candle in the window, which could be seen for miles in the desert as a welcome beacon to travelers. When Mary and Joseph approached Bethlehem, no candles could be seen, as there was no room at any of the inns. For that reason, a lighted candle is placed in the window during the meal, to announce that we have room in our hearts for the Christ child to enter.

The Wigilia is a meatless meal that features a specific menu that includes haddock or pickled herring, barley, beet, or mushroom soup, pierogi, haluski, sauerkraut, a dried fruit compote, babka bread, platzek pastries, salads and nuts and nut rolls. There are recipes for some of these traditional dishes on my blog.

The meal ends with each family and guest choosing a walnut. Upon cracking, the meat of the nut is said to predict the health of the person in the coming new year.


Aside from the rich Wigilia tradition, the Polish people have a number of other customs for the Christmas season.


Polish Christmas Carols known as koledy are melodious and sung with great gusto at homes and churches at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. This Mass is called the Pasterka, which means the Shepherds Watch, and there is popular belief in Poland that while the congregation is praying, peace descends on the snow-clad, sleeping earth and that during that holy night, the humble companions of men - the domestic animals - assume voices. But only the innocent of heart may hear them.



After dinner is a time for family to gather to exchange gifts. The Gospodarz, head of the family lights the tree and leads the singing and toasts to good health and happiness. On the way to Midnight Mass, everyone observes the night sky. If there are many stars in heavens, there is cause for great joy for it symbolizes the promise that many sheaves of wheat will fill the fields in the coming spring growing season.



Christmas Day is spent with family and friends in great fellowship and joy. The Christmas day meal always include other Polish delicacies like kielbasa and ham, along with our more Americanized feasting of turkey, crown roast and all the trimmings.



Wishing you and yours a wonder filled holiday of true joy and peace.


Thanks for visiting,

Bonnie

Added this latest photo of my tree vs Brian's tree...




Reader's Comments

By Guest on 12/26/2014 @ 11:10pmEverything look delicious, I can't wait to try your recipe for haluski and perogi.

By Guest on 12/25/2014 @ 11:00pmThanks for sharing this, it reminds me of my Mom and Dad.

By Guest on 12/25/2014 @ 03:30pmBeautiful Bonnie! Your dinners are always a highlight of any holiday. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

By Guest on 12/25/2014 @ 03:27pmLovely tradition, we did this with my Grandmother, too. So nice hear this is being carried on. I will share this with my family. Wesolych Swiat! Bozego Narodzenia!

By Guest on 04/12/2013 @ 03:42amReading this blog has brought me to tears, remembering the same Polish traditions that we celebrated with my grandmother. We still do many of the traditions but, it isn't the same since many years have past and our elders have long since passed away. Thank you for helping me remember all of the wonderful Christmas traditions.