WIGILIA: A Polish Village Christmas Eve
It is Christmas Eve. The night is cold and snow drifts across the fields. Children sit by the windows eagerly waiting for the appearance of the first star. “There it is!” cries Janek (Johnny). “Yes, we see it!” they all chorus. “Wigilia can begin!”
Advent, which is a time of reflection and anticipation, ends on the 24th of December. On this day, all of Poland will celebrate Wigilia. Wigilia, pronounced “vee-geel-ya“, is a simple word meaning vigil. However, to all Poles, the word has a very special meaning. Wigilia is the traditional Christmas Eve family celebration when the most important meal of the year is shared.
Preparations for this night are numerous. The room where the meal will be served is decorated with boughs of fir and spruce. Above the table the podlaznik (pod wahz nick) is hung from the ceiling rafters. The podlaznik is the top of a spruce or pine hung with the tip pointing down…an upside down Christmas tree! It is one of the oldest Christmas decorations in early Poland. The podlaznik is decorated with apples, straw ornaments and multicolored ribbons. Sheaves of wheat are placed in the corners of the room. Ornaments like the star, gwiazda (gvyaz da), and the Christmas Eve cross are constructed from wheat. Straw is also used to decorate and a thin layer of straw is placed on the table then covered with a white tablecloth. The straw symbolizes the manger where Jesus lay. Sometimes, straw or hay is scattered on the floor to symbolize the stable.
Meal preparations also take time. Fruit compotes have been made, along with pierogi and many desserts. Because the rules of the Catholic Church stated that the day before Christmas was a day of fast and abstinence, meaning only one full meal could be consumed and the eating of meat was not allowed, the Poles decided to make a feast of the Wigilia supper. The meal varies in many households. Of necessity the poor will have less than those families of greater wealth but the meal is always meatless and served in courses of 5, 7, 11 or 13…always an odd number. Dishes may include herring and fish, especially in those regions where it’s plentiful, mushroom soup, pierogi filled with cheese, kapusta (sauerkraut), mushrooms or fruit, buttered kluski (noodles), fried potatoes with onions and potato dumplings. Desserts include poppyseed cake, placzek, mazurkas, sernik (cheesecake), pierniki ( honey spice cookies), fruit compote and other delicacies. Alcohol is usually limited to the serving of krupnik, a honey based liqueur.
The table is prepared and two extra places are set. One for family members no longer present and the other for a stranger for no one should be alone on this special night. As the family is seated, the most important tradition will take place. It is the sharing of the oplatek (o pwa tek). The oplatek is an unconsecrated wafer similar to the communion wafer used in church. The oplatek comes in rectangular sheets embossed with scenes of the nativity. An envelope of oplatki (plural) usually contains four sheets, three white and one pink. The pink (or other colored) oplatek is shared with the domestic animals, crumbled in the feed of the cows, horses and other farm animals and also given to the family pets. This is done because animals were the first to see Jesus.
The sharing of the oplatek begins with the husband who shares with his wife and wishes her good health, happiness and asks forgiveness for any wrong he has done to her. The wife breaks the wafer and consumes it. She then shares her oplatek with her husband with similar wishes. The oplatek is then broken and shared from the oldest family member to the children.
The festive Wigilia meal begins with much enjoyment and laughter. After the meal, koledy (ko lend eh), Christmas carols, are sung. Soon it is time for Midnight Mass, the Pasterka – the Mass of the Shepherds. The family continues to sing as they travel to church where they will give thanks for all the blessings received.
Today, in Poland and in all Polonia (communities outside of Poland inhabited by those of Polish descent), Wigilia celebrations may vary. The church rules have changed and December 24th is no longer a day of fast and abstinence. Some families may include kielbasa and ham as part of their Wigilia meal but for the most part many continue with the traditional meatless menu. In some parish churches, Midnight Mass, Pasterka, is now celebrated at 10:00 P.M. However, Wigilia continues to be a family celebration and one tradition will always remain…the sharing of the oplatek, the symbol of Wigilia.
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