Monday, November 24, 2008

Wigilia, A Polish Tradition

Wigilia is my favorite of all Polish traditions. It's a tradition practiced in Poland and carried on by my grandparents and great grandparents when they came to the U.S.A. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like many immigrants, my grandparents and great grandparents had one foot in the old country and one foot in the new. That is to say, they wanted to be Americans and embrace the ways of their new world but until they understood and could practice those ways they carried on with the traditions of their homeland. The most famous Christmas tradition of Poland is Wigilia so it is no surprise that they would practice it in their new homes in America.

Wigilia is pronounced, vee-GEE-lee-ah, with the "gee" pronounced like the "g" in "gear". It means, Christmas Eve, or the Christmas Eve vigil supper. There is so much tradition and folklore associated with Wigilia that entire books have been written on the subject of how to observe this one day of the year! I have to be honest and tell you that my parents (who were born in the U.S.A.) did not practice Wigilia in the way that their parents did back in Poland or even the way that my cousins in Poland practice it to this day. I never heard the word "Wigilia" when I was growing up. It wasn't until I started researching my genealogy and my Polish heritage that I discovered why our family always celebrated Christmas (big dinner, opening gifts, going to church) on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. Our family tradition evolved from Wigilia!

In order to explain what Wigilia is all about I'll have to first lay some ground work. Poland is, and has been for quite some time, a devoutly Catholic country. A good bit of the spiritualism and symbolism associated with Wigilia comes from Catholic teachings. But there is also a good bit of folklore and magic associated with it and that comes from the myths and legends passed down generation by generation. It's the stuff shared by wandering minstrels and storytellers as well as by grandparents to grandchildren. In the old days, people strongly believed in good luck and bad fortune being determined by pleasing or displeasing the spirits of the heavens and the underworld. They practiced rituals they believed would ensure good health and good fortune and went out of their way to avoid those things they believed would cause them to be cursed with bad luck. In a word, they were very superstitious.

Wigilia is the peak of the crescendo (Advent) to the climax that is Christmas. It's the last day of Advent, the 4-week season of contemplation, anticipation, and spiritual preparation. For that reason, it is a solemn day until the sun sets and the first star appears in the sky. Then it takes on a more festive and magical atmosphere with a big dinner (12 different foods to represent the 12 Disciples), lighting the Christmas tree, telling stories and singing carols, opening gifts, sharing food with the animals (pets), and finally going off to Pasterka, the "Shepard's Mass", at midnight.

The celebration of Wigilia of course differs slightly from one area of Poland to another and from one family to another but there are some "standards". To begin with, the Wigilia dinner is meatless. The 12 foods are served as courses, one right after another with similar foods served together. The first course is fish, followed by one or more kinds of soup. The grains and vegetables are served next followed by pierogi (filled dumplings). A fruit compote often begins the dessert course which would also include a poppy seed roll and a honey spice cake. It is important that there are foods representing all four sources of nourishment from nature... grains and vegetables from the fields, mushrooms, berries, honey, and nuts, from the forest, fruits from the orchards, and fish from the waters.

The food is served on a white tablecloth that covers a layer of straw placed on the dinner table to symbolize the crib of the baby Jesus. In the corner of the room there is traditionally a sheaf of wheat to symbolize the labor that went into the preparation of the food by family members and those who sowed the land before them. An empty chair and place setting are included at the table for the deceased, so they are not forgotten. It can also be used in the event that a visitor might arrive.

Candles light the room and often the Christmas tree would be decorated that same day in the area of the dinner table.

The evening begins with the youngest child in the house whose task it is to watch and wait for the first star to appear in the sky. When the star appears the family will gather first for prayer and then to share the opłatek (pronounced oh-PWAH-tek) which are essentially unconsecrated communion wafers made especially for Christmas. It is a very solemn event done in a specific manner.

Here's how the opłatek are shared. First the husband will address his wife, ask for her forgiveness for all the wrongs done to her in the past year and wish her good health and much happiness in the New Year to come. She will then express her thanks, take the piece of wafer offered by her husband, and eat it. Next she will break off a piece of her wafer for her husband and wish him well and ask his forgiveness for her shortcomings. Then the opłatek are shared in a like manner with others starting with the oldest relatives and honored guests, and then the children (oldest to youngest). Finally the last of the opłatek wafers are shared with the animals. It is an important time for relationship reconciliation and healing and clears away lingering ill feelings among family members. Isn't that a lovely way to start off the holiday?
Here are three opłatek wafers. Each wafer measures roughly 4" x 7". You can see the nativity designs stamped into them.

After the opłatek has been shared, the family and guests will sit down to eat their vigil supper. Following dinner, the beautiful Polish Christmas carols (kolędy, pronounced ko-LEN-deh) are sung. As one would imagine, these are mostly religious in nature and in keeping with the solemnity of the day.

Next, gifts would be shared among family members. Gift giving is low keyed and often the gifts shared were hand made. The children would have been visited by św Mikołaj (St. Nick) on December 6th so there would not be a houseful of new toys to trip over at this time.

The evening would end with a trek off to church for Mass at midnight. The church would be decorated with candles and a Christmas tree. The kolędy would be sung again this time in the company of the entire village.

Christmas Day would be spent at home with only family, no visitors. No cooking would be done. The leftovers from Wigilia would be reheated and enjoyed once more. December 26th, St. Stephen's Day, was a day for visiting friends and relatives and eating up the rest of those yummy leftovers. Carolers would also be out and about that day as well. The three days of Wigilia, Christmas Day, and St. Stephen's Day, are the peak of the Christmas holiday celebration. However, decorations and parties continue until Candlemas, February 2nd.

In retrospect, I can see how my family's celebration of Christmas evolved from Wigilia. It was an adaptation of some of the "old ways" and some of the new. At one point I asked my mom about how she celebrated Christmas as a child. She never mentioned Wigilia, meatless dishes, or sharing opłatek. What stood out in her mind was lighting the real candles on the Christmas tree after supper on Christmas Eve. I presume she was a participant to a traditional Wigila at home as a child but I also remember that she said she and her sister would wait until their parents went to bed on Christmas Eve and then sneak downstairs to look at the packages from Santa. So my grandparents may have dropped the visit by św Mikołaj on December 6th in lew of Santa's visit on Christmas morning. That would have been a definite switch to the American way of doing things. Here's how things progressed...

To begin with, Christmas Eve, when I was a child, was not a solemn event, rather it was very festive! Here in America Catholics do not typically observe Christmas Eve as a meatless day. So when we sat down for dinner, which would have been roughly at sundown, our 12 dishes included several meats. I do remember my mom counting to make sure she had 12 dishes so I'm sure she was making a conscious effort to continue that part of the tradition. Our table was set with a festive tablecloth, usually white with a Christmas theme, but there was no straw under it. We did not share the opłatek or sing kolędy.

After dinner we would clear the table, put away leftovers, and wash up most of the dishes. When I was very young we would then take a drive around the neighborhood to see the Christmas lights on people's houses. While we were gone, Santa visited and left presents for everyone. When I was older we skipped the drive and just opened presents. There was no visit from św Mikołaj on December 6th or from Santa on Christmas morning. We opened all our gifts on Christmas Eve. Our church had a rule that you had to be 14 years old to attend midnight Mass so until I was a teenager we did not attend that service. We always got up and went to Mass Christmas morning.

Unlike in Poland, we usually spent Christmas Day visiting relatives. This was probably because St. Stephen's Day is not observed as a holiday here.

When I married and started a family of my own we continued to celebrate Christmas Eve with my family (I hosted it). We would start off by going to the Children's Mass at 4:30pm followed by dinner as soon as we could get it on the table when we got back. After dinner we would open presents with our guests. The gifts from Santa wouldn't be delivered until the kids went to sleep and were opened Christmas morning. Then by noon on Christmas Day we would head out to my in-laws home to exchange gifts and have dinner. There were a couple years when I hosted a "traditional" Wigilia including sharing the opłatek and cooking 12 meatless Polish dishes for dinner. My mom, brother, and husband appreciated it but it didn't go over well with the kids. (They don't like Polish food!)

Now that my kids are older, I still host dinner on Christmas Eve. It isn't meatless but it always includes some Polish food. Sometimes we go to the Children's Mass before dinner and sometimes we go to Midnight Mass. We usually open our gifts after dinner but sometimes we wait until we get home from Midnight Mass. Our tradition of Wigilia continues to adapt and change but it's still hanging on by a thread. I suspect that it will end with me but it would make me very happy if my kids decided to continue it!

On a end note... When I first made contact with family members in Poland we exchanged gifts and letters at Christmas time. I was tickled to learn that they still practice Wigilia in much the same way that my ancestors did before they immigrated to the U.S. They shared photos and stories with me of how they celebrate the Christmas holiday season and I treasure that information. I've used a couple of those photos in this scrapbook page about Wigilia.

The digi-scrapping papers and elements I used were part of a collaborative effort called "One Night in Bethlehem". The kits were created last year at this time and I used pieces from Kim B's Designs, and Amy W's Designs in my page.

Knab, Sophie H. Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore. New York: Hippocrene Books, Incorporated, 1996.
Krysa, Czeslaw. A Polish Christmas Eve, Traditions and Recipes, Decorations and Song. Lewiston, NY: CWB P, 1998.
Vitry, Henryk, and Maria Lemnis. Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table. New York: Hippocrene Books, Incorporated, 1997. 166-70.