I was going to wait to write about Polish Christmas traditions until the holidays are closer, but last night my university had its annual Christmas Party/Wigilia Dinner, and now I am very excited. My family has a Wigilia dinner every Christmas Eve in Philadelphia and it is my favorite day of the year. The university scheduled the party early because soon all of the students will leave for the holiday break, but typically this dinner is on December 24th.
The word “Wigilia” comes from the Latin verb vigilare, “to watch”, and literally means ‘eve’. Once the sun goes down, the whole family gathers for a huge Christmas Eve supper. Traditionally, you are supposed to leave one seat empty at the table for the “uninvited guest” in the spirit of hospitality, but my family has enough trouble fitting the “invited guests” at the table so we leave this part out. The evening begins with the sharing of oplatki, or Christmas communion wafers, so before sitting down to eat everyone takes a square. Mingling around the room, you break a piece off of someone else’s wafer wishing them a Happy New Year and vice versa. Although I am not a religious person and did not like eating the communion as a kid, now I think its nice to take the time to personally thank and wish everyone the best.
When that is over, everyone sits down at the table. Traditionally this is a meatless dinner with only fish served. First, my family starts with white borscht (sour soup) or mushroom soup. Next, there is fried fish, which is usually carp in Poland, but in Philadelphia we usually have two kinds of tilapia. My family laughs as a course of only peas go around, and then a course of just carrots as we wait for better courses to come. Śledź, or pickled herring, is served but only my late grandfather really enjoyed it. Finally the best course arrives- the pierogi (polish dumplings). My grandmother makes two kinds for every Christmas- ruskie (filled with potato and cheese) and kapusta (filled with cabbage). There is coffee, polish cookies for dessert, cake, etc. With the several courses, the meal takes a very long time and it’s nice to have the chance to sit and talk with family. However as a child, this is a long time to wait for presents, which come after the meal.
Perhaps my family’s Wigilia dinner with its few substitutions is not strictly traditional. In Poland we would eat more than one kind of soup, and probably a lot more cabbage. Also, my family usually has a baked ham hiding in the kitchen for those that do not like seafood. I think Wigilia dinner is probably a little bit different in every home, with the traditions partly Polish, and in part specific to the individual family. Since I’ve now lived in Poland for three and a half months and eaten my fair share of pierogis, it will be funny to go to Philadelphia for more. Still, living in Poland has made me cherish this tradition in my family even more, and I cannot wait until the dinner this year.