Probably the single most unique feature about Polish Christmas celebrations is the great importance attached to Christmas Eve. Although the Christmas season starts on the first Sunday of Advent (this year December 3rd) and stretches on through the Three Kings (January 6th) all the way to Candlemas (February 2nd), the main event of Polish-style Christmas has always been (and hopefully always will remain) WIGILIA, Christmas Eve. It is not only the climax, high point and main focus of the entire season but the single most important day of the year.
It is on the Vigil that everything really important about Christmas occurs. All that comes earlier in the season is merely a build-up to Wigilia. Everything to comes afterwards, Christmas Day included, is an also-ran. Everything about the day is special, unique and surrounded by legend. ‚How you are on Christmas Eve you will be the whole year’ — goes a common belief, so youngsters are on their best behavior. To get spanked on that day would mean looking forward to more of the same throughout the new year.
The culmination of December 24th is the ‚wieczerza wigilijna’ or Christmas Eve supper, the year’s most symbolic and festive family gathering. Hay is scattered over the table-top before being covered with a pure-white (non-patterned) table-cloth. Everyone dons his or holiday finery, awaiting the evening’s first star to appear — the sign for things to begin. Then comes grace and the breaking and sharing of oplatek, accompanied by an exchange of wishes, personalized to fit the individual hopes and needs of each person present.
The supper itself comprises an odd number of meatless dishes, some of them served in many families only this once a year. Typical foods include herring and other fish, mushrooms, sauerkraut and noodles, with sweet follow-ups containing poppyseed, honey, nuts and dried fruit. After supper koledy are sung and gifts are exchanged, but getting presents is not really a big part of traditional Polish Yuletide. The crowning of a magnificent evening of family warmth and traditional symbolism is Pasterka, the Shepherd’s Mass.
In addition to the beautiful old customs and the tasty delicacies, in an American setting Polish-style Wigilia could be a boon to those where each year both sides of the family want everyone over for Christmas. The more Polish-minded side could hold its main celebration on the 24th and the more Americanized could have the family over the following day. Throughout this reporter’s childhood on Detroit’s east side, this worked perfectly: Wigilia was always at Babcia Strybel’s and Christmas Day was at Babcia Kupczynska’s.