Everyone around the world has a different way of celebrating the holidays. From Italians’ Feast of the Seven Fishes to the Japenese Kentucky Fried Christmas Dinner, Christmas traditions and foods carry with them a sense of nostalgia and symbolism. One such celebration is Wigilia, an extensive Polish Christmas Eve dinner that dates back centuries.
Preparations for Wigilia are extensive and strategic; aside from the plethora of food that must be made, the table must be set in a specific way. For instance, families leave an empty seat in case a stranger comes to the door. Additionally, hay is typically put under the tablecloth to represent Jesus’s placement in a manger after being born.
“It is steeped in tradition,” says Barbara Bogzevitz of this setup and of the dinner in general. Bogzevitz’s grandparents came from Poland and she has experienced Wigilia every Christmas Eve.
“It’s a beautiful way to celebrate Christmas,” agrees Amy Dreger, Bogzevitz’s daughter.
Dinner begins once someone spots the first star in the sky, and, at that point, it is time for the opłatek, one of the oldest and most beloved of Polish traditions. It symbolizes the unity of family and allows everyone to wish each other happiness, love, and health in the upcoming year, and family members break off a piece with each person at the table. The pink and white wafers usually have an illustration of the nativity or other Christmas scenes and can be purchased online, at Polish churches, and at Polish grocery stories.
There are a total of 12 dishes at Wigilia to represent Jesus’s 12 Apostles, and none of these dishes include meat. (Animals are considered equal and even magical on Christmas Eve, according to the Polish-American Center.) The soup—usually either mushroom or borscht—is the first part of the meal, and it is quickly followed by a variety of other dishes, including pickled herring, baked fish, pierogi, buttered noodles with honey and poppy seeds, fruit compote, buttered potatoes, sauerkraut, and buckwheat. Plates of cookies and nut roll make up the much-anticipated dessert.
Feeling stuffed and content, the celebrators leave the dinner table to open a few gifts around the Christmas tree before getting ready for the Shephard’s Mass, a midnight service honoring the birth of Jesus Christ. Then, it’s off to bed to await the magic of Christmas Day.
Wigilia holds a special place in the hearts of many Polish natives and descendants, and it creates a place to reconnect with family and return to the child-like wonder of Christmas. It has survived throughout many centuries, and it will surely live on through many more!