As Christmas quickly approaches, you may find yourself wondering what your friendly Polish neighbors, Stanislaw and Maria, are up to. “Wesolych Swiat!” They say to you every Christmas Eve. “Merry almost Christmas!” You say back. They have been busy all week preparing for Wigilia, the traditional Christmas Eve supper. And today’s the big day! If you don’t entirely understand the Polish version of Christmas, keep reading for the answers to your biggest life questions.
Why do Polish people celebrate on Christmas Eve, and not Christmas? Wigilia is a feast held in preparation of the birth of Christ. Religion plays an enormous part in the life of an average Pole. For many, it’s at the center. Polish people, like our friends Stan and Maria, eagerly celebrate the coming of our Savior, who is currently on his way! To occupy themselves on Christmas Eve and to avoid exploding with excitement at the baby Jesus’ arrival, Polish people eat food, give thanks, and open presents. They celebrate the actual birth of Christ with a trip to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and spend the actual day of Christmas praying and relaxing with their family. There is much to be done leading up to this day, however, as Poles prepare throughout the season of advent to prepare themselves for the Lord.
How is Wigilia different from Christmas? Before the Christmas Eve meal can begin, smaller children in the family search the night sky for the “first star” or “Gwiazdka.” Once a child spots the star, it is customary for guests to gather round the table and share good wishes while they break off pieces from each other’s “oplatek.” Oplatek is a thin, flavorless wafer, similar to the communion wafer a Catholic would receive at Mass. An extra place is always set at the table for the Christ child, who may arrive in the form of an unexpected guest or stranger. After the meal, adults may join the children in singing traditional koledy, or Polish Christmas carols, while everyone waits to open the presents.
Wait, Polish children get to open their presents a day early?? Yes, this is a great custom which every culture should adapt. There is no Santa Clause, just Saint Nicolas, or Mikolaj as we call him, who puts candy in our shoes on December 6th. Everyone is fully aware that their parents provided the gifts under our tree on Christmas Eve. If your child ever comes home and tells you that Santa isn’t real, it was probably a little Polish smart ass who ruined your grand illusion.
What does the traditional Wigilia meal consist of? As old-school religion mandates, Christmas Eve must be a meatless day. The first course, a delicious red barszcz, or beet broth, is sprinkled with uszka (tiny mushroom dumplings.) This course is normally only eaten at Christmas-time, because Wigilia is so important that it has its own dish. For dinner, fish is on the menu so brace yourself for potential mercury poisoning. Along with fish (which includes but is not limited to at least 3 different varieties,) the menu includes mushroom soup, sauerkraut & beans, kapusta, various mayonnaise-based salads, potatoes, and the ever-famous pierogi. For dessert, try some lovely poppy seed cake or gingerbread. So the next time Stan and Maria wish you a Merry Christmas, invite them over for some holiday ham, and discuss their beautiful culture!