Polonia’s Wigilia heritage
Compiled by Our Warsaw Correspondent Robert Strybel

(A paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, at the Hotel Marriot in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg on 8-10 September 2006)


As you all well know, a great way to cultivate our Polish heritage is to promote interest in genealogy, heraldry, immigrant history and other forms of ancestral root-tracing. Others have bonded with their ethnic legacy by traveling to Poland or signing up for Polish language courses in America. And for many others, it is traditional Polish foods, crafts, customs and celebrations that have enabled them to touch base with their cultural heritage. Of all existing Polish customs, none are richer, more beautiful, solemn and inspiring than those pertaining to Wigilia, Christmas Eve. Over the years, that conclusion has been arrived at not only by Polish Americans rediscovering the Christmas legacy of their immigrant forebears. It has also been widely reaffirmed by many Americans of Irish, Italian, English, German, Scandinavian and other ethnic backgrounds that have married into Polonian families.

The reason: few other nationalities have Christmas celebrations that are so special and out of the ordinary. Wigilia is more than just another festive family gathering. It is a certain spirit, a frame of mind, and to Poles and Polish-minded people everywhere -- the single most important day of the year. That is probably because it brings together the things our compatriots have always held most dear: God, country and family. Some points to remember:

- According to tradition “how you are on Christmas Eve, you will be the whole year”. If a child should have to be spanked on Christmas Eve for misbehaving, that’s what he/she can expect all year long. Grown-ups are also on their best behavior, refrain from arguments go out of their way to be nice to each another.

- The house should be spick and span, decorated with evergreen branches, garlands and a (preferably real) Christmas tree. Family members are decked out in their holiday best and the family’s best company crockery, crystalware and cutlery should be used to accentuate the special nature of Christmas Eve.

- The opłatek (Christmas wafer) should be placed on an heirloom crystal, silver or china dish or tray, flanked by an evergreen sprig and (optional) a little bundle of hay tied with a ribbon.

- A handful of hay is strewn on the bare table top (in memory of Jesus’ humble manger bed) and then covered with a preferably pure-white table-cloth. An extra empty place-setting is customarily provided in memory of some dearly departed family member, but it may be offered to some lonely traveler who happens by or a neighbor who would otherwise have to spend this special evening in solitude.

- The appearance of the evening’s first star in the sky is the signal for the festivities to begin The job of standing in a window and watching for it was usually assigned to young children -- a great way to keep them from under foot when so many last-minute tasks had to be performed.

- The head of the household leads grace, then takes the opłatek, makes the Sign of the Cross over it and shares it with the next in line, wishing them good health and God’s abundant blessings. It is a time of love, forgiveness and reconciliation, when all past grudges are forgotten. Only after all have shared bits of opłatek, exchanged wishes and made their peace with everyone else, does the festive supper begin.

- The fact that Wieczerza Wigilijna (Wigilia Supper) is totally meatless and includes many once-a-year dishes, of which there are either an odd number or 12 (traditions vary!), also sets this meal apart. Typical foods include fish, mushrooms, vegetable, grain and pasta dishes and various sweet concoctions incorporating nuts, raisins, poppy seeds and honey.

- According to tradition, everyone must sample at least a bit of all the different foods laid out on the table, otherwise they may experience poverty in the year ahead. After the meal, it is customary to sing kolędy (carols). In a Polish-American setting it may be advisable to have song sheets available and sing along with a recording or a live accompaniment.

- Gifts are exchanged. Someone may play the kindly bishop Święty Mikołaj (St. Nick). Polish-American youngsters are fortunate to get their presents on the December 24th. Their non-Polish playmates have to wait till the following morning.

- Pasterka (Shepherds Mass at midnight), especially at a parish where Polish kolędy are sung, is a fitting culmination to the most beautiful night of the year.

Putting it all together Wigilia in America

Many Polonian families follow the Old World Wigilia customs to a tee, but often certain modifications are introduced. Unlike their rural Old World ancestors, most Pol-Ams live in urban areas, so much of the agrarian lore is difficult to re-create. How can you feed leftover opłatek and Wigilia table scraps to the livestock if you haven’t got any. How can you check if the water in the well has turned to wine or the cattle are speaking in human voices at midnight if you don’t live on a farm?! Some of the fixings may be hard to find in some areas. In Poland Wigilia has always been a celebration for the nearest of kin, but in Polonia it is also a community event. That is a creative adaptation of this tradition suited to our multi-cultural American setting.

If your family has drifted away from the Wigilia heritage, now is the time to read up about it. Worth recommending are Father Czesław Krysa’s “A Polish Christmas Eve”, the Polanie Club’s classic “Treasured Polish Customs and Traditions” or World Books’s “Christmas in Poland”. Or type “Polish Christmas” in the Google search box.

It should be remembered that in order to preserve our customs and pass them down to the next generation it is important to “start ‘em young.” With the forces of militant commercialism trying to turn the season into one, big shopping spree and telling kids Christmas is mainly about getting presents, make a fuss about Wigilia. Play up the unique nature of Wigilia, the unforgettable customs, the once-a-year foods and colorful lore surrounding this event. Above all, make sure that even your preschoolers have a hand in its preparation. After growing accustomed to passively sitting and watching the goings-on on TV, this will makes them feel more a part of what is happening. Whether they help set the table or only watch for the evening’s first star—the sign for the festivities to begin—chances are the Wigilia traditional will remain a part of their life-long childhood memories.