I tried doing Wigilia on my own a few years back – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are a dozen courses in the traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal, which is largely vegetarian (they don’t count fish, apparently; as a vegetarian, I do). I thought it was time I went to the experts, so I accepted a Wigilia invitation from Caria Tomczykowska of the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation last weekend in Walnut Creek. With about fifty happy Poles, or Polish wannabes, we had course after course, including creamed herring, cheese pierogi and sauerkraut and potato pierogi, barszcz with uszka, a dried fruit compote, and a poppyseed roll. That’s all I can remember – except for more fish. Oh yes, and a California Chardonnay … Stag’s Leap, I think … and vodka.
That was just the beginning … or rather, the beginning was earlier before we even sat down. A traditional Wigilia begins with the youngest child in the household being sent outside to spot the first star. Then it begins – with opłatki. We skipped the kid (the star came out anyway, on its own) and moved directly to the opłatki. According to Sarah Zielinski on NPR, writing about opłatki here:
Nothing says “I love you,” at least in my Polish-American family, quite like the sharing of a thin, flat, tasteless wafer called an opłatek at Christmas.
We’re not alone. Before sitting down to Christmas Eve dinner, many families with roots in Poland and other Eastern European countries will take part in this tradition, which has roots dating back hundreds of years.
“For us, Polish Americans, the opłatek, that wafer, is Christmas Eve,” says Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of the book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore…
At the start of dinner, just after grace, the male head of the household takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the new year. He might wish her good health, or ask for forgiveness for some fault.
“My father used to say, ‘OK, I’m not the best, but I’ll try harder,’ ” Knab says. “My mother would always say, ‘You work so hard and I appreciate you for that.’ “
The wife breaks off a piece of the opłatek and eats it. She then reciprocates the good wishes and shares the wafer with her husband. And the ceremonial sharing of wafer and good wishes continues with older relatives, guests and children, starting with the oldest.
“The sharing of this unleavened bread with another person is sharing all that is good with life,” says Knab. “It’s a time to tell each other, ‘I love you, I care about you.’ And you do it in an open area, where everyone else can see you.”
According to one of my dinner companions, the charming Maureen Mroczek Morris, Americans don’t know how to do it right. We just break off a piece, smile, and say, “Merry Christmas!” Like we’re in a forced gift exchange at the office. We don’t get all warm and squishy, or even very sincere. In Poland, she says, it’s a very moving experience. Well, I had no one to ask forgiveness of, since I was surrounded by strangers. Perhaps I should have asked Maureen to forgive me, for being so Americanski. (She is Californian born and reared, so she’d understand.)
And of course there were Christmas carols – and Polish Christmas carols really are lovely. Czesław Miłosz fostered my enthusiasm, ending his book A Year of the Hunter with a story about attending the Pastorałka: “Without a doubt, Polish carols possess a particular charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor, that simply cannot be found in such proportions in any other Christmas songs, and perhaps one ought to look at them for the essence of Polish poetry,” he wrote. “My susceptibility to that performance can be explained by my having listened to carols from childhood, but also because only the theater has such an impact, appealing to what is most our own, most deeply rooted in the rhythms of our language.” More on that here. Or watch the short clip below of a “Bóg sie rodzi,” a mazurka, which is to say a Polish folk dance in triple meter.
And there was a little poetry, too. I was asked to read Miłosz’s “Winter” – I had to read it from Caria’s smartphone, but I brought the inspiration with me. After all, I was wearing my amazing Miłosz legs. I wrote about them here.
To each and everyone, “Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia!”