Ah, the letter everyone’s been dreading.  I was briefly torn on Saturday, deciding whether to do Weddings for W, or Wigilia.   As you know, I opted for Weddings.

That was because of the looming spectre of X.

Wigilia is the Polish Christmas (ahem, Xmas) Eve celebration.

So yeah.  X.

The Chris Xmas Eve celebration starts at dusk with the children going outside to watch for the first star, which of course represents the Star of Bethlehem.  Once it’s been spotted, Wigilia (the direct translation is Eve, but it means Vigil) begins.

The meal consists of a set number of courses, but the number may vary depending on the region.  It’s often set at an odd number—seven, nine, or eleven—but in my family, it was customary to have twelve, I assume for the twelve months of the year and/or the Twelve Disciples.

Twelve courses is a LOT of food.  And it’s all supposed to be meatless.  One very traditional dish is “rollmops” made of herring.

I was never able to spend a Christm Xmas with the whole family in Michigan, but I’ve been told that at those Michigan Wigilia vigils, the meals were indeed meatless, and that the children were required to have twelve different foods on their plates.  As my cousin Judy put it to me recently, “There were 9 of us cousins and we would divide one ‘glue ball’ … we felt that the gb’s were the lesser of 2 evils. The other one was herring! Raw fish just didnt make it!”

When my grandmother started spending her winters with what my mom called “the California contingent” of the family, we stuck to the twelve courses but threw the “meatless” requirement out the window.  There was always a Christmas goose, and often a turkey and a ham, and golabki for good measure.  The California contingent were rebels.

The California bunch also skipped the hay, which is traditionally placed under the white tablecloth and also in the four corners of the dining room to remind everyone that the Christ child was born in a manger.  I recall my mom telling me that when she was growing up, she always felt like Grandma was “bringing the barnyard indoors,” but I actually think it’s a pretty cool tradition.  I wish I’d known about it back then because I’m sure I would have insisted on it.

One tradition we didn’t skip was the sharing of the Christmas wafer, or oplatki, which looks like the wafer distributed during Mass but is pressed with a Christmas design, and which my aunt would take to the church to have blessed beforehand.  In California, my grandmother was always the master of this ceremony, but traditionally, it’s the man of the house who performs this rite.  He says Grace, then breaks off a piece and gives it to his wife, and from there, everyone gets a piece and shares it with everyone else, always with expressions of love and appreciation.  The oplatki ritual is among my favorite Chris Xmas memories, but unfortunately, I never continued it with my own family.  I now wish I had.

(I found a great article about the oplatki ritual, which you can read here if you’re interested.)

It’s customary to share the wafer with livestock as well, because of the belief that animals can speak with a human voice at midnight.

There’s always one more place setting at the table than there are people, so there will be room for an unexpected family member, friend, or other guest–and at the California parties, someone unexpected almost always did show up, usually one or more of my cousins’ friends.  The Poles are very welcoming to visitors and even have a saying that goes, “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom,” which means, “a guest in my house is God in my house.”

When the meal was finished, we’d clean up the kitchen (OK, everyone else would clean up the kitchen while a few of us hid) and then we’d migrate into the living room to open gifts, and then, if there was time, we’d play poker until midnight approached, at which point it was time to go to Midnight Mass.

This was another of my favorite traditions.  Just being allowed to stay up so late was an adventure, but there was something about the Mass itself, during which we all sang Christmas carols and there was a special, magical radiance cast over everything, that was different from any regular Sunday Mass.  Even though I was never baptized a Catholic (a story for another time), Midnight Mass always made me feel especially happy and warm with the glow of good tidings.

I’m sorry to say that nearly all of my family’s Polish traditions died with my grandmother, who passed in 1977.  But the more I recall them, the more I think it’s high time someone brought them back.

Do you have any special Chris Xmas traditions?