A Polish Christmas Eve
Essay finalist in the 2016 ‘Basket of Cheer’ Contest | Grade 10
As another Christmas approaches, I wonder if our family, being of Polish heritage, could follow the same Christmas customs and traditions my ancestors observed in Poland.
I found a wonderful collection of beautiful Christmas traditions full of symbolism. To the Polish, Christmas Eve is the most important day in the Christmas season because of its unique decorations, symbolic traditions, and the Wigilia or Vigil Supper.
The Polish word Wigilia comes from the Latin word vigilare, and it means “to watch.” On Christmas Eve, we will watch for the Birth of the Christ Child, just as our ancestors did. Although they lived a long time ago, my family could observe the same customs today. We would begin by adorning the house in original Polish style, making and hanging straw ornaments throughout the rooms.
We scatter the leftover straw over the floor, signifying the stable in which Jesus was born. We also sprinkle a thin layer of hay over the dining room table and then place the tablecloth on top to represent the manger the Baby Jesus had for His first bed.
Dad stands a sheaf of grain in one corner of the dining room to remind us of our family’s guardian angel, who is always watching over us. The most elaborate decoration we use is the Christmas tree, which Dad cuts from the top of an evergreen tree and hangs upside down from the ceiling over the dining room table.
We all pitch in and decorate the tree with red apples, nuts, and other trinkets. For garland, we use paper chains and strings of oplatek, a thin wafer-like bread. These meaningful decorations help to get us in the proper spirit to welcome the Baby Jesus this Christmas.
Preparing the house for the coming of Christ, we can discuss the many Polish legends passed down through the generations, some of which are rather superstitious. We never really believe in them, but they are fun to tell. We begin with the legend that Christmas Eve has extraordinary influence on the rest of the year.
If today’s Christmas Eve is joyful or sorrowful, so will be the rest of the year. One of our favorite Polish sayings about Christmas is, “If Christmas trees sink in water, eggs will roll on ice.” Dad explains to us this means a warm and wet Christmas Eve predicts a cold Easter and spring.
On this mystical night, people are said to have the power of predicting the future, and animals can talk to each other. Having finished with the decorating of the rooms, we move on to prepare the table for our Wigilia Supper.
Polish tradition dictates our table must be illuminated by candles, which symbolize Christ as the Light of the World. The dancing flames twinkle on our best glasses and silverware, giving our house a secure atmosphere, safe from the darkness of the night. We plan to have thirteen guests, the number of people present at the Last Supper.
In older times, however, an even number of places was customary. This includes the empty chair and plate we set for Christ, who comes in the form of the Unexpected Guest and is always welcome at our table. We place a lighted candle in the window, letting any weary traveler know that our home is open to them. As the family arrives, we are eager to being eating right away, but Dad reminds us we have to wait for the first evening Star to appear before supper can begin.
We wait in suspense as my little sister, the youngest child in the family, is given the job of standing at the window to announce the arrival of the first star, the Star of Bethlehem. She asks what would happen if the night is cloudy, but Dad tells her this part of Polish tradition was never passed down. When the star finally appears, we are ready for our favorite part of the celebration, the Vigil Supper.
The Wigilia Supper, a meatless meal, originally represented the bounty of the Polish farmer’s harvest, but today, we give thanks for the homes, food, and family God has given us. In past times, there was an odd number of courses, but now, we have twelve, an even number, to signify the twelve months of the year and the twelve apostles.
My ancestors would have set aside a portion of each course for the animals, who, after all, were the first to see the Baby Jesus, besides Mary and Joseph. As the male head of the house, Dad begins the meal with a very special and significant ceremony, the ceremony of the oplatek.
He first offers the oplatek to Mom, asking her to forgive all his faults and wishing her happiness in the coming year. She thanks him, breaks off a piece of the oplatek, and then says the same to him. Dad breaks off his piece of oplatek, and then passes it to the next-oldest couple at the table. All of us get a turn at this little ceremony, even my little sister. Sharing the oplatek, symbolic of the Holy Eucharist, reminds us at this holy time of year of the peace Christ brings at Christmas.
The main courses of our meal are foods our Polish ancestors have eaten at Christmas for centuries. The first two courses brought in from the kitchen are the red borsht (beet) then mushroom soup. We have Polish carp and herring with sour cream, followed by Pierogi (dumplings), braised sauerkraut, and golabki (cabbage rolls.) Mom is always reminding us to save room for the courses that will follow. We also have kutia, a special dish made from poppy seeds, honey, and fruits.
For dessert, we have Piernik (ginger bread), kompot z suszu (dried fruit compote), and makowiec (poppy seed cake). After dinner and the dishes are finished, we all share an apple to strengthen our family’s bonds. We all gather around and sing old Polish Christmas Carols to pass the time before we go to Mass. The Midnight Mass at our parish is the climax and conclusion of our Polish Christmas Eve.
Having completed my study of Polish Christmas customs, I discovered the reason the Polish Christmas Eve will always remain one of the most beautiful Christmas traditions, notwithstanding time nor country. Its rich and ancient symbolism is filled with the true spirit of Christmas. Even in a world of commercialism, almost every custom, meal, and decoration of the Polish Christmas can remind us of the Child Jesus, Bethlehem, or the stable.
By keeping God in Christmas, the Polish Christmas Eve has the distinguishing characteristic found in every good Christmas tradition.
- “Christmas in Poland, Polish World” (accessed October 31, 2016)
- Kasprzyk-Cheviraux, Magdalena, “The 12 Dishes of a Polish Christmas,” Culture.pl (October 31, 2016)
- Knab, Sophie Hodorociwz, Polish Customs, Traditions, and Folklore, New York, NY Hippocrene Books, 1993.
- Krysa, Czeslaw Michal, A Polish Christmas Eve: Traditions and Recipes, Decorations and Songs, CWB Press, 1998.
- Original Christmas Wafers Bakery, The Wigilia/Vigilia/Kocios Cottage, Lewistown, NY, OCO Press, 1986
About Daniel Usakowski
My full name is Daniel Joseph Edmund Usakowski, and I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am sixteen, the oldest of three children, and have a younger brother and sister. I have been serving the Tridentine Latin Mass for six years. My hobbies include calligraphy, painting, wood carving, bicycling, fishing, and model rocketry. I have placed first in several model rocketry contests. I am in tenth grade, and have been a Seton student all my life. My three favorite subjects are Algebra, Latin, and Biology. I hope to study engineering and architecture in college. I have thoroughly enjoyed my homeschooling experience and look forward to working through the rest of my high school years with Seton.