A Polish Christmas Eve: Then, There & Now

I recently realized that the only memory I actually had of Christmas from childhood was that of a photograph – the one where we were all sitting on the couch, my two cousins and I, my aunt and my uncle and my grandparents.

Moments earlier, someone had rang the doorbell, and when we three young’uns returned from checking who it was, we returned to a mountain of presents under the Christmas tree (!). Settled down, we were now waiting for the first star to appear – the star of Bethlehem – to signal the birth of Jesus and the beginning of Wigilia (vigil), one of the most important holidays in Poland.

This was the Christmas I had longed for since we moved to Canada, and this year, since I was ‘in the area’, I decided to celebrate the supper, held on Christmas Eve, Poland-style.

The day starts out with all eleven of us running around – there is a lot to prepare and everyone’s contribution is required. The children dress the tree, hang up some mistletoe, and spend the rest of the day playing computer games.

The table is prepared with hay under the table cloth, traditionally to bring good crops for the year, now mostly as a reminder of Jesus’ manger birth, and fish scales, symbolizing affluence, scattered under the plates to be later placed in respective wallets.

An extra setting is arranged at the table for a lost family member, or a wandering soul.

The beginning of Wigilia is set for 5:30pm: carols, no longer sung, are played quietly in the background, the birth story is read from the Bible, the Lord’s prayer is said by everyone, and then the oplatek – the Christmas wafer – is broken between each person as they wish each other good tidings for the year to come. There are twelve dishes as there were twelve apostles, and each one has to be tried. 

There is never red meat, but there is always fish (carp & herring) which symbolizes life, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, barszcz (beetroot soup) with uszka (‘little ear’ pierogies), compote of dried fruit, and homemade desserts with mak (poppy seeds), which, through their ability to reproduce from one seed, symbolize abundance.

The uszka are missing but the ryba po grecku (fish ‘greek’ style), ryba w galarecie (in jello) staples are all there along with some new spins like herring rolls with plums and masala, and with apples and onions.

The children push for present time and when it comes, they run handing out presents like mad until everyone has a pile in front of them. When they’re all open, everyone finds their way back to the table to enjoy more pastries with compote and wine. And at midnight, the family goes to Pasterka – the midnight mass, originally to commemorate the three wise men paying homage to the baby Jesus, now done largely out of tradition.

I liked it. I liked how full of tradition it was. It was so different from my Christmases ‘at home,’ in Vancouver, where I always thought our table of four always felt so incomplete.

In Vancouver, we start out in a mad rush to finish with just the four of us there. There is no need to set up the Christmas tree – this was done by us all weeks ago and has been giving the whole house a feeling of festivity and warmth since. The carols are put on the radio, the table is cloaked with a white tablecloth, and an extra setting is arranged for a wandering soul.

Wigilia is begun when preparation is finished. The oplatek is shared amongst the four of us and well wishes of happiness and success are shared. There is never red meat, but there is always fish ‘po Grecku’ and ‘w galarecie,’ barszcz with uszka, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, wine, compote, and makowiec from the Polish store for dessert.

When we’re ready, we hand out the presents one by one and take our turns opening each one. One of the presents is inevitably a movie from Santa for the whole family and when all the presents are opened, we grab our wines, aperitifs and poppy seed cakes and let the movie play. We eventually retire to our respective rooms, or go off to visit other friends.

And I like it. I like how full of comfort it is. It’s different from the Christmas in Poland, but it’s a tradition that we had made our own, one that grew and changed along with us.

The Christmas from my childhood, the one from the photograph, from my hometown, when we all still believed in Santa Claus and my grandfather was alive, was always the one I had longed for, but I was never going to be able to recreate it.

We weren’t in my hometown, I no longer believed in Santa Claus, and my grandfather was gone. And when we finally got hold of the photograph I found out the biggest reason of all: turns out the photograph was taken during summer vacation one year – it wasn’t a Christmas photo at all!

My one memory of Christmas was one that didn’t even exist!

But the thing is, Christmas is huge in Poland, and it’s particularly important as quality time spent with people you love. That’s exactly what the photo resembled for me, and it’s exactly the thing I can always strive to recreate.

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