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An American Wigilia Polish Christmas Eve

Updated on December 8, 2011

A Polish Tradition Wigilia

Wigilia pronounced (vee-GEEL-yah) is the traditional Polish Christmas Eve. In the picture a family breaks blessed Communion-like wafers –- oplatki (oh-PWAHT-kee) sharing them with loved ones and friends saying, "Merry Christmas."
Wigilia pronounced (vee-GEEL-yah) is the traditional Polish Christmas Eve. In the picture a family breaks blessed Communion-like wafers –- oplatki (oh-PWAHT-kee) sharing them with loved ones and friends saying, "Merry Christmas."
Caviar Crackers
Caviar Crackers

An American Wigilia

As a kid I always loved Christmas with my family. What was so cool about Christmas wasn't just the holiday movies, the shopping, the weather and celebration leading up to the Christmas; no for me it was the fact that I got to always have two days of big family dinners and gift exchanges! My Babcia (Grandma) and Dziadzia (Grandpa) celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve in a traditional family gathering and feast called a Wigilia to keep vigil (which is what Wigilia stands for) for the birth of Christ. We would all gather together on my Babcia's little acre farm in Southern California in the heart of the city and celebrate Wigilia together.

Our Americanized Wigilia Tradition:

Like most European and North American cultures my grandparents had a traditional Christmas tree along with a large Wigilia candle. Snacks like caviar and small sweet pickles would be set out out on the table in the large living room. Polish Christmas Polka would be blaring from my Grandfather's stereo as my father and his usually inebriated brothers tried to dance the polka for our entertainment. Vodka would be flowing and festive excitement would fill the air.

After the family had all arrived and sometimes my Grandfather would bring over a Catholic priest that had no place to go, we would all sit down at a very long table. Either the priest or my Grandfather would pray in Polish that the meal be blessed and the food would be brought out in stages for everyone to eat.

Pickled Herring
Pickled Herring
Borscht Soup and Mushroom and Meat Dumpling.
Borscht Soup and Mushroom and Meat Dumpling.

Wigilia Food

Perogi or Pierogi are made of unleavened dough flattened out into small circle and filled with potato and cheese or hot sauerkraut and sausage and then formed into a pocket like dumpling by folding two halves of the circle together then using water you seel the dumpling by pinching the two halves together. The dumpling is then at first boiled and then fried.

Desert Perogi are done the same way but can be filled with blueberries or apple filler, and then sprinkled with course sugar and cinnamon before being boiled and fried up.

Pickled Herring is a very strong pickled raw fish which is canned with raw onion rings. It takes a strong stomach to eat this popular treat.

Ucho Ushki Borscht Soup is a dark red beet soup mixed with sour cream and beets and served over minced mushroom and meat dumplings shaped like ears called Uchos or Ushki.

Fried Coconut Shrimp was also served, I believe my Grandmother made this dish for all of us kids who found the rest of the menu truly bizarre! We still do this today and yes my kids end up eating the shrimp and the potato cheese pirogi.

Rye Bread and Wine was always the first thing that was on the table and on save every plate and in every cup for the traditional toast to the birth of Christ.

The menu was always fun to see on the table even if as a child I though most of the food looked like it came from an alien planet.

The Breaking of the Oplatek and the Gift Exchange

After the Wigilia feast we go into the living room and the head of the house my Grandfather now my father then goes around with Christmas wafers called oplatek and hands them out. Each person gets a wafer and breaks a small piece off the other persons going around the household giving kisses and hugs and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. This tradition goes back hundreds of years in our family and has been happening in Poland forever.

The Gift Exchange:

Always a big production, small gifts are exchanged between family and friends. All the children play Santa as they hand out gifts to the adults. Each child was then given cookies baked by my Grandmother after we had handed out the gifts.

The Celebration:

When all the gifts were exchanged, the food all eaten and put away, the family would sing and dance and even Santa himself made a couple visits thanks to my funny young and single uncles. As the evening wore on my Dzizia Grandfather would start a fire and play old Polish Christmas music on his record player. At these times with a gut full of vodka he would sometimes tell us about Poland and his struggles as a young freedom fighter. It was interesting to me as a child listening to my Grandfather recount his childhood under the Nazi's and his fight to be free as a young man. I remember him crying and laughing and going in and out from English to Polish and vice verse.

This would go on until it was time for my Grandparents and extended family to go to Midnight Mass. My mother and father would usually take us kids home to rush us into bed so they could wrap and place presents under the tree as we slept. It is much the same today celebrating this tradition at my parents home here in Oregon without the religious undertones. But I know my children and my wife enjoy this festivity as much as I do and for that I love my American version of our Polish Christmas Eve Heritage. Thank you Babcia (Grandma) and Dziadzia (Grandpa) for giving our family this cultural gift forever and Merry Christmas to all who read this article.


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