Wigilia or Wilia, from the Latin word vigilare — to watch, Czuwać in Polish, is reverently close to the heart of a Pole. It is greeted with such mystical symbolism, that it is considered by many to be a greater holiday than Christmas itself.
The very word Wigilia, which in Poland was formerly known as the day before a feast day is now used only as the day before Christ’s birth. The Wigilia supper is so special there is no other like it throughout the year. The day itself had significance many centuries before Christ’s birth. Since it followed the longest night and the shortest day it was considered the last day of the year and the mystical symbolism associated with it was closely tied to the solar system.
The severe cold weather and deep snows made family hold their festivities near the hearth within family groups. This day became known for generations to come as the holiday which strengthened family ties. Some customs varied at different sections of Poland, but the importance of the holiday was general in the whole country.
Another custom arising from the past, was the belief that spirits pervaded the home on this day. Everything was to be made as comfortable as possible for them and that this last day of the year would prophesize everything that was to happen in the coming year. From very early on, everyone was careful of conduct and observed everything that occurred in the house, garden and heavens. The rules were to rise early, say your prayers earnestly and carefully, wash thoroughly, dress cleanly, and then peacefully and patiently attend to your work.
Polish opłatek. Image by roovuu on flickr.com
The first preparation for Christmas Eve began very early, right after midnight. One of the young girls of the family went to the nearest stream and brought back pails of water. The water was used to sprinkle the cows in barn and also sprinkled on the family, awakening them in this manner. It was believed that water on this day had the power to heal and prevent illness. The entire family washed themselves in this water in order to assure plenty of money for the rest of their lives.
It was the responsibility of the males to go into the forest and bring back boughs of fir and spruce to decorate the house on this special day. Everyone hurried to be first to cut the top of a spruce or fir and other branches. The top of the spruce or pine was hung from a beam in the ceiling, with the tip facing down over the table where the Wigilia was to be held.
In preparation of this most important meal of the year, the table was first covered with straw or hay, and then with a white tablecloth. On the best plate of the house, the blessed wafer or Opłatek (Christmas wafer) was placed. In some areas of Poland, a loaf of common, everyday bread was placed on top of it and topped with more Opłatek.
As the day began to darken and family members began to ready themselves for the evening meal, a child was sent out to look for the first star in the sky. With the appearance of the first star, the Wigilia meal would begin. The belief was that those sitting down to eat must add up to an even number. An odd number foretold that someone would not live to the next Christmas Eve supper. To make up for this, someone was always invited to make up the deficiency, be it honored guest or wandering beggar.
Before approaching the Wigilia table, the family prayed together out loud, grateful for all the blessings of the past year. At the conclusion of the prayer, the most important ceremony of the night, sharing of the Opłatek, and the exchange of wishes began. After everyone had an opportunity to share the wafer, the supper could begin. Tradition dictates that this be a meatless dinner, that there should be an uneven number of dishes served. In the more well-to-do-homes this was 11 or 13, with 13 being the preferred number as it represented the number that sat down at the Last Supper.
One of the traditional dishes was Kutia, which was served in both the homes of the nobility and the serfs. The Kutia was made from hulled barley or wheat, which was cooked and sweetened with honey. Then mashed poppy seeds, raisins and nuts were added. The dish was set down in a place of honor on a bench near the Wigilia table and it was the first dish to be eaten. The rest of the meal reflected the products of the family’s labor, Barshch (Barszcz), a beet soup; dishes made from beets, cabbage, sauerkraut, beans, noodles, dumplings, potatoes, dried fruit, fresh apples, and nuts. Fish was served in the families who could afford it.
Throughout all of Poland, the time after supper was a time for the family to gather together to sing carols and exchange gifts which were deposited by Aniołek, (an angel), under the Christmas tree. The smoke from the candles on the tree, lit by the Gospodarz, (head of the family) foretold the future. The period approaching midnight was a magical time when animals talked and well water turned to wine and everyone readied themselves to attend the midnight Mass of the Shepherd or Pasterka. The Poles called it the Shepherd Mass, because the shepherds were first to greet the new born Christ. Every able-bodied individual trudged through freezing weather in the dark of the night, or rode in sleighs to local churches by way of town streets or country roads.
On their way to the Mass, they carefully observed the heavens. If there were many stars, they rejoiced, for as many stars as there were in the heavens, that many sheaves of grain would be harvested the next year.
Do następnego razu… (Till next time…)