Every year my family observes a simplified version of Wigilia (pronounced veg-IL-ia), the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner. The celebration takes place at home during the evening of December 24th. The family dresses in slightly more formal clothes, such as sweaters and slacks. The table is covered with two white table cloths, one on top of the other with a thin layer of straw in between. Small gifts are also slipped between the table cloths at each place. These may be trinkets such as a bookmark or Christmas ornament, or notes promising a larger gift. The table is set with two plates and a bowl stacked on top of each other and a fork, knife and spoon at each place and candles in the center of the table. However many people are expected, one extra place is set.
When the first star has appeared in the sky, the candles on the table and a candle in the front window are lit. Then the meal begins. The first course is the oplatek, a thin wafer made of flour and water. It is about the size and shape of an envelope, creamy white, with a religious scene stamped onto its surface. The oplatek is broken into pieces and everyone present receives a piece. Then, one by one, pairs of people will share the oplatek together. This is done by breaking off a small piece of the other person’s oplatek and exchanging good wishes for the coming year. This process repeats until everyone has shared the oplatek with everyone else in the room. After the oplatek, everyone sits down to eat the remainder of the meal. The next course is a mushroom soup which is followed by creamed herring and boiled potatoes and finally potato and sauerkraut pierogi served with peas and sour cream. Afterwards there is dessert which might include Christmas cookies or a poppy seed roll. Once the meal has concluded everyone reaches under the tablecloth to find the presents that were left there.
The celebration of Wigilia is fairly formal not because of a particular way of dressing, but because each action is dictated by a precise set of traditions. Most of the customs are also symbolic. The traditional dinner has twelve courses that symbolize the twelve apostles. The straw under the table cloth symbolizes the straw in the manger. Waiting to eat until the first star is seen symbolizes the star of Bethlehem. During the meal, no meat is eaten. This is done to honor the animals that were in the stable with Jesus. The candle placed in the window and the empty place set at the table are intended to welcome anyone who may wish to celebrate with the family, either a stranger or the spirit of Christ.
Wigilia is a rite of intensification. It brings the family together for a special meal and focuses their attention on the celebration of the birth of Christ, which is important for the many Poles who are strict Catholics. This has always been hard for me because I want to continue these traditions, but I no longer share the same belief system that my ancestors had and without it, many of the traditions lose their meaning. I wonder if this is part of the reason many other traditions and languages are going extinct: not that people don’t care about the traditions but that the traditions lose their underlying relevance.