December 24 - Wigilia - Christmas Eve

Wigilia (from the Latin term vigilare meaning "to await") is the Polish name for Christmas Eve. Much work must be done, including cooking, baking, and all the housework. This way, the two holidays that follow can be devoted to praying, caroling, eating, relaxing, and eventually visiting. This special day is associated with several beliefs and customs.


When the first star appears in the sky, the Christmas tree is lit and the dinner begins. The Christmas Eve meal starts with a prayer, the sharing of the blessed oplatek (consecrated bread wafer which is similar to that used during Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Church), and exchanging wishes. Usually, the male head of the household takes the wafer and turns to his wife, extending it toward her. He wishes her good health and success in the upcoming year, the fulfillment of her dreams, and, if there have been any misunderstandings, he asks her for forgiveness and for the new year to be a better one. The wife then thanks him and breaks off half of the wafer and eats a piece of it. Next, she offers the wafer to her husband, expressing similar wishes. He breaks the wafer and eats it. This ceremony is repeated with each person present, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest.


After the breaking of the wafer and an the exchanging of wishes, everyone sits down at the dinner table. The table is covered with a white tablecloth and there is one additional place set for an unexpected guest who, especially that night, should not be turned away. This is to remind us that St. Joseph and Mary were also looking for shelter. Until the first star appears, Wigilia is a day of fasting. Although there are plenty of dishes on the table, this is a traditionally meatless dinner. It consists of several soups (red beet with mushroom pockets, fermented rye, fish, dry mushroom), fish (fried, jellied, in sweet sauce, in beer-almond-ginger sauce, staffed), sauerkraut with beans, pierogi (dumplings) stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage, noodles with poppy seeds and honey, sweet strudel, and a compote made with dried fruit. It should be pointed out that today in Poland, no one imagines the Wigilia dinner without fish (carp in particular), just as nobody in the U.S. thinks of Thanksgiving dinner without a turkey.


Time after dinner is devoted to different activities. It is customary to feed the domestic animals with oplatek and dinner leftovers, especially cows to assure the production of plenty of milk. Girls listen to hear from which direction a dog barks because, as the saying goes, it is from that direction her prospective husband will come. Children and teenagers go to the orchard and beat fruit trees with small branches so there will be an abundance of fruit next year. Old stories are told and carols are sung. These activities continue until it is time to attend midnight Mass. In Polish it is called Pasterka, "the Mass of the Shepherds" to commemorate the shepherds who were the first to greet the newborn baby Jesus.


There is something magical experienced on the way to midnight Mass. Stars are shining and bells are ringing. The snow crunches and whitens the way. Sleighs are heard and one can almost detect the angels singing, "Silent Night, Holy Night."

After Mass, people return to their homes and have a glass of hot compote and a piece of cake.


Wigilia Table Check List

Here's a short list of foods typically found on the Polish Christmas Eve Wigilia table. Because practices vary from region to region within Poland, this  guide is not a definitive list but rather a handy reminder for those of you who wish to keep this tradition alive in your family.

  • Mushroom soup with noodles, borsch with mushroom uszka (little pierogi), or fish soup.

  • Herring in oil, pickled herring, carp aspic (jellied carp), stuffed carp, and/or fried carp.

  • Hay under the white tablecloth.

  • Salt, pepper.

  • Sauerkraut with mushrooms, and/or red cabbage.

  • Dried-fruit compote.

  • Noodles with poppyseeds.

  • Kutia (a dish made from boiled wheat, poppy seeds and honey).

  • Pierogi, traditionally with cabbage and mushrooms.

  • Oplatek (Christmas wafer).

  • Bread

An extra setting for an unexpected wanderer.