Celebrating Christmas Polish-American style

It’s not Mary giving birth or the baby Jesus Himself that brings it to mind, but standing in the window watching for the first star to appear in the sky so that we can commence Wigilia, the Polish Christmas vigil and meal.

Just my job
It’s the job of the youngest child to watch for the first star, and, sans procreation, thirty years later that is still my role in the process. One generation removed from the “old country” my aunt keeps up the Wigilia meal tradition and cooks the meatless dinner.

The meal begins with the breaking and sharing of the oplatek, a rectangular wafer of much the same consistency as the host in church, with an image or scene of the Baby Jesus imprinted on it. There’s an order related to age in which one is to do this and each year we try to remember what that is as we reach across the table breaking bread and wishing each other “health, wealth and happiness.”

Symbols for manger and a stranger
Speaking of the table, aside from the normal holiday best dinnerware there are two distinct things about it. One is the hay under the table cloth at the four corners, symbolizing the manger and the presence of Christ throughout the four corners of the earth. The other is the one extra place setting which remains empty during the meal as it is set for Christ as “the unexpected guest” who may arrive unannounced at the meal.

I remember one year when I asked what would happen if a stranger really did knock on the door. Would we adhere to the tradition of “Goœæ w dom, Bóg w dom?” Translated, “A Guest in the home is God in the home.”

The Polish feast
If we did let Him in, He’d be in for quite a feast. After the oplatek, we have fresh borscht and my mother and aunt argue over the timing of the addition of sour cream to the hot soup as it will curdle if you add it improperly. That’s followed with fish—a holdover from when Christmas Eve was a church day of abstinence from meat—boiled potatoes, string beans and salad.

As if that’s not enough, the next to come is fruit compote or stewed fruit—never my favorite; although it tastes good, it’s just so brown and gooey. After that my aunt comes in with a pencil and pad and takes “orders” for her delicious homemade pierogi. “We have potato-and-cheese and just cheese,” she declares.

But the final course is my favorite; a platter piled high, like in the six to eight inches range, with , a kind of deep fried crispy flat dough that looks like a flattened out bow and dusted (heavily, if I’m lucky) with powdered sugar.

By having the celebration on Christmas eve, Christmas day is a quiet one. Often people think this means that I have “no where to go” for Christmas and I remember one year when this was so distressing to my roommate that she insisted I accompany her to her family’s Christmas Day festivities. She just couldn’t understand that I’d already “done” Christmas in a way and tradition that I love.

And one I hope to keep up while looking forward to that year when I have a little someone else to watch for that star.