When I was a child, I thought everyone spent Christmas Eve around a long, dimly lit table with plates of pierogis and white wine. Despite a childhood that wasn’t particularly devout, our traditional Christmas Eve dinner followed inevitably by Midnight Mass, filled my imagination with the mysteries and beauty of the faith.
By the time I turned 10, I realized my beloved Wigilia was not a universal custom. Some people even ate meat on Christmas Eve! I was horrified, but it inspired me to look closer at my own customs and traditions. I learned that while our family’s Wigilia embraces the heart of this custom, there was a wealth of other traditions to add in as well.
The Last Day of Advent
Long ago, in the medieval church, Advent was more than just a season of shopping and cookie baking. Advent was a little Lent, a period of fasting and preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. Meat and milk weren’t on the menu during Advent, the season’s activities of anticipation were focused both on the birth of the Christ Child and on His Second Coming.
Advent was also (and is still) the start of the new, liturgical year. After celebrating the feast of St. Andrew, who, as the first-called of all the Apostles in an ideal patron of new beginnings and unchartered paths, Advent arrives with the promise of a new-born Christ.
The Advent season of fasting, penance, and preparation was taken seriously in Poland. Fasts in generally were a huge part of Slavic culture, both in the Latin Church and in the Byzantine Churches.
“As Goes Wigilia..”
Advent culminated with the vigil of the Nativity. The final day of the Nativity fast and the day of threshold between the dark, quiet season of Advent and the Brightness of Christmas. On that last day of Advent the whole world was pregnant with meaning. Folk wisdom reminds us again and again that “as goes Wigilia, so goes the year.”
In our family, and for countless generations before us, that means that on Christmas Eve, we’re all a little kinder to one another. No one wants to be bickering and quarrelsome all year, so we apologize more, listen better, and try to welcome in love and harmony to our homes.
But adhering to the old adage “as goes wigilia..” inspires more than just polite children and attentive spouses. Every year I spend the days before Christmas Eve deep cleaning my house, taking clutter to the Thrift Store, grocery shopping, and stocking up on firewood.
I also meal prep for the Wigilia meal, so that on the vigil itself, my to do list is simple, and my time can be spent setting up the tree, reading to the kids, and cooking those parts of the dinner that can’t be made ahead of time.
Like all folk traditions, “as goes Wigilia” can become a burden. If it starts to stress you out, if the car breaks down or a child goes tumbling out of a tree, don’t lose hope. This is meant to encourage us to live kindly and prepare for the coming year. It’d not meant as a day of divination. Spend the day, and the whole season, remembering to trust in God, no matter what else is happening. It’s a habit you’ll never regret cultivating.
Embracing the Stable
Decorating for Wigilia is a bit different that the traditional, western decorations. In fact, the Christmas tree only appeared in Poland in the 19th century. At Wigilia, decorations focus on Christ’s humble birth. We tuck straw under the tablecloth and scatter it on the floor. We leave the straw scattered on the floor through the Epiphany.
The oldest traditions also encourage putting sheaves of wheat, rye, oats in the four corners of the room to ask Christ for abundance in the new year. We’ve never done that, but it’s a delightful tradition.
Traditional Poles also hang a spruce branch upside down over the Wigilia table. The spruce branch, or the tip of the spruce tree, is called the podlazniczka. It’s often decorated with apples, and occasionally straw chains symbolizing the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The podlazniczka symbolizes the tree in paradise, and, since the 24th is also the feast of Adam and Eve, who rejoice in hope at the birth of the Christ Child.
Setting the Table
The Wigilia table is full of meaning and intentionality. One of my favorite aspects of the table is the Jesus seat. While it’s ideal to invite an odd number of guests to your Wigilia feast, no matter how many people you’re hosting, set an extra seat.
The Wigilia table always has a space set for Jesus. This seat, the Hospitality Seat, or the Jesus Seat, is waiting for a beggar, a traveler, or a surprise guest to come to the door. On Christmas Eve, every host and hostess is hoping to be surprised by an uninvited guest. Whether it’s a homeless man, a drunken uncle, or a lonely friend, the uninvited guest is welcomed as the Child Christ and taken to the seat of honor.
Our Happy Dead
Along with the Hospitality Seat, some old-fashioned hostesses will set out food for their beloved dead as well. Medieval folklore holds that the dead are given a respite from Christmas Eve through Christmas day. Medieval Catholics would often expect apparitions from their dead on Christmas Eve to beg for prayers and Masses as they endured their purgation.
Because it was commonly assumed that, on Christmas Eve, the dead have leave to rest and celebrate, the Wigilia table would often have a place set for the dead. Much like the soul cakes set out on the feast of All Souls, at Wigilia, the dead join the living in joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ.
Thirteen Meatless Dishes
When I was a child, our Wigilia meals we always the same: three types of pierogi, baked fish, creamed herring, bread, and nut-roll. It was a delicious spread, but when I started hosting my own dinners, I decided to broaden the menu.
I always serve pierogis and fish, but I vary the fillings or the way of cooking the fish. Often, I add in the simple, ancient dish, Kutia. Kutia is a humble dish of wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, and nuts. Kutia is one of the most ancient traditional foods for Wigilia, and it’s rarely eaten at any other time.
This year, I’ll be serving potato, mushroom, and sauerkraut pierogis, mussels, borschet, kutia, kale & tangerine salad, cardamom rolls, and gingerbread for dessert. I always plan 9 dishes, because every year my mother in law brings something to contribute. Some years, she brings one dish, other years two or three. She always forgets that at Wigilia, we serve an odd number of dishes, so if she brings the number of dishes up to 10 or 12, I have bowl of oranges ready to set out and fix the total.
Whether we have 9, 11, or 13 dishes, it’s always an odd number of meatless dishes. Christmas Eve, for us, is a day of abstinence. Long ago, it was even a day of required abstinence by the Church. In fact, Catholics fasted and abstained before all major feasts.
In fact, Wigilia is traditionally the fast-breaking meal of the day. We eat early, when the first star is in the sky. In late December, right after the winter solstice, that’s usually around 4 or 4:30.
Oplatek: The Christmas Wafer
On the prettiest, little dish; in a place of honor, sits the oplatek. A thin, flat wafer of bread, similar to the Communion wafer. Oplatek is blessed, but not Consecrated. Byzantine Catholics may recognize similarities to the antidoron shared after Divine Liturgy. And oplatek is probably, in part, inspired by that ancient tradition of fellowship and hospitality.
The sharing of Oplatek begins Wigilia. The husband breaks a piece off to offer his wife, blesses her, and offers her the wafer. She offers a piece to him, if there’s any argument between them, they apologize and united, offer the wafer to their children and guests.
Once everyone has shared Oplatek with goodwill, the dinner can begin.
All of Wigilia points towards the birth of Christ. We’re on the brink of the fullness of Christmas, and we can’t wait. At Wigilia we’re celebrating the Nativity of the Lord; He’s almost here. There are dozens of Vigil meals: Sviata vecheria, The Feast of the Seven Fishes, and Wigilia are the best known in America.
However you celebrate the Vigil of the Nativity, do it with your eyes on the Christ Child, full of hope and hospitality.