Wigilia – The Polish Christmas Celebration

Wigilia table of Polish food

Wigilia table. The feast.

WIGILIA | THE VIGIL

Wigilia (pronounced: vee gee lee a) or “The Vigil” is the traditional Polish Catholic Christmas Eve celebration feast held on December 24th. The ceremony represents, and honors, waiting for the arrival of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

PREPARING THE FEAST | 12 DISHES

The celebration commences only after the first star has been sighted by the youngest person in attendance.  This can be a bit of a problem if the youngest person is an infant or, if the weather is not cooperating, but somehow, it all gets worked out each year.  The sighting of the first star is a reference to the Star of Bethlehem.

The meal takes all day preparation.  While the adults prepare the feast . . .

the children occupy their time by decorating the Christmas tree.

WIGILIA TRADITIONS | SETTING THE TABLE

A girl holding hay to place under the table cloth for Wigilia.

Hay for the table.

The children also place a bit of hay under the tablecloth to symbolize the hay present in the manger where Jesus was born.

After placing the hay under the tablecloth,  the table is set. An empty plate is set on the table in case a traveler should need sustenance. The extra place setting symbolizes hospitality in honor of Joseph, Mary and Jesus who were in need of help from strangers.

An extra place setting on the table for Wigilia

An extra place setting in case a stranger needs hospitality.

 THE OPŁATEK | THE BREAD OF LOVE

Once it is time for the fest to begin, family members begin the celebration with a prayer and breaking of the Christmas wafer called the opłatek. 

The opłwatek

The opłatek

The opłatek is similar to the Catholic communion wafer.  The opłatek is known as the bread of love because it is often sent to the family members wherever they may be. We receive some every year from relatives in Poland.  After the prayer, the oplatek is broken and pieces are given to everyone attending. Each person breaks off a piece of their oplatek, and shares it with everyone else, wishing luck and joy in the upcoming year.

This wish is usually finalized by a kiss on the cheek and saying and Wesołych świąt or Merry Christmas in Polish. I admit I mumble through that one each year.  It is also customary to feed one’s livestock a bit of the opłatek too. Livestock are to be respected that day since they were present at the birth of Jesus. Domestic animals do not get to share in the celebration. 

THE FEAST | 12 MEATLESS DISHES 

After sharing the oplatek the feast begins. People are expected to fast from meat to symbolize the suffering of Jesus and thus, the meal is meatless. There are 12 dishes representing the 12 apostles of Jesus. Traditional dishes include: barszcz (beet soup); carp filets; pierogi (dumplings) filled with potatoes, cheese, mushrooms and kapusta (cabbage); dried fruit compote; fried fish fillets; herring in oil; mushrooms; meatless gołąbki, (cabbage rolls): cucumber salad; potatoes with milk and herbs; pickles; noodles with a sweet poppy seed dressing; and Polish vodka.

After supper families attend Pasterka or midnight mass. After mass, it is not uncommon for people to dine on a second meal which includes meat, particularly kielbasa (Polish sausage).

A store case of kielbasa

Kielbasa.

In addition to being a celebration of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, It is also believed that Wigilia will foretell your future. Polish families believe that whatever happens on Wigilia day will affect one’s upcoming year. For example, if you quarrel with your sibling, you may well have a year filled with arguments and trouble. Thus, it is important to be on one’s best behavior on Wigilia.

Wesołych świąt dla wszystkich! Merry Christmas to all!

12 Comments

  • Reply Trish @ Mum's Gone To November 29, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    I knew a little about this, as we have a local Polish restaurant near us and I remember reading about the 12 dishes. But the other traditions that I didn’t know about, are wonderful.
    I’m singing in a carol concert in a few weeks and our choir is learning is a Polish one – Lulajze Jezuniu – it’s beautful.
    #farawayfiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design November 30, 2018 at 9:34 am

      Oooh I’ll ask my husband about that carol. Once, while in Poland for Christmas we had carolers arrive at the door. It was magical.

    • Reply Niche Travel Design November 30, 2018 at 9:35 am

      Oooh I’ll ask my husband about that carol. Once, while in Poland for Christmas we had carolers arrive at the door. It was magical. Thanks for reading. #farawayfiles

  • Reply Katherine November 29, 2018 at 7:15 pm

    Wow, what an interesting post, I liked reading about the symbolism involved – from the star sighting to the hay under the tablecloth. #FarawayFiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design November 30, 2018 at 9:35 am

      My kids love all the traditions involved. Thanks for commenting. #farawayfiles

  • Reply Tanja November 29, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    oh my, very hungry now! interesting read #farawayfiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design November 30, 2018 at 9:37 am

      I cheat slightly on the 12 dishes. I count bread as one dish. !2 is a lot. There is a poppy seed pasta-like dish that I have not mastered. Thanks for reading. #farawayfiles.

  • Reply Tilly Horseman November 30, 2018 at 11:27 am

    I knew nothing about this tradition so it was a fascinating read! Love how different aspects of the Christmas story are symbolised and remembered in the festive meal. So many people forget what Christmas is really all about so it’s lovely to see these traditions so active. Don’t think my husband would get on board with a meatless festive meal though lol…
    #FarawayFiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design December 2, 2018 at 12:58 am

      I must admit I wasn’t too excited by it at first. Now I look forward to it. Thanks for reading. #farawayfiles

  • Reply Christmas Dishes and Sweets from across the World | The Winged Fork November 30, 2018 at 2:00 pm

    […] served as the first course of the 12 course, meatless, Christmas Eve celebration called Wigilia (vee gee lee a) or The […]

  • Reply Clare Thomson December 3, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    It’s fascinating to read how different cultures celebrate Christmas. I know very little about the Polish celebration so this was a really interesting read for me Thanks for sharing it on #FarawayFiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design December 3, 2018 at 5:18 pm

      Thanks. We take in our partners’ traditions too as we go out in the world. And thanks for commenting. #farawayfiles

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