Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Tradition – The Christmas Eve Vigil, or “Wigilia”

"The merry family gatherings -- The old, the very young, the strangely lovely way they harmonize in carols sung. For Christmas is tradition time -- traditions that recall the precious memories down the years, the sameness of them all."
-- Helen Lowrie Marshall

My grandparents came to this country as teenagers, alone, having left their families behind in Poland. Like most immigrants, they tended to gather together in neighborhoods with others like them and continued many of the traditions they themselves grew up with in “the old country.” My parents were born in the United States, but they – and we – grew up in a small town surrounded mostly by Polish people with long last names that usually contained more vowels than consonants!

When I was growing up, Christmas was filled with Polish traditions. Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, was the important day, called “Wigilia” – the Christmas Eve Vigil - anticipating the birth of the Christ Child. We always gathered at my parent’s home on Christmas Eve, even long after we had left home and started our own lives and families. I have a large family, so that small house was crowded and noisy and when I remember it now … wonderful.

Before we sat down for dinner we observed my most favorite Christmas tradition - the exchanging of the Oplatek. As a Christmas custom, opłatek originated in Poland and was spread widely as far back as the 17th century. The oplatek is a sheet of unconsecrated communion wafer and is distributed in the churches in the Polish community in time for Christmas. Everyone takes a piece of the wafer and then we exchange a small piece of it with every family member, at the same time forgiving any hurts caused during the past year and offering special and personal good wishes to each other for the coming year. It’s important that you not miss anyone, or it superstitiously could be bad news for that person in the coming year. Some traditions we observed as children haven’t carried forward, but this one – the exchanging of the oplatek – is still observed at our annual family Christmas party.  There’s so many of us that we sometimes lose track: “did I get you yet?” “you already hit me, girl!” “help, I ran out of oplatek!” There’s lots of tears and laughter and kissing and hugging – I love it.

My parents adhered to the Catholic teachings of a meatless meal for the Vigil, so we ate mushroom soup (I make it every Christmas; my recipe follows below), fish and vegetables, pierogi (dumplings) with sour cream, sledzie (creamed herring), deviled eggs, and my Mom's homemade potato bread. For dessert we had coffee cake and kruschiki (angel wings).

There’s one meal tradition we still laugh about and whose origins were very mysterious. It was a soup called “kwasnia kasha” which translates literally to “sour oatmeal” and – yes – it was as bad as it sounds. My mother fixed it every year, and according to tradition, we had to eat a little of everything that was served to ensure blessings in the new year. We hated that soup, but we had to admit that after having been forced to eat a little bit every year we actually started to like it. (We never got the recipe from my mother so that’s one tradition that didn’t survive my parents.)

After dinner we exchanged gifts, and the kids were everywhere, opening gifts and playing.

My Mom could be counted on to sit down at the piano to lead the Christmas carol singing. (Someone, probably one of my brothers, popped this bow on her head but she didn’t miss a beat!)

Once the little kids were settled down, most of us went to Midnight Mass. My Dad always stayed home to prepare the after-mass feast: Kielbasa and Polish ham with horseradish and potato bread, and yes, whiskey and Polish brandy for shots. When my siblings and I were older, our house became known to our friends as party central after Midnight Mass, and it often became an all-night affair.  I don’t know how the little kids slept through all that. (And, yes, we've settled down quite a bit since then ....!)

When we finally arose the next day, Dad would fix scrambled eggs with chopped kielbasa mixed in – his cure for a hangover. To this day I still have scrambled eggs and kielbasa on Christmas Day in memory of my Dad.

Now that my parents are gone and the family has grown and grown, it becomes more and more difficult to get us all together for Christmas. I hosted the party for many years until we out-grew my condo. Others have stepped up to host so far and we have managed to have a family party each year, still sharing the oplatek, and many of the same foods we had as children. Several of my great-nieces and nephews are musicians, so we are often treated to a mini-concert, a lovely new tradition. I deeply hope we can continue this once-a-year get-together.

This year, because of the way the family calendar falls, our party won’t be until January 2. I’ll be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day visiting with some of my siblings. Although Christmas is not the same as it was when I was a child and times inevitably change, I still look forward to it and I’m grateful that we carry forward at least some of the traditions of our childhood.

Christmas is the keeping-place for memories of our innocence.
~ Joan Mills


I would love to give credit for where I got this recipe, but I found it in a magazine about 30 years ago(!) I don’t even remember the name of the magazine but I do know it has been out of circulation for many years.

Makes 6-8 servings (about 8 cups)

½ cup unsalted butter
1 pound mushrooms, stems removed, coarsely chopped (about 5 cups) (I use button mushrooms)
3-4 drops fresh lemon juice
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
10 cups chicken stock or 5 cups chicken broth and 5 cups water
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground white pepper

1. Heat butter in large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. When foam subsides, add mushrooms and lemon juice, tossing well to coat mushrooms with butter; reduce heat to low. Cover mushrooms loosely with foil; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 25 minutes.
2. Remove stockpot from heat, stir in flour until well blended.* Stir in chicken stock; heat over medium heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low; simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until soup is thick, about 1-1/2 hours.**
3. Just before serving, stir in heavy cream, salt, and pepper to taste. Heat over low heat just until heated through; do not allow to boil. Serve immediately in warmed soup bowls.

*-I can’t seem to avoid flour lumps that way, so I stir in a roux using the liquid from the mushrooms.
**-If making soup ahead, stop at this point. Place buttered piece of waxed paper or foil directly on surface of soup to prevent skin from forming; let cool, then refrigerate. Reheat gently when ready to proceed with recipe. Note: I have very successfully frozen the soup at this point.


  1. Felicia,

    You just brought back a flood of memories. Growing up my best friend would include me and my family in their Christmas Eve traditions. They had a very large family. Her mother was one of 9 children. The family had mostly stayed in the same area so Christmas Eve dinner would be a huge number of people. I had totally forgotten about the opłatek. We would spread honey on it to make it a little more palatable. And they always had mushroom soup. I hated it as a kid, but grew to love it over the years.

    Thank you for sharing and reminding me of many wonderful Christmas' past.

    Merry Christmas!

  2. Oh Jodi - how sweet is that?? You brought tears to my eyes because I realized that you know better than others what my family celebrations were like and why I'm so nostalgic for them. And I'm so glad you remembered the oplatek! It's a lovely tradition. And MY friends still remind me of what a blast it was to come over after Midnight Mass. One told me recently his most endearing memory is of my Mom playing Christmas carols. I'm sure she's looking down and smiling - she loved to play the piano. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Jodi.

  3. Felicia, It was wonderful of you to share Polish Christmas traditions and memories.
    Our traditional Christmas day meal always contains sweet potatoes, green beans and squash. The three sisters. Meat is either turkey or venison.
    Danistayohihv & Aliheli'sdi Itse Udetiyvasadisv
    (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in Cherokee)

  4. Thank you, Diana for the Cherokee greeting! I won't pretend to be able to pronounce it though! All the best to you.


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