Warning: This story contains scenes that some readers might find disturbing.
Let me sort out etymology and semantics first, and once this is out of the way, I shall explore a small fraction of the vastness of Wigilia and depths of importance this tradition carries wherein. The word Wigilia looks and sounds too similar to Vigil, especially when we realise that ‘w’ is pronounced as ‘v’ in Polish, for the two terms not to be closely related. It also means eve, as in the day before something. Wigilia with capital W, however, means only one thing to Poles around the world; Christmas Eve, the most Polish day in the year. As soon as it is spoken, the word triggers a plethora of images and memories in the minds of all Poles. It is dripping with nostalgia and meaning, it has its own smells and sounds. Wigilia is the name given to the whole of the 24th of December, but it can also refer just to the celebratory evening meal eaten on that day in every Polish household. It’s the main Christmas event, Poland’s response to turkey and stuffing with the Queen speech and Doctor Who in the middle.
Wigilia is governed by a strict set of rules whose origin is often buried in obscurity.
Everything you do on the 24th of December is somehow relevant, meaningful and elevated by the fact that it is all part of Wigilia.
My own Wigilia memories are all centred around a small flat on the top floor of a 1970s block of flats in a suburb of Lodz, my home town. As I am the only remaining witness to my childhood Wigilias, they have recently acquired a heavily sentimental dimension, strongly reminiscent of Dickensian ghost of Christmases long past. I believe that our Wigilias were typical of the time and the place, so it is safe to assume that what follows is pretty representative.
Our family size was modest, even by Polish standards at the time, just me and my parents, no siblings, no cats. Grandma hovered frequently in the background. I did not mind this at all, in fact I loved this setup a lot, it gave me all the time in the world to play with imaginary friends, what not to like, but that meant that Wigilia was a small-scale event too, so the first image that comes to mind when I think of Wigilia is my small family, three or four of us busing ourselves around the flat.
First thing in the morning my dad and I were always given the task of decorating Choinka, the Christmas tree, which kept us safely away from the kitchen where mum and grandma were frantically chopping, mixing, basting, folding, cutting, baking, roasting. The tree was always real, floor to ceiling, dropping needles the moment it was hauled through the front door. We took our time, my dad reaching top branches and hanging decorations with solemnity and precision, me messing around lower branches, stuffing tufts of silver tinsel everywhere. The feature length Snow Queen was a Wigilia morning TV staple, and year on year I never failed to be terrified by her cold stare.
Next item on my Wigilia morning agenda was sneaking into the bathroom to say a sad goodbye to carp swimming in the bath. I would put my hand in ice cold water and stroke their slimy sides fondly. The carp were usually bought a few days before and they lived happily, although clearly not ever after, in our bathtub. Our personal hygiene must have suffered, but that was not something my single digit self was too concerned about. They splashed and frolicked up until the moment my grandma took them out of the bath and calmly put them on a chopping board, wrapped them in a tea-towel and with one swift movement, defying both her advancing years and arthritis, smashed their heads in with a hammer. As soon as the flapping stopped, and it was safe for us to re-enter the blood splattered kitchen, dad would take over fish preparation, scaling and gutting the wretched creatures, whilst mum resumed chopping carrots and turnips.
We sat down to the most important meal of the year around six o’clock, but before sitting down we shared Opłatek, which is apiece of what looks like communion wafer. Opłatek sharing is probably the most Polish of all Polish traditions. It consists of each of us breaking off a piece and exchanging it with one another, whilst saying long, highly personalised wishes of health, wealth, happiness, prosperity and more.
Wigilia supper was supposed to include twelve dishes. This was a tall order indeed and I remember cutting corners, and counting butter and condiments to make up the numbers. Throughout my childhood, Wigilia meal was also meat-free, as dictated by the Catholic Church powers to be at the time, but fish was allowed. Within a space of couple of hours we would go through servings of herring salad, vegetable salad, beetroot soup with ravioli-shaped sauerkraut and mushrooms filled parcels, pierogi, aka Polish dumplings, filled with more sauerkraut and mushrooms, fried field mushrooms, fried carp, yes, him, poppy seed cake, baked cheesecake, cold cheesecake, and a lot of bread and butter.
One of the issues that has been dividing Polish public opinion for generations is the choice of Wigilia soup. The choice is narrow, and is between beetroot soup, barszcz, or a mushroom soup only. My family was always firmly of a barszcz persuasion.
Throughout supper we listened to Christmas carols, the solemn religious variety, but in Polish, and with an addition of a few sweet and tender lullabies for baby Jesus. I remember feeling genuinely sorry for Polish version of baby Jesus, he seemed to be always shivering from cold and crying a lot.
After Wigilia supper there was only one more thing to do, the thing I had been looking forward to for weeks. Santa visits Poland on Christmas Eve, straight after supper, possibly as a reward for eating all that carp and cabbage all night.
My Polish Santa used to drop a sack full of presents by the front door to the flat, rang the doorbell and always managed to run away before I sprinted to the door to catch a glimpse of him.
After opening presents it was bedtime for grandma, oh how I wished I could swap places with her, I envied her each time. As she was getting all cosy, my parents and I were wrapping up for Pasterka, aka Midnight Mass, or literally, shepherds’ mass.
Church-going is extremely popular among Poles and my parents were devout Catholics, so Christmas was always first and foremost about the birth of Jesus, carp killing a remote second. Pasterka is yet another magical Christmassy word, which, together with Wigilia and Opłatek makes it a uniquely Polish trio, almost impenetrable to others.
Truth be told, I was never personally keen on Pasterka, so here, Christmas confession. After eventful Christmas Eve day, after all the food and the presents, the last thing I wanted was to spend close to two hours in church. As a child I always found church incredibly boring, and being taken there in the middle of the night at Christmas did not help.
It’s been almost thirty years since my last Wigilia in Poland but I can still remember the unique intensity of the day. Wigilia has a special place in my memories, but whenever I think about it now I never know where Christmas begins and my childhood ends.