Celebrating Wigilia

by Linda Kulig Magoon

Cabbage. Potatoes. Flour. Prepared in endless combinations, these humble ingredients are the mainstay of Polish cooking. And with maternal and paternal ancestry hailing from Poland, I had little choice but to grow up loving Polish cooking, whether I loved it or not.

Cabbage, potatoes, and flour are especially significant in preparation for Wigilia, a holiday celebrated on Christmas Eve that many Poles consider greater than Christmas itself. This is the case in my family.

Central to the holiday is a traditional Polish dinner. The menu, by custom, is meatless. Every year, a few weeks before Christmas, Mom and Aunt Ann would spend an entire weekend rolling out dough, mashing potatoes, and boiling cabbage. Our small kitchen counter would be covered with flour as they churned out dozens of pierogi, small dumplings stuffed with cabbage, cheese, or potatoes and boiled in water.

The day before the celebration, my father would craft his famous Polish mushroom soup, with green peppers, onions, and stewed tomatoes added to the stock. The soup was the essence of Christmas itself, with its variety of reds and greens. It was Dad’s secret recipe, or so we thought, until I happened upon it many years later, clipped from a newspaper, resting between the pages of a dusty, antiquated cookbook.

After weeks of preparation, Wigilia began after sundown on Christmas Eve. The most significant moment of the holiday was the breaking and sharing of Oplatek, a thin, paper-like wafer stamped with images of infant Jesus, blessed Mary, and the holy angels. Each family member broke off a small piece of Oplatek and then shared a portion with each other, offering traditional messages for health, wealth, and happiness for the coming year.

Line of Sky by Jesseca P. Timmons
Line of Sky
Photograph by Jesseca P. Timmons

Our family personalized these well-wishes according to one’s interests: “Dad, I wish you health, wealth, and happiness. May you hit the jackpot at Foxwoods this year.” Or, “Lin, I wish you health, wealth, happiness and a long life. I hope your band books lots of paying gigs and if not, you keep your day job.” Sharing Oplatek was done simultaneously, amid boisterous laughter and abundant hugs.

After we shared Oplatek, we gathered at the dinner table, where we always included one extra place setting. That setting was for the Christmas angel, a family member who may have passed during the last year, or a family member unable to join the celebration.

The meal began with Dad’s Polish mushroom soup. Then, the main course: haddock, pickled herring (sledzie), pierogi, and sauerkraut.  The aroma of pickled fish and sauerkraut, as the food was passed around the table, was not easily forgotten: it hovered—like a mushroom cloud—over the table for hours.

After the meal, my father led us in singing Polish Christmas carols, known as koledy, which I impatiently sat through, camped by the Christmas tree, waiting for the gift exchange.  Some years, we attended midnight Mass and didn’t open gifts until we returned home, prolonging the agony.

Shortly after my dad’s passing, my mother professed that she had had enough of the baking, cooking, and cleaning. My sister volunteered to take over, and she continues to host to this day.

This year, my brother will make the traditional mushroom soup, following Dad’s recipe.  I will make the pierogis, inviting family and friends over to partake in preparing cabbage, potatoes, and flour in endless combinations, but adding an alcohol-fueled “Jingle Juice” to keep our spirits bright.

It is up to my generation to carry on Wigilia so that we may pass this special Polish tradition on to our children. This year, the extra place setting will be for my mom, our Christmas angel.