Witamy!: Christmas Eve (Wigilia) was always the single most special evening of the entire year. The table was set with the best crystal goblets, delicate bone china, the good silver, plus antique Polish fish forks and serving utensils that were over a hundred years old – handed down over several family generations.
The table was always set with an extra plate – for the unexpected “guest.” In the center of the table sat a small plate, on a bed of fresh evergreen cuttings (clipped from stray branches off the Christmas tree) on which lay the traditional Christmas wafers. They looked just like communion wafers but shaped in small rectangles, maybe 2 inches by 3 inches.
Our wafers were always sent to us by family in Poland, but some folks got them from the nearest Polish Church (blessed) or from a nearby Polish deli (unblessed). Mom had been preparing the meal all day and the kitchen was awash with fragrant aromas of Classic Beet Soup, Crepes filled with a mixture of sauerkraut and mushrooms and much more. Many of these special recipes are in our book which will be out in March 2011.
The light of the first star was the official signal that the festivities were to begin. First we exchanged Christmas greetings. By tradition, each of us shared a piece of wafer with everyone else and made our wishes for the season and for the coming year. This was a little uncomfortable when I was younger, but eventually I came to appreciate the symbolism and ceremony. Then we ate…and ate…and ate some more. The dessert goodies were put off for a while until everything settled.
Next, we moved to the living room, only lit with the colored lights of the Christmas tree and we sang Polish Christmas carols. We had several record albums (yes, vinyl) from Poland but they were pretty scratchy. Neither of my parents could carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, so that part of the tradition was pretty painful. Besides, I just wanted to open the gifts. A big black plastic bag was ready for the trash, and as the youngest (and only) it was my job to distribute the gifts. A little shake…a little sniff…anything to guess what was hidden in each box. After the gifts, we would enjoy some sweets (some of these are in our book as well) and bundle up off to visit friends of the family and later to midnight Mass.
We didn’t have much when I was growing up. Most first-generation immigrants started life in the new country with nothing. But we had the family. And we had out rich traditions. They need to stay alive!
The special recipe for this season from The Art of Polish Cooking is a traditional Christmas Barszcz.
3 carrots, cut up
2 celery stalks
2 parsley roots
2 onions, quartered
1/4 head savoy cabbage
Salt to taste
2 qts. water
8 medium beets*
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. sugar
1/8 tsp pepper
Dash garlic powder
Simmer the vegetables with peppercorns and salt in water for 30 minutes. Strain. Wash and bake beets for 1/2 hour in moderate 350 degree oven. Coarsely chop beets and add to broth. Simmer 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and season.
*Note - It is okay to substitute canned sliced beets (plain, not pickled).
© Copyright 1968 Alina Zeranska. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission from LoraPeet Ventures LLC
The Polish phrase of the day is Wesolych Swiat, which is the traditional Christmas greeting, and literally translates as: Happy Holidays! (Pronounced: Veh-so-wych Shfiont).