A Very Polish Christmas
By: Anna Jarzab
By: Anna Jarzab
I'm Polish. This is not news to anyone who knows me, or who's read the FAQ on my website, but people tend to get confused by the last name and always ask, "What ethnicity is that?" So, I'm Polish. And, as is fairly common, I'm Catholic. We Polish Catholics have lots of Christmas traditions, and I'd like to tell you a little about them.
We Poles celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, with an event called wigilia (pronounced vigilia). Wigilia means "vigil", because Christmas Eve is the night on which we're waiting for Jesus to be born. We Jarzabs celebrate with my entire extended family on my mother's side, and it's a fairly big deal for us. I feel like a kid again just thinking about this year's wigilia, because last year I went home to California instead of to Chicago, where my aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother live, so we only did wigilia with my immediate family. I've been going through family withdrawal, so I can't wait for Christmas Eve.
Here's what you need to make the perfect Polish wigilia.
· The First Star - Per Polish tradition, wigilia dinner cannot technically begin until the first star is sighted. My family nearly never eats before 6:00 on Christmas Eve, sometimes later. Before we start the festivities, my grandmother always sent us to the window to make sure the star is out.
· Oplatki - After everybody has arrived and settled in and the first star can be seen in the sky, we break the oplatki. Oplatki is unconsecrated Communion host. We buy it at church (it has been blessed by a priest) in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Everybody gets a piece and we go around to each relative and offer them our oplatek. First, you wish that relative good luck in the coming year, sometimes something more specific ("I hope you get that new job you're interviewing for, it sounds great", "I hope you do well in school"). Then they break off a tiny piece (you don't want too much, it doesn't taste great, kind of like cardboard) and you break off a tiny piece of theirs, and you both eat it, and then you embrace. You do this with everybody in the attendance, and then you either eat the remaining portion of your oplatek, trick some foolish child who thinks it "tastes good" to eat it, or put it back on the tray surreptitiously so that Grandma doesn't notice.
· Uszki - In Polish, uszki means "little ears", and these small dumplings (we're big on dough) are curled to look just like that. My grandmother's always have onion and mushroom in them, and pour barzcz (a beet soup) over them. This is the first course of our wigilia meal. It's always quite a production to get the children to eat the barzcz and the uszki, but I could eat them for every meal.
· Pierogi - Traditionally, wigilia is a meatless meal, with the main course being fish. But in my family we kind of ignore that rule, because there are so many good Polish meat dishes it'd be a crime to exclude them. My favorite part of the wigilia meal is pierogi, which are potsticker-like dumplings that are stuffed with a filling, boiled, and then fried in butter and onions. We always have my grandmother's special pierogi, which have shredded beef, onion, and mushroom in them, and sometimes there are some cheese or potato pierogi.
· Fish - Like I said, wigilia dinner is supposed to be meatless, but we're incorrigible and must have the meats. Regardless, we always have a fish option--usually something light and not too fishy, like talapia. To this day (and I'm twenty-five years old, you guys) my mom always demands I eat at least a small piece, for tradition's sake. I'd rather not, but I always do.
· Kielbasa and kapusta - There's no real reason to have kielbasa and kapusta (Polish sausage and saurkraut) at wigilia, but it's a crowd pleaser and a staunchly Polish food, so it's there.
· Dessert - After dinner, there is coffee and dessert. My family does cookie platters for Christmas dessert, and each family brings a big plate or two full of different kinds of cookies, that family's speciality. My cousin makes seven layer bars that are TO DIE. My family has, as long as I can remember, been in charge of bringing the kolaczki. We roll the dough into balls and then press them down with the bottom of a shot glass, so that there is a perfectly round depression. We put some kind of filling in the center--my favorites are apricot and raspberry preserves, but my mother also makes prune and poppy seed kolaczki because my dad loves them. Poppy seed cake is actually a traditional wigilia dessert, but this is as close as we get. We also drink coffee and tea.
· Presents - After coffee and dessert (I'm sure you can imagine how antsy we were as kids at this point), we got to open presents. Christmas Day wasn't a big thing to me as a kid, because I usually just had a present from Santa, and ever since we moved to California we have no presents at all on Christmas Day, because we get our presents from our parents and each other on Christmas Eve.
· Pasterka - The perfect wigilia is always topped off by Midnight Mass, which in Polish is called pasterka. Every Catholic church does a Midnight Mass, but it never seems quite the same if we don't go to the service at my grandmother's church, with the off-key old ladies singing in the choir loft. When I was very little, I was allowed to fall asleep at pasterka, and there's nothing like drifting off in your father's arms with a stomach full of pier
So that's it, my Christmas. Since we moved to California and thus don't have a house in Chicago anymore, Christmas Day is usually spent at my Auntie Kika's house. She makes a ham and we laze around watching TV and playing Nancy Drew computer games. Oh, that's another Christmas tradition--for years and years and years now, my sister, cousin and I have played a Nancy Drew computer game every Christmas. We always cheat with walk throughs and make fun of how dumb Nancy is and try to find creative ways for her to die, but we love them dearly. What will it be this year? Warnings at Wavery Academy? DONE.
Happy Christmas everyone!