One of the delightful aspects of American Christmas traditions are the many traditions brought here by the diverse ethnic groups that immigrated to the United States. Some of the most endearing are the holiday customs brought from Poland and enjoyed by many families in the Chicago area.
For US citizens with a Polish heritage, Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day, is the major focus. Beginning with the “Wigilia” or Evening Vigil, families gather together to await the birth of the Baby Jesus at midnight.
Earlier in the day fresh green branches have been hung over entrance ways and apple decorated wreaths attached to outside doors.
Inside the Christmas tree has been decorated with sparkling lights, gilded nuts, bright red apples, colorful candies, beautiful blown ornaments, traditional stars and handmade paper decorations. How lovely!
Straw has been spread on the dining room table and then covered with a fine white tablecloth and candlesticks carefully placed. An extra place setting is always added to the table to honor the Christmas tradition of welcoming strangers to the feast.
The family’s small children are then directed to go to the window and watch quietly for the first star to appear. Once they see the first sparkling light, the family’s Star Dinner can begin.
As the family gathers around the table, the candles are quietly lit. The senior member of the family takes and breaks the oplatek wafer, passing it with a double kiss to the next oldest member of the family. This exchange continues until all the members of the family from oldest to youngest have tasted a small piece. In this manner all grudges and hurt feelings and forgiven and forgotten.
This charming Christmas tradition extends to family friends as well. Instead of sending paper Christmas cards, Polish American families often send a small oplatki in an envelope to friends, all with a small corner piece broken off to show goodwill.
The feast that followed the sharing of the oplatki wafer was meatless as traditional Polish Roman Catholics fasted for the first four weeks of Advent which included Christmas Eve. But nonetheless the meal was a grand affair with 13 courses!
The foods served reflected the four regions of human interaction – mushrooms from the deep forest, grains from golden fields, ripe fruit from the orchards and fresh fish from sea and streams.
The number of courses honored Jesus and his 12 apostles, but today in health-minded America the endless courses has been replaced by a 12 fruit compote dessert.
As the meal comes to a close, family members draw a straw from under the tablecloth. A fresh green piece of straw foretells a coming marriage. A twisted piece predicts an extended period of waiting prior to romance. Sadly, a very dry piece indicates a life alone.
At the end of this grand meal, Father Christmas, also known as the Starman, arrived with a chorus of Starboys, all singing Christmas carols and bringing gifts from Starland, but just for good boys and girls.
After endless songs are sung and gifts exchanged, the family heads off to Church for midnight services and more music with friends and neighbors.
Once home again there just might be time for some more cookies before bed and dreams of shining Christmas stars.
Now isn’t that a charming way to celebrate the holidays! Cheers and Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2010