December 2011 Bee Newspapers column

When I was young, my family actually celebrated Christmas Eve more so than Christmas. For us, the vigil, or Wigilia was very special. And, Christmas Eve was more like a day and a half, which doesn’t even count all the prep time involved. This celebration was more than magical for me. The Wigilia meal was a meatless meal and it was not to be served until the first star had appeared in the sky. 

And then, not a morsel was to be eaten until the oplatek was broken. The oplatek is a rectangular unleavened wafer, generally embossed with a nativity scene and placed on a plate over a few pieces of straw. As tradition holds, each person attending the meal takes a piece oplatek off the plate and the eldest family member begins by taking a piece of the wafer from their spouse or the next elder member. Then each person wishes each other health, joy and happiness for the coming year. It becomes touchingly sad when one of the family members is no longer with us and a person is awkwardly standing alone for a moment until someone offers them a piece of their wafer. When every person had gone around the room and shared their wafer and wished all the family members well, it was then time to sit down and enjoy the meal. At the table there was always a vacant chair for any unexpected guest. 

The food served was nothing exotic or elaborate, but it was often food that we only ate at this particular celebration of the year. Everything was homemade, steeped from the deep roots of our ancestry.  Mushroom soup, kluski (noodles), fish (perch), pickled herring, kapusta (cabbage), boiled dried fruits, pierogi and followed by poppy cakes, cookies, placeks and strong coffee. 

We exchanged gifts on this day, but no gifts were to be opened until the table was cleared and the dishes done. As children this interim between the cleaning up and the opening of the gifts was an eternity. There was no such thing as a dishwasher back then so my older sister and my aunts did the dishes with a lot of chatter and laughter, but also swiftness knowing of the youngsters’ anxiousness. 

And then, the gifts were opened. I don’t ever remember being disappointed. My mother always watched and enjoyed as everyone opened their gifts and then she would open hers at the end so she could relish the oohs and aahs and comments as she displayed what she received.

From that point forward the evening took on relaxed mode. The women congregated in the living room while the men went downstairs to play some poker. At 11:45pm a bunch of us would pack in a car and attend midnight Mass. After Mass, it was now officially Christmas, and when we got home we were greeted by the scent of homemade kielbasa cooking on the stove. It was then time for a little sandwich on rye bread. My father always made about 30 pounds of sausage and as each of the guests left for home they were given some fresh kielbasa to take with them. Later that day, we would meet at Aunt Jenny’s home for a continued get together, more chatter and a bite to eat.