Growing up with my Polish family, I loved Christmas.
It was exciting from the moment the Woolworths’ blue, green and silver tinsel tree went up, with its worn baubles and fairy lights, to the build up of our traditional Polish Wigilia.
Wigilia is our Polish Christmas supper, which is on Christmas Eve. The preparations take place a few days before.
As a child, I would help in the kitchen making a honey ginger cake ‘Piernik’, which took around two hours to prepare as it was all mixed by hand.
This was followed by ‘Makownik’, which is a poppy seed cake. Poppy seeds would be soaked in milk for a day and then would be ground through a mincer to produce a paste, which was used in a sweet dough.
Various dried fruits would be soaked in brandy to be used in a fruit punch and herrings ‘Sledzi’ would be pickled in a tub with lots of onions.
On the day of Wigilia, my mum would be busy in the kitchen making ‘Barszcz’, a beetroot soup, along with small mushroom dumplings ‘Uszka’ to accompany the soup.
She would also prepare dumplings ‘Pierogi’ with sauerkraut, mushrooms and potatoes, ready to be cooked on the evening. The whole meal does not contain any meat. Not a turkey in sight.
As children we would sneak a look under the Christmas tree to see what Santa had left and try to guess what presents we had.
Then we set the table – allowing for an extra place setting, a tradition in case someone dropped by. The white tablecloth would have some hay on it to represent the manger.
Following the Polish customs
Traditionally, we would gather around the table with my aunt, uncle and cousins and wait for the first star to appear in the sky. The first star represents the Star of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus and only then would we start our supper.
The meal would begin with the breaking of a wafer ‘Oplatek’, before exchanging wishes for good health and prosperity for the coming year. My dad would then say prayers before we sat down to our 12 dishes.
The number 12 symbolises richness and represents the 12 disciples and the 12 months of the year.
After we’d finished eating, we would exchange Christmas presents – I remember one year, I received a board game to play in the car trying to match road signs on the board. Unfortunately, we didn’t own a car! But I made it into another game.
We’d then sing Polish Christmas carols as the adults drank vodka and punch and us children played under the table.
A late church service
At around 10.30pm we would dress in our warm coats and walk to our Polish Church for ‘Pasterka’, which is midnight mass (Shepherd’s Watch). If we were lucky, we could get a bus for part of the journey, otherwise we walked four miles in all kinds of weather.
My dad would have to nudge me during the service not to fall asleep.
We had to walk home as no buses ran that late, and went straight to bed, while the adults carried on the celebrations for a couple more hours.
Continuing the tradition
This year, I am hosting Wigilia at my house, with my mum, siblings and their children.
That makes 18 of us and of course, the one extra place. My mum will come a few days before so that we can carry on the tradition of baking and preparing for the festivities. Though we will be using more modern appliances than doing everything by hand!
Today, you can buy most of the food pre prepared, but there is nothing like the joy of preparing it yourself.
As our family has grown over the years, we decided that we would only buy token presents, so we spend no more than £6 and draw one name in a fuddle and buy creative presents which require a lot of ingenuity.
This one evening is the most special of the festivities. It brings the families together with lots of fun and laughter.
However you celebrate the festivities – I wish you all ‘Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia’, and no doubt you will wish me ‘good luck with the 18 plus 1’!
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