The Wigilia supper and remnants of ancient Slavic customs
Preparations for Christmas, celebrated on 25th and 26th December, begin many days before – people collect the most important ingredients, start baking (for example the famous gingerbread dough that has to stay in a fridge for at least a week before being baked), clean the house thoroughly and prepare traditional decorations even weeks before the celebrations.
The most important day of the Christmas in Poland is the evening of 24th December – the Christmas Eve supper called in Polish Wigilia (derived from Latin “vigil” that means wakefulness). It’s the evening when the closest family gathers together for the festive meal and share the gifts, ofter staying by the table as long as until the midnight. The following two days of Christmas have more of a chill-out character in Poland – it’s usually the time of visiting the relatives and friends or just of resting at home.
Preparations and decorations
Everything that happens on the day of Wigilia is considered to have an impact on the following year. It’s connected to multiple interesting superstitions.
People try to keep themselves busy on the whole 24th – or else they would be seen as lazy during the next year. Quarrels are avoided by any means – or else the people would continue fighting for the whole upcoming year. All the items and money borrowed earlier that year should be returned before the Eve (last chance is to give it back before the New Year’s) and all kind of mess in the house cleaned up before Wigilia starts, or else they would keep that “unfinished” state for the whole next year.
The weather is observed very carefully and weather-forecasting, often on the basis of the whole Advent season, is still exceptionally popular. Many regions in Poland have unique customs connected to it. For example, women in the region of Kujawy were placing 12 big pieces of onion peels with a pinch of salt inside on the windowsill just before the Eve – these were representing the 12 months of the following year and the peels that became damp until the morning of the 25th were a sign of an exceptionally rainy month coming next year. It used to be important for the people in planning of the whole farming schedules for the next year.
In the past the main decoration of the room wasn’t a Christmas Tree (Polish: choinka bożonarodzeniowa or just a choinka), but a podłaźniczka (plural: podłaźniczki, also called a podłaźnik) – a decoration made of tied branches or a top of a fir, spruce or pine tree, hanging down from the ceiling. It was usually placed right above the dining table, tied to a wooden constuction beam.
Initially, the much bigger Christmas trees as they’re known nowadays were popular only in the wealthier houses of the burghers or the szlachta (Polish nobility). In the modern times they had replaced the traditional podłaźniczki almost completely. The old type of adronment became extremely rare and nowadays presented mostly in various ethnographic museums – however, more and more Poles try to revive that custom nowadays and sometimes place both the podłaźniczka and a Christmas tree in the room.
The traditional Christmas adornments were: subtle decorations made of woven straw, paper ornaments. small sculptures made of thin wafers, and various nuts, grains and fruits. Straw was used to make woven stars, angels, and elaborate geometrical forms. The 3D sculptures made of wafers were usually taking a shape of a globe, and called “światy” meaning “worlds” (always in a plural form).
Another important type of decoration was pająk (plural: pająki, translated literally as “spiders“), elaborated 3D form made out of straw and paper, hanging down from the ceiling as well. Contrary to podłaźniczka, the pająk could be prepared for various other occasions throughout the year as well.
All the decorations would be prepared long before Christmas – but according to the tradition they could not be hanged in the house sooner than on the day of Wigilia (24th Dec), or else they would bring bad luck to the household as a sign of excessive haste. The decorations could stay even until February, and the custom is to remove them only before the Ash Wednesday.
Both the podłaźniczka and the pająk (spider) should be prepared fresh each year and burned before the next autumn. They were meant to be protecting the inhabitants from evil spirits and spells. In the traditional meaning the Polish pająki were working similarly to the dream catchers known from the Native American cultures.
For more informations about the most important decorations and the symbolism behond them you can check my article: Straw as a ‘magical barrier’, and other Christmas decorations from Polish folklore.
The evening of Wigilia
Wigilia is basically a ritual supper when the whole family gathers together. Most Poles consider it the most important festive family gathering, right after the Easter breakfast.
Before the Wigilia starts, a small sheaf of straw is put on the table underneath the tablecloth – it’s a remnant of an ancient Slavic custom practiced during the celebrations of winter solstice (Szczodre Gody), later incorporated into the Christmas traditions as a symbol of stables where Jesus was born. Originally, big sheafs of straw were placed in the corner of the room (you can see them on the first two photographs above), symbolizing a Slavic home spirit called chochoł, which was bringing prosperity and protecting the house. Straw as such (but only this collected by the householders themselves) was a protection from various evil spells and was often scattered on the floor as a magical barrier.
Another important part is to prepare one additional seat on the table, with all the necessary plates and cutlery. It’s described as a seat for an “unexpected guest” and kept unoccupied during the whole evening. This custom is a remnant of one of the most important old Slavic customs, the Dziady (translated as a rite of Forefathers). Dziady were performed thorought the year, also during the new moon around the winter solstice (Szczodre Gody). During these rites, spirits of the ancestors were believed to visit their old homes and feast together with their families, thus one seat with an additional bowl was prepared for them. Ancestor worship (having a broader meaning and stretching beyond the “direct” ancestry) is one of the main elements of the old Slavic faith.
An interesting custom comes with the number of guests. In most regions of Poland it was believed that an odd number of people by the Wigilia table would bring a bad luck during the following year. If an even number couldn’t be achieved in any way, in the old days the hosts used to even prepare a large straw sheaf, dress it in clothes and place on a chair by the table, sometimes besides the extra place for an “unexpected guest”. Such a sheaf was dispersing the bad luck.
Wigilia supper can start only after the first star (pierwsza gwiazdka) lights up on the sky. It’s an ancient, highly respected part of the custom. The family member who spots the star as the first would have the most luck during the following year, and many kids spend a long time looking out from the window to find it on the sky.
When the family gathers together, they don’t sit to the table right away. First thing to celebrate during Wigilia supper is to share an opłatek, a thin unleavened wafer (usually decorated with embossed religious patterns). That custom is one of the oldest in Poland, with traces going back to the 10th century. The thin wafer symbolize the bread, sacred element of daily cuisine across the Slavic cultures, and sharing it – wishes of abundance.
Each person gets one opłatek right at the beginning of Wigilia and goes around the table to wish good health and prosperity to everyone. Wishes are usually being said one-on-one. Custom is to break a small piece of wafer the other person is holding and eat it after saying the wishes. In some regions of Poland it could be dipped in a small bowl with honey before eating. The supper cannot start until all the people present had greeted each other this way.
Sharing the opłatek is an extremely important symbolic gesture. During the days before Wigilia the Polish people would also bring the Christmas wafers also to their school or workplace in order to share the wishes with all the friends or coworkers as well.
By tradition, the Wigilia should be composed of 12 dishes, all prepared out of various kinds of grains, vegetables and fish, most popular being herring and carp. Meat is fobidden on the whole day of 24th Dec and the meat dishes are served on the next two days of celebrations only. Many people are also fasting the whole day before the Wigilia supper starts. This was meant to be also a test of strenght and durability, seen as having an impact on the following year.
The 12 Wigilia dishes represent the 12 months of the following year and each dish should be at least tasted a bit in order to avoid bad luck in one of the upcoming months. The dishes are prepared out of symbolic products and many of them are served only during that one special evening of the year (click here to read my post describing the traditional Polish Wigilia dishes in detail). Depending on the number of the people invited, the supper could last for many hours, even until the midnight.
After the dishes are consumed, people sing traditional Christmas Carols together (Polish: kolędy) – though it is one of the disappearing customs (some people feel for example too shy to sing out loud with the family). Then the gifts are shared, which had been placed under the Christmas Tree before the beginning of the supper. Gifts are often handed to the family members from under the Tree by one of the youngest kids, teaching them about patience and the importance of sharing over obtaining.
The Christmas gifts, depending on the region of Poland, are said to be left under the Tree for example by an Angel (Aniołek), the Papa Frost (Dziadek Mróz), the Little Child (Dzieciątko, the Baby Jesus), or a Star Man and Little Star (Gwiazdor and Gwiazdka, described in details about my article about star symbolism and Chritsmas gift-bringers from Polish folklore). As it comes to the Santa Claus, in most regions of Poland he hands out the gifts only on 6th December during the Mikołajki Day.
Wigilia ends around the midnight between 24th/25th Dec. That hour is said to be magical. The farmers believed that their animals could speak human language on that special hour and many people were checking on their stables after Wigilia in order to feed the animals in case they had something to say. However, in some regions people believed also that a person who managed to hear the animals talking would die soon. Unmarried women were going outside in order to listen for the sound of a barking dog or sleigh bells, or to scream or sing in order to find the echo (custom depends on the region) – it was said that their future husband would arrive from the direction from which the certain sound came. Thousands of Poles are attending the special holy mass held at midnight, called Pasterka (Shepherd’s Mass), when everyone gathers in the church to sing the Christmas carols together.
Ancient customs that had merged with the Christian holidays are remnants of the old-Slavic feast that was celebrated during winter solstice, in Polish called Szczodre Gody.
To read more about the Christmas season in Poland, check my other articles:
- 12 dishes served during the evening of Wigilia
- Star symbolism and Christmas gift-bringers from Polish folklore
- Straw as a ‘magickal barrier’, and other Christmas decorations from Polish folklore
More on my other blog under the tag: Christmas.
My general sources / book recommendations [in Polish only].
Rebloggable version on my tumblr blog: [link].
9 thoughts on “Wigilia: Christmas Eve in Poland”
Born in UK in 1947 of Polish parents and grew up in Polish London community. Have celebrated Wigilia every year while living all over the world. Now living in Mexico and preparing for Wigilia with my wife and son and close friends. Thank you for this great blog that I can pass on to the next generation.
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