What to prepare for the Polish Christmas Eve (Wigilia)

WIGILIA (pronounced vee-ghee-lee-ah) is the traditional supper composed of 12 dishes, prepared in Poland for the evening of 24th December – the Christmas Eve. Name of this special feast in the Polish language is derived directly from the Latin ‘vigilia’ meaning wakefulness. It’s the most important part of Christmas in Poland.

What kind food is served, and how is it celebrated?

Image © Marcin Woroszczak / AG

12 MEALS – WHAT AND WHY

The 12 dishes of Wigilia symbolize the 12 months of the year. The custom is to try at least a little bit of each dish in order to avoid bad luck or hunger during the certain months of the following year. Wigilia is dedicated to the products of the soil – various types of grains, seeds and vegetables, with the main course being a fish – and ends with a crazy amount of delicious cakes and cookies for a dessert.

First thing to remember: the whole day of Wigilia is meatless, and only fish are served. The only traces of meat in the dishes could be some broth-based soups. It’s connected to old and highly respected traditions of fasting before the major feast days, and supposedly bears traces to pre-Christian Slavic customs. The meat dishes are served during the other days of Christmas (25th and 26th Dec).

Number 12 might sound intimidating, but the dishes are relatively light (with for example a few different kinds of soups) and eaten in small portions – you want to go for the meaning and variety rather than for the quantity of food. Wigilia is spent at a low pace, and the families can spend long hours of the evening sitting by the table and sharing stories in-between the meals.

The dishes vary a lot between the many regions of Poland, each having its own courses that often don’t occur in the other regions. Describing all of them could actually make a whole book, but they are overally prepared out of very similar products, and there are many common types of recipes.

THE BASIC PRODUCTS

Wigilia in the Ethnographic Museum in Sierpc, via Wiano.eu

There are several must-have products used to prepare the Wigilia meals. In the Polish folklore they were having a certain symbolic meaning:

  • honey [miód] – in the traditional meaning it is a magical substance symbolizing joy and abundance
  • poppy seeds [mak] – symbolizing the connection with the outerworld, the fertility and immortality
  • various nuts [orzechy] – symbolizing mystery, wealth, wisdom and fertility; they were also believed to protect from the toothache
  • dried fruits [suszone owoce], for example prunes [śliwki] – meaning to protect from the evil forces, ensure happiness and prove a long lifespan; apples [jabłka] – meant to be protecting from headache and providing good health; pears [gruszki] – ensuring the longevity and attracting money
  • grains of barley [jęczmień] or wheat [pszenica] – symbolized goods of the Mother Earth, and the process of nature’s rebirth
  • white beans [fasola] and split peas [groch] – meant to bring health, fertility and abundance
  • mushrooms [grzyby] – symbolized the outerworld, mystery and a sudden growth (side note: best are compositions of dried forest mushrooms, they need to be very aromatic)
  • beetroots [buraki] – symbolized the ‘blood of Mother Earth given away in a gesture of love’; they were believed to ensure longevity, beauty and general wellness of people
  • cabbage [kapusta] – symbolized strenght, life-giving powers, and protection from illness (often used in traditional healing methods, along with beetroots). It was believed that its properties are the strongest when composed with peas or mushrooms in the meal
  • fish [ryby] – symbol of fertility, vitality and a new life, also a well-known symbol of Christianity

As you probably had concluded already, the symbolic dishes of Wigilia are meant to provide a protection from evil, attract the wealth, and ensure the good health, fertility and general happiness for the upcoming year.

COMPOSING THE MENU

A Wigilia table, photo © Mieczysław Michalak / Agencja Gazeta

Start with preparing a simple list of the meals. Have fun with it and choose those that you think will taste well to your guests!

Some selected recipes are linked in the next section below.

Take a piece of paper and fill it with ideas:

  • It’s generally acceptable to count the opłatek as the first course (if you don’t know yet what opłatek is, check my earlier post about Wigilia). If you’re outside Poland, having troubles with getting the opłatki, then don’t panic. Although they are an iconic standard now, they were originally meant to symbolize the “daily bread” and you could get a sort of unleavened bread or other kinds of thin wafers (not the sweet ones – real opłatek is flavorless!) to share with your guests in a symbolic gesture
  • Prepare even up to 3-4 different kinds of soups (2 soups is absolutely a standard and the red barszcz / borscht is a must-have)
  • At least one dish should be composed of cabbage – try for example cabbage with mushrooms or/and cabbage with peas, or various fillings with cabbage
  • Serve something with poppy seeds – for example kluski (type of a thick pasta), kutia or a cake
  • One of the dishes are pierogi
  • Very popular are also krokiety – pancake croquettes with different fillings (very often of mushrooms with cabbage)
  • The main course served at the end should be baked or fried fish – get your favourite whitefish (in Poland nowadays the most popular fish would be a carp) and if you like fish in general, plan also an appetizer for example from a herring
  • Similar to the case of counting the opłatek in, you could also count the sweets altogether as the last 12th dish symbolizing the sweet December
  • The important drink typical for Polish Christmas is a kompot – compote / punch prepared of boiled dried fruits (mostly prunes, apples, pears and figs with various aromatic spices). It could be served throughout the supper and most of Polish families count it as one of the meals as well. It’s also healthy for the stomach and helps with digestion.

Add a lot of herbs and spices to everything! Real Polish cuisine is very aromatic. (Side note: if you knew it as rather bland food, it’s only because of the decades of wars and communism with the shortage of resources in the past that had drastically changed some of the recipes for a longer period of time. Polish cuisine is having its “golden age” nowadays and many recipes are being reconstructed properly.) The herbs and spices most typical for the Polish Christmas would be for example: cinnamon, marjoram, cumin, sage, parsley, thyme, black pepper.

RECIPES IN ENGLISH

Below are just some of the most typical recipes I found written (or recorded) in English. Check them out, google for more options, and choose your favourites to compose the supper menu with the help of the list above!

Kompot drink:

Examples of soups:

  • Wild mushroom soup: recipe 1recipe 2. Side note: I personally adore the mushroom soup and my family always has a version of it on the Wigilia table [photo below from PozytywnaKuchnia]

  • Żurek, sour rye soup with mushrooms: recipe – I haven’t found a proper recipe in English yet, but you could use the linked one just erasing the bacon and sausage – and while cooking I would definitely add marjoram, allspice/pimento and bay leaves for a better taste – this sour soup will work up your apetite for the next meals [image below from Zwierciadło]

Poland-Wigilia_Christmas_Eve_14

Meals with cabbage and/or beans:

  • The most simple dish of all – white beans with prunes: recipe – beans & prunes. It’s something always prepared for Wigilia at my home. Use prunes with the seeds still inside to have a small game by the table – put the prunes with a spoon on your plate and then, while eating, count the seeds you’ve taken. People who managed to take an even number of seeds will have the most luck during upcoming year [image below from Przepisy.pl]

Symbolic meals with poppy seeds:

  • Kluski pasta with poppy seeds: recipe – you could shape your pasta in different ways than the squares in linked recipe [image below from PozytywnaKuchnia.pl]

Pierogi (BTW, just reminding that pierogi is already a plural form! – singular is one pieróg. Don’t use the artificial “pierogis” form, it sounds as weird as for example ‘dumplingses’ would :) )

Krokiety recipe [krokiety could be served with some clear barszcz in a cup like on the image below]:

Fish recipes:

  • Fried carp: simple recipe [image below from DusiowaKuchnia – a good advice from there is to leave the cut carp in a bowl filled with buttermilk and put it in the fridge for at least 8 hours before seasoning and frying]

  • Carp with mushrooms and sour cream: recipe [image from the same source – Karmelowy.pl]

The most popular Christmas sweets:

  • Pierniczki – gingerbread cookies: recipe [image below from the same source]

I will probably add more examples of recipes if I find any online – you could click here to suggest other recipes :)

SOME IMPORTANT DETAILS OF WIGILIA

There are a few important rules and small details that make Wigilia so special [click here to read my earlier article describing the whole day of Wigilia]:

  • Reminding: no meat dishes allowed. In majority of households it is also not right to serve alcoholic drinks – you can prepare all you want for the next days of celebrations. Wine could be an exception though.
  • Cover your table in white tablecloth and put a bit of straw / hay underneath – it was a symbolic protection from the evil and in the Christian meaning symbolizes the stables where Jesus was born.
  • Wait for the first star appearing on the sky to start dining!
  • Begin by sharing opłatki and short wishes with everyone present.
  • Contrary to the popular pictures showing tables filled with food on different plates, only one meal is usually brought to the table at a time – they are consumed one by one, always warmed up freshly in the kitchen. Counting the arriving meals together is also a part of the custom. Wigilia could last for hours and people use the time as a great opportunity for storytelling, recollecting the past events or singing traditional songs.
  • You don’t need to change the plates with every meal served. Traditionally, each person eats everything from one set of plates: one soup plate (or soup bowl), one dinner plate, and one dessert plate. And yes – not only you need to taste a little bit of each dish, but also have to eat everything what you’ve put on your plate in order to make a room for the next meal coming.
  • Play some Polish kolędy [traditional Christmas songs] in the background :) I found some nice playlists on youtube you could check out: sung by Mazowsze Song and Dance Ensemble / Góralskie – from Polish mountainsmix of songs

Polish Christmas on some old postcards:


My general list of sources / book recommendations (in Polish only).

Rebloggable version on tumblr: [link].

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