Actually, this is the Big Day, if you’re Polish (Catholic). It’s called the Wigilia (vee-gee-lee-ya), or the Christmas Vigil. A lot of other cultures also celebrate The-Night-Before rather than The-Day-Of.
In our family, the celebration begins at sunset. You light a candle, share a large communion wafer, then settle down to a multi-coursed feast of traditional winter Polish food. There’s no meat, but fish is often allowed. It’s the “lent” thing. Traditionally, my family would start with bread and fish, then go onto a meatless beet soup (barszcz). Some families serve mushroom dumplings with this course, but we don’t. From there we go to pierogi (vegetarian), fish dishes, sauerkraut and various condiments like sour cream to go with them.
Desserts are also very traditional. In my family we serve a dried fruit compote and a sweetened poppy seed bread that’s rolled like a jelly roll. One or more of us usually bakes cookies, so those get added to the dessert table. The evening ends with coffee and sweets. Then we open presents. An event like this can – and often does – go all night.
The religious among us (not me) then go to midnight mass. Christmas day is no big deal. When I was a very young child we went to our paternal grandmother’s house for another day of eating and gift-giving. Then some of us went to a cousin’s house for the day. For the last few years I’ve prepared Christmas dinner, since Wigilia is prepared by my sister.
My brother is married to a Canadian woman who is originally from Britain (Brighton). We’ve therefore added Boxing Day to our agenda, to make three full days of celebration from December 24 to December 26.
This year I’m staying in Boston, for the first time ever. Travel is more wearing than it used to be, so we’ve decided to opt out, at least for this year. Our celebration tonight will be a visit to a very nice Argentinian (!) restaurant for our Christmas Eve dinner. Behold the new tradition! Then we’ll come home and open our gifts, which were shipped to us in advance.
My family will have Wigilia dinner tonight at my sister’s house, then will open their presents tomorrow. My folks are getting older and late nights are more wearing than they used to be. We’ll talk via telephone and, hopefully, Skype webcams as well.
So, Merry Christmas Eve to you all and a joyous, Merry Christmas for those who will celebrate in full tomorrow!