Many European countries observe Christmas Eve as the main event for celebration rather than Christmas day. Poles start their Wigilia (Christmas Eve) meal by breaking bread.
Christmas eve in Sandringham
It’s not just eastern European countries that observe Christmas Eve as the main day for celebration. Descended from the German Saxe Coburg family, the British royal family still continue the European tradition of celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve. Presents will be opened after a large supper which might consist of carp accompanied by potato fritters and sauerkraut or potato salad with sausage. Cakes include stollen and a whole variety of tasty, sweet delights.
The first star & Polish tradition
Traditionally, the Christmas Eve supper starts with the arrival of the first star in the evening sky and it’s the children’s job to go and spot it so the meal can commence. Given that the first star of the evening hits the skies around 16:00, in today’s busy world Poles sit down to their Christmas Eve feast whenever they come home from work.
The table will be laid with candles and foliage, and straw is placed under the tablecloth, a reminder of the manger. There’s always a place set for the uninvited stranger – Christmas is a time of giving.
The evening starts with switching off all electric lights and lighting candles.
Then the meal starts with the breaking of bread – usually this is a communion bread. This bread cannot be bought. Many receive it from Polish relations or from the local Polish community. If you have a Polski sklep (Polish shop) nearby, you’ll be asked to make a charitable donation in exchange. You tear off a portion and then you embrace those around the table and wish everyone good fortune for the forthcoming year.
1.7 million Poles were transported to Siberia in World War II; they also continued this tradition by using any bread they had to hand. It’s a more spiritual start to the festive season.
Let the festivities commence
This meal really is a feast, but it’s eaten slowly over a very long time. The legendary 12 courses aren’t a gourmand’s gargantuan delight, it’s more a case of savouring traditional delicacies interspersed with salads and fruit and grain-based snacks. Barszcz – no, not Borscht – is the clear beetroot soup with pierogi (dumplings) that features on every Wigilia table. The original recipe talks about leaving seven days to allow sour juice, made from beetroot and rye bread, to ferment, then adding this to a stock base and this comprises the soup. You can cheat and buy barszcz ready-made.
Then there’s a herring salad; rollmops are just wonderful and can be obtained everywhere. These are vital for this celebration.
Carp is an essential and traditional part of the meal. There are so many recipes for preparing and cooking carp for Wigilia. One of the best recipes is Jewish and adds raisins to the mix; the sweetness of the fruit cuts through the meatiness of the carp. A 1952 recipe talks about gutting the carp at home and then continues. Carp is the centrepiece for the meal. Nowadays, people use whatever fish they can cook and enjoy, with or without gutting as the fishmonger can do that for you.
Poppy seed cake
To end the meal, the poppy dominates. Most Polish farms grew and still grow poppies, they were their own doctors in some of the remote parts of the country. The makownik is a wonderful way of using up any surplus poppies. It’s a yeast-based cake, filled with a gooey poppy seed filling. If you think of a Swiss roll, you’ll be on the right lines. It is delicious.
Every course can be washed down with a nip of vodka or Krupnik, (honey based vodka), so it’s a very happy crowd that makes its way to Pasterki – Christmas midnight mass. Though the fruit and vegetable salads would dilute some of the alcohol, compote – a fruit based soft drink – will also be served and in the past was the only drink on the table.
After church, on returning home, presents are opened.
Let the animals speak
No one is quite sure of the origins of this tradition. Some suggest Saturnalia, as the celebration reflected an upside down world, others can trace the idea back to medieval France. But it’s believed that if you talk to your animals around midnight on Christmas Eve/day you’ll be able to understand what they are saying.
Happy Christmas to all, and Wesołych Świąt!