It’s come to my attention over the years that my family has relatively unusual holiday traditions. For one, my family identifies as Polish, even though most of the younger generation are more typical American mongrels than straight out of Poland, and we make a big deal about celebrating Wigilia, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. And we also own a funeral parlor. And some people think it’s strange that we gather for Christmas there.
Like pretty much everyone, I have had a complicated relationship with my extended family. But no matter how bad things are, I’m never want to skip out on the Christmas Eve dinner. It’s a comforting, familiar ritual and going through the motions every year makes me feel anchored to my family history and memories. When I was a child, the only one in the family for a long time, I would entertain everyone by singing into my Sonny and Cher microphone while dancing on a crushed velvet divan. As a teenager, I would set the table and serve the dinner, and plug in the baby Jesus so he lit up in the outdoor crÃ¨che ““ but only after midnight, when it was Christmas Day. Now I bake desserts and volunteer to wash the dishes so I don’t have to go to church after dinner. The routine of it is very comforting.
The wigilia that is celebrated in my family centers on a big dinner. I understand in Poland it can be an all day celebration, but even my family has its limits on togetherness. A multi-hour dinner is just about right. The meal is not allowed to include red meat or poultry, but a fish is always served ““ I think this is leftover Catholic tradition from pre-Vatican 2 more than an ethnic requirement, but Catholicism and Polish-ness is significantly entangled around here. The rest of the dinner will include pirogue, kapusta (sauerkraut), chrusciki (deep fried pastries dusted with powdered sugar), a soup of some kind, and various vegetable side dishes. But you have to keep count of what you eat ““ you are only allowed to consume 7, 9, or 11 dishes in honor of the holiday. 7, for the days it took G-d to make the world. 9 for the number of months the Virgin Mary carried her child. 11 for the number of true apostles. The numbers and method of counting is always a matter of raucous debate ““ do all desserts count as 1 dish? What about drinks? What if you have wine and beer? (We count all drinks and all desserts as one each, because we really like cake and liquor. Like, a lot.)
The table is set with a pristine white cloth (that remains pristine until the soup shows up) that lays over straw (to represent the manager) and an extra place setting to honor Jesus as The Traveler, so that there is always room for anyone who needs a meal. And more years than not we find that place filled by displaced friends who are invited to spend the evening with us, and one memorable year, someone whose car broke down up the street took the chair.
Prior to sitting down, everyone breaks op?atek (blessed wafers) with each other. Everyone at dinner recieves their own large wafer and you circle around the room, breaking off a piece of their wafer to eat while wishing them something for the new year. Religious implications of it aside, I wish this was a common practice ““ having to think of something nice to say about people who drive you crazy and wishing them something heartfelt for their good fortune is an exercise in empathy that many of us need, myself included. (What would you wish Sarah Palin, if you had to?) When my grandfather was still alive, he shared slices of blessed eggs (boiled!) with each of his family members, a German tradition we allowed him to interject into our super-Polish evening.
Post dinner is reserved for gift giving to the children and midnight mass, and then post mass drinks and cake eating, while the kids are asleep. The mass attendence has dropped off over the years as the older, more religious generation has passed, and we find ourselves more interested in the family (and cake eating) parts of the evenings. As we’ve married and divorsed and moved away, Christmas Eve is the one night we all spend together before we scatter to the winds to see inlaws or football games or parades over the course of the holidays. We won’t come together again until the extended family party at the funeral parlor (and yes, sometimes there are bodies there).
What does your family do for the holidays?