Wigilia (Vig-eel-yah), which translates to “vigil” or “eve,” is a traditional Polish Christmas Eve celebration to commemorate the birth of Christ. Families have a large feast and then attend Midnight mass.
It was also an excuse for all the grown ups to be able to get the madness of opening gifts over with on Christmas Eve and sleep in on Christmas morning.
The beautiful tradition to celebrate the birth of Jesus went down like this in our family: Grandma, my mom and aunts would make traditional dishes (pierogi, gołabki) while the kids would be unleashed into the wild to run on the train tracks behind my grandparents’ house and terrorize the next door neighbor’s pet, a talking crow named Joe. (I am not making that up, he talked).
Dinnertime would arrive, and we would all gather together to receive and share our pieces of opłatek, a Christmas wafer symbolizing the breaking of bread. We would go to each person in the family with our wafer, say “Merry Christmas,” break off a piece of the other person’s wafer to eat, and choke down the dry wafers tasted like cardboard.
Then all the adults would sit in the dining room while we kids congregated in the kitchen with my dad, who often got designated to manage the kids’ table. Our goal during that meal was to drive my father to such a point of distraction that he would finally pound the table and scream, “Jesus Christ, that’s ENOUGH!” at which point we would all silently exchange half-frightened, half-triumphant glances. Pops would just sigh and go get another beer from the garage.
After dinner the kids would fidget while the parents cleaned up the kitchen. We were told we had to wait because Santa was going to arrive any minute to deliver our gifts. I would bide my time rooting around the living room until I’d found where Grandma had hidden her homemade chocolates and stuff as many in my mouth as possible before getting caught.
Then Santa (who was ably played by my Uncle Gene or one of his siblings, including his sister one year) would “ho-ho-ho” into the house and we would all clamor down to my grandparents’ basement to see the big guy himself. Santa would hang for a few, and then tell us he had to get back to delivering gifts to the worlds’ non-Polish children. We gleefully watched Santa exit, realizing that the month of having to be well behaved was over and we could unleash the pent up naughtiness all at once.
At that point, we transformed into rabid animals. We descended on the tree and started madly grabbing at presents with our names on the labels. In seconds, the basement was a disaster zone of ripped up, discarded bits of wrapping paper, ribbons, and cardboard boxes. We eagerly checked out what other cousins had received to measure who walked away with the best loot.
Then we’d all pile into mini vans to head to church. I loved midnight mass. The cloying scent of incense, the temperature with all those extra people crammed in, the hangover from the overstimulation of opening a bajillion gifts…I would snuggle into my parka and doze while the choir sang celebratory songs of the birth of our lord and savior…and remember for an instant what Christmas is really supposed to be about.
Then I’d go home and cuddle with my 10 new Barbies.