The Twelve Meals of a Polish Christmas Eve Vigil

Near Darke
By Hank Nuwer

Although it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, for many folks it won’t be the same as in days of yore.

The pandemic sure has messed with my favorite holiday.

Take that empty chair by the fireplace, for instance.

The bad news on CNN said that one in one hundred seniors over 65 has succumbed to Covid or its umpteen variations.

For many families, that chair by the fire was Grandpa or Grandma’s place and no one else can take it.

With understandable concern about the dangers of big gatherings, many clans will be watching the chestnuts pop, pop, pop by Zoom — also known as the dratted Co-Vid.

And by now we all know that celebrating by Zoom or Whatsapp isn’t even “remotely” satisfying.

But that’s how we’ll be visiting Gosia’s family in Warsaw, Poland, on Christmas Eve.

I’ll not only miss all the relatives. I’ll also miss the group picture we always took with us assuming goofy Addams Family grimaces.

Yeah, and I’ll miss the lovely Christmas carols that we won’t get to sing as a family in Polish — with me mispronouncing every third word.

True, Gosia and I will be alone on Dec. 24, but our wonderful Union City neighbors are having a Christmas brunch on the 25th, and so we indeed are counting our neighbors as family this year.

Then, on Dec. 26, we are moving the calendar backwards.

Whaa?

Yep, two days after the traditional Polish Vigil (Wigilia in Poland), we will have a late celebration as Gosia’s daughter Natalia flies in from her W.H.O. outpost in the Republic of Palau in the Western Pacific.

OK, OK, you ask, or maybe you didn’t ask and I’ll tell you anyway — what’s a Polish Christmas Vigil?

Well, for one thing it’s a celebration of Advent, and an end to the traditional Advent fast that Gosia kept and I broke 39 out of the 40 days.

So, when Natalia lands, we’ll hand her a couple ornaments to hang on the tree and then we’ll start the Polish Vigil.

It starts traditionally with the sighting of the first star.

We’ll break the fast with the breaking and exchange of the Catholic Christmas wafer (opłatek). We all take a small piece and murmur good wishes and good health for 2022, then eat the broken pieces.

Since we won’t have the traditional friend or traditional vagrant (Really, that’s the custom!) at our table to share the wafer, I’ve mailed a piece to my teammate on the long-ago Buffalo State College baseball team to share with his wife and grandson, a student at Grace College.

Then the feast begins with a catch — there is to be no meat on the table on Polish Christmas Eve.

I tried convincing Gosia that a Christmas Eve on Dec. 26 allows for a lambchop as an exception to the rule, but she folded her arms and gave me the stinkeye. So, no lamb.

Sigh.

All told, there are 12 traditional portions.

Yep, 12. Don’t try this at home unless you loosen your belt first.

We start with red borscht, also known as red beetroot soup. It is boiled and then served chilled with sour cream on the side.

Next, is my favorite, tiny pan-fried dumplings (pierogi) filled with cheese and Gosia’s famed sauerkraut (made from cabbage grown by our nearby Amish friends). On top is Gosia’s secret recipe containing tiny pieces of bacon.

Yum, yum.

When we were in Poland, we could now indulge in a mushroom soup made with wild, dried yellow mushrooms from our remote cabin in the woods east of Warsaw, but maybe this year we’ll substitute Portabella ‘shrooms from Union City Save A Lot.

We then pass around a plate of fish. In Poland, it’s traditionally carp, but since the relatives (Sorry, Aunt Sabina!) aren’t here to object, we’ll have haddock flown in wild from Alaska as a tastier substitute.

The rest of the portions will include 5) Gosia’s hot homemade bread with poppy seed, 6) a mixed salad, 7) herring cube, 8) mashed or boiled potatoes, 9) braised sauerkraut with prunes and dry mushrooms from the Amish, 10) meatless cabbage rolls (Gołąbki) in tomato sauce, 11) lamb chop — Kidding! I mean, a cheesy noodle dish, and 12) Gosia’s special cream-filled cake that contains no calories because the white frosting contains blueberries and strawberries.

Let me end by wishing one and all a very special holiday meal, no matter how you and your loving families prepare it, from Gosia, Natalia and yours truly.

Wesołych Świąt (Happy Holiday)!

Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.