Today, we will come home from Mass and begin preparing for our Christmas Eve Celebration, Wigilia (vi-GEE-lee-ah’). This is the traditional Polish Christmas Eve Vigil Dinner, beginning with the first star of the evening, Gwiazdka (g-VIAHZ-kah), followed by the lighting of the Christmas Tree, Choinka (hoy-EEN-kah), the sharing of the Christmas Wafer, Oplatek (oh-PWAH-tek), the not-totally-Polish-feast, the singing of Carols, Koledy, and finally, Midnight Mass, Pasterka (poss-STAIR-kah)!
My immediate family has not always celebrated Christmas like this. We’ve always celebrated Christmas, but in varioius ways throughout the years. I discovered Wigilia in the process of researching our family history, and we all agreed that it was a wonderful way to celebrate the birth of Christ, and at the same time add some seriously lacking culture to our melting-pot family.
So, for me, Wigilia is a way of connecting. A way of connecting, not only to my religion and my God, but to my family and my heritage. Growing up, my family was (and actually still is) very scattered. We didn’t go to visit family members often, and they only rarely came to see us. Weddings and funerals were the exceptions, and even then, most of the family couldn’t make it! I have very few memories of playing with my cousins. In fact, I only have three first-cousins. (As opposed to my husband, who has like, a million cousins, or some outrageous number like that!) And one of the few holiday-cousin memories I do have is of Spencer breaking the index finger of my left hand while we were trying to play German Dodgball! (Hey, is that cultural??)
My brother and my sister are both quite a bit older than I am, so I don’t have any real memories of growing up with them, either. I do remember my brother used to walk around the house on his hands, and that was absolutely fascinating to me when I was three years old! And I remember my sister babysitting me once. She talked on the phone the whole time and kept putting the earpiece up to the stereo speaker so her friend could hear the song “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”. Funny, the things you remember!
I do remember going to Midnight Mass, and that was always a highlight. It is such a beautiful service. Even if someone is not Catholic, I am sure they would appreciate and enjoy the holiness and beauty of Midnight Mass!
So, I guess genealogy was, in many ways for me, a means to having a ‘past’, a family. It was a way to connect with the family I never knew, a way to ‘belong’, to somebody, somewhere. I always knew that my grandmother was Polish. I knew her mother had come from Poland to Chicago when she was only 17, and that the boat had caught on fire!
I met my great-grandmother at least four times that I can remember, and she was always a great source of fascination for me. She had piercing, coal-black eyes and a very thick Polish accent. In fact, my father always needed a translator to converse with her, and she needed someone to tell her what he was saying because his Southern Drawl was too difficult for her to understand! Dutifully, since it was her grandmother, after all, my mother would interpret for the two of them. I understood my father’s dilemma, because she always referred to me as “Walleree”. Daddy thought that was absolutely hysterical, but his sense of humor always was a bit ‘off’!
Food and cooking are the most vivid memories I have of my Polish Grandmother, who firmly believed that if it was breathing, she should feed it, and that no one at her table could ever get enough to eat. Such is the true legacy I received from Poland. So, in an attempt to celebrate the birth of our Savior in a more meaningful way, in an attempt to provide a cultural heritage for my children, I will cook! I will cook for two days (and really should have started cooking yesterday!) and I will fill our home with the wonderful smells of Christmas Love!