Wigilia (pronounced: vee ghee lee ah) or “The Vigil” is the traditional Polish Catholic Christmas Eve celebration feast held on December 24th. The name of this special feast in the Polish language is derived directly from the Latin ‘vigilia’ meaning wakefulness and vigilant. It’s one of the most important days of Christmas in Poland, with the ceremony representing the pending arrival of Jesus.
The traditional supper is composed of 12 dishes. The 12 dishes can vary depending on regional and family customs. Each of the 12 dishes of Wigilia symbolise the 12 months of the year and the 12 Apostles. The custom is to try at least a little bit of each dish in order to avoid bad luck or hunger during the certain months of the following year. Wigilia is dedicated to the products of the soil – various types of grains, seeds and vegetables, with the main course being a fish – and ends with copious amounts of delicious cakes and cookies for a dessert.
First thing to remember: the whole day of Wigilia is meatless, and only fish are served. It’s connected to old and highly respected traditions of fasting before the major feast days.
Although this meal is reserved for the closest family, it’s customary to set an extra plate and seat for an unexpected guest, or even a vagrant. The meal can only begin once the first star in the evening star is visible. Most of the dishes served are cooked specifically for this special day – and only once a year.
Nothing is to be eaten until all members of the family have broken the Christmas wafers (opłatek) together and exchanged wishes for good health and prosperity.
If you’d like to experience a taste of traditional Wigilia and Christmas dishes we have hampers of them on THE STORE.
THE 12 DISHES
barszcz* with uszka (beetroot soup with porcini raviolis)
This traditional Christmas barszcz is usually served with tiny dumplings stuffed with a mix of soaked dried porcini (also known as ceps) and fried onion. These are called uszka, meaning ‘little ears’. Barszcz is traditionally served in the south of Poland, particularly in the Podhale region, close to the touristic Tatra Mountains, where uszka are usually replaced with large white beans.
This soup, also often served at Christmas Eve dinner, and is made from dried forest mushrooms (the best ones are ceps). Other traditional Christmas Eve soups include soft-water fish soup (for example, carp), white borscht, vegetarian Christmas Eve sour rye soup or old fashioned sweet almond soup.
The tradition of carp farming in Poland is at least 700 hundred years old. However, it became an eminent part of Polish culinary tradition only after World War II. Christmas Eve carp is often accompanied by hot sauerkraut with dried mushrooms, a vegetable salad or potatoes.
Śledź* (Pickled Herring)
Served on Christmas Eve, during Lent, as a party appetiser or a side dish, Polish śledzie is a versatile dish made with salted herrings pickled in vinegar, oil, sour cream, onion, apples, and spices. Oil and vinegar are the most traditional options, and they are usually combined with peppercorns, bay leaves, and allspice.
The herring was also a symbol of long and strict periods of fasting. In homes of all social classes, they used to be on the menu when almost everything else (meat, vegetable fats, dairy products) was banned. Hence another old Polish tradition of giving herring a ritual funeral at the end of the Lent period.
Pierogi are certainly the most recognisable Polish food abroad. The Christmas version of those half-circular dumplings is stuffed with cabbage or with sauerkraut and dried forest mushrooms such as ceps. Interesting regional varieties – most notably coming from the eastern regions – are sweet pierogi stuffed with smoked and dried plums or with poppy seeds.
Bigos (Braised Sauerkraut)
Polish Christmas Eve smells predominantly like sauerkraut. Sauerkraut has always existed in the Polish diet and is one of the country’s most popular and recognisable food preparations.
Łazanki* (sauerkraut with pasta)
Łazanki is an everyday dish though many people serve it as part of their Christmas Eve feast. Christmas łazanki is usually made with sauerkraut and mushrooms. These two ingredients are an integral part of traditional Polish Christmas. Łazanki pasta probably arrived to Poland in the XVI century, thanks to Queen Bona Sforza d’Aragona who was Queen of Poland (1518) and was also the wife of Sigmund I the Old.
Gołąbki (Cabbage rolls)
Gołąbki, or cabbage rolls, are a type of comfort food eaten all year round. In daily cooking, it is usually stuffed with meat, but it changes its face during Christmas. In those households where they are served on that special evening, the stuffing is vegetarian and contains grains (buckwheat, pearl barley or rice) and dried forest mushrooms.
Kutia (sweet dessert grains)
Kutia is an ancient dessert with origins in Eastern Europe made exclusively for Christmas Eve dinner. Today, it is still served in many households where families have some roots in the eastern part of Old Poland. It is a mixture of cooked, unprocessed wheat grains, cooked poppy seeds, honey, dried or candied fruits soaked in a small amount of port or red wine, and various nuts and seeds – usually almonds, sunflower grains or walnuts.
Pierniczki* (Gingerbread biscuits)
Baking gingerbread in Poland is a tradition several hundred years old. Gingerbread from Toruń – the city of Nicolaus Copernicus – is on record as far back as the 17th century. Ancient Polish cuisine was full of exotic spices, including ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Poles also bake lots of small ginger biscuits which also serve as Christmas-tree decorations.
Kompot (Dried fruit compote)
This beverage is made from cooked dried and smoked fruits – typically plums, apples, pears, raisins and apricots. It’s most appreciated purpose is to speed up digestion.
Makowiec* (Poppy seed roll cake)
Makowiec is a strudel-like, yeast poppy seed cake that’s one of Poland’s most popular desserts. Its main attraction is the filling spun inside, made of finely-ground poppy seeds, honey, butter, raisins and walnuts. The tiny black poppy seeds symbolises prosperity and has been included in the Christmas menu in the form of this delicious dessert.
*These dishes are available for purchase in the PolArt Sydney Wigilia and Christmas Day hampers – at THE STORE