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Family Celebratory Meal

I was born and raised in Poland. In Poland the most solemnly celebrated meal is, without a doubt, Wigilia- Christmas Eve dinner. It is also most beloved and beautiful tradition. This tradition has remained unchanged from the very first time I can recall it. There is great importance around it. The preparations start days in advance and great anticipation is felt leading up to it. It is still believed, that whatever happens on Wigilia affects the following year. So, it is important there is no tension and all issues, hurt or anger are resolved before we sit down at the table. Consequently, the day is reserved for reflection and quieting of the mind. I remember as children, my brother and I could not watch TV and we were expected to keep our manners in check to the highest of degree. Whole family, to this day, gathers at my grandmother’s house for the feast. She also is the one who cooks most of the dishes with other women helping with anything she needs. The table is set with white tablecloth and the finest china. I remember that it was the only day, out of the whole year, that we ate out of the dishes that otherwise were only displayed or tucked away in a china cabinet. The moment when the first star appears on the eastern sky is a signal to begin the dinner. It symbolizes the birth of the Christ Child.

‘Before sitting down at the table, everyone breaks the traditional wafer, or Oplatek and exchanges good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the New Year. This is such a deeply moving moment that often tears of love and joy are evoked from the family members who are breaking this symbolic bread. The Oplatek is a thin, unleavened wafer similar to the altar bread in the Roman Catholic Church. It is stamped with the figures of the Godchild, the blessed Mary, and the holy angels. The wafer is known as the bread of love and is often sent by mail to the absent members of the family.’ (Wigilia). I recall it was the only time I saw my dad cry, in fact I don’t ever remember any of us not crying. It was highly emotional. I also remember the overall and undeniable feeling of anxiety around this part of the celebration, as it was a culmination of personal inventory that we were to disclose, perhaps admit mistakes, grant forgiveness or make amends. Therefore, great relief and a sense of a burden having been lifted off came as a result of this exchange. Family members feel purified by it and ready to begin the celebration with joy and gratitude.

The feast is consistent of seven courses, all of them are meatless, due a strict fast that is to be observed on this day, as mandated by Roman Catholic Church. Some families practice twelve courses to symbolize all months of the year, and/or the number of the apostles. Since, however, twelve courses are an exuberant amount off food, some families, just like mine, serve seven courses instead. As a child, I remember asking why seven? But I don’t ever remember getting a straight answer. Just like with any religion and traditions, having been adapted over centuries, the meaning gets lost and acceptance of the belief or a practice as a common truth takes place. Perhaps, seven symbolizes number of days in a week, as a follow up concept to number of moths in a year? In attempt to revel this mystery for myself I conducted some research, unfortunately it only aided my confusion. In turn, I consciously decided to let it go.

It is a common practice to have an extra chair and a setting at the table in case an unexpected guest was to arrive. This is to further extend the feelings and practice of kinship, generosity and gratitude, as no one should be alone, or hungry on such important day of Christ Child birth. Furthermore, according to an ancient Polish adage, "A guest in the home is God in the home."

The feast, according to my family tradition, always consists of the same courses served in the same order every year. It begins with pickled herring and bread, followed by barszcz czerwony z uszkami- a beet soup with mushroom ravioli. All the food is made from scratch and is a fairly simple. Utmost propriety is expected at the table. It is unacceptable, for example, to switch utensils; knife is to be only held in a right (or dominant) hand and fork in the left. It is important not to make noise with tableware or put your elbows on the table unless for the matriarch for the family and the one that prepares the food, in my case my grandmother. Women help serve the food. The conversation is cordial and soft-spoken voice is used. The light is dim and candles in the candelabras are always on the table. Adults cheers with a shot of vodka throughout the meal. Usually, after the first course, towards the middle, and before that main course. Other dishes consist of kapusta z grochem- sauerkraut and beans, kluski z makiem- poppy seed noodles, pierogi. Some foods are more of the staples than other, and vary from family to family or trough out regions of the country. However, the main course is most traditional and almost everywhere, certainly in my family, it is a fried Carp fish. Fish is bought live at least one day before Christmas Eve and kept alive.

As little kids, my brother and I always had fun ‘plying’ with the fish that was kept swimming in the bath tub, it was amusing until it was time for our dad to cut it’s head off. Our parents allowed us the amusement, to a limited extend. Motives behind why the fish was in the tub and what was its faith were never hidden from us therefore; we were not encouraged to treat it as a pet. Equipped with this knowledge we were expected to ‘handle’ our emotions when time to butcher ‘our guest’ arrived. That time was always known, as every event of the day was highly anticipated and symbolically executed. This is a good example of the cultural approach that I experienced trough out my upbringing. After reflecting upon it from the perspective of time and exposure to other cultures, I would consider a practical approach that did not cater to emotions. It would also explain the anxiety that preceded breaking of the ‘Oplatek’, as vulnerability is not expressed easily or often in my culture.

The motives behind keeping the fish alive were practical indeed. Carp is a bottom feeding fish therefore it contains impurities. Keeping it alive in fresh water allows for these impurities to be filtered out making it more suitable for consumption. Carp was fried whole, portioned and served with the bones. Even as little kids we were expected to debone the fish carefully under supervision but without help. I remember it an exciting challenge, and a bit of a competition between my brother and I, on who was going to do the best job at skillfully ‘deconstructing’ the fish to free any and all the meat from it’s bones. This uncompromised practice at formal table etiquette from such a young age, has granted me feeling of comfort and ease at dinner party of any caliber.

I have not participated in Wigilia with my family, or otherwise, since I left my country seventeen years ago, and I missed it greatly. My family and I connected on the day and I am reassured of the traditions being kept. The empty seat at the table begun also symbolize my presence at heart and hope that I will rejoin eventually. I am overjoyed that this day finally arrived, and although a lot of things have changed during this seventeen years, the tradition remained the same. It was strange not to have my father, who since passed, be at the head of the table. Nowadays, my grandmother, the matriarch of the family does this honor. Although I missed him greatly, I was also very grateful to have my love and partner in life Kyle Fitzgerald be part of this special gathering. This was a very special experience which, in a very meaningful way, had sealed a chapter for me. Now, I am truly ready to move on.

Bibliography

Wigilia. (n.d.). Retrieved 01 27, 2017, from http://www.polishamericancenter.org/: http://www.polishamericancenter.org/Wigilia.htm

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