About Wigilia Dinner

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Poles (Polish people) celebrate Christmas for 3 days: the 24th, 25th, and 26th of December. The highlight is the first day, called Wigilia (pronounced vee-gee-lee-ah) which means "vigil" and includes the Wigilia dinner, and afterwards, exchanging and unwrapping presents.

The Wigilia dinner is a traditional 12-course meal. I don't know the reasons for, nor the symbolism of, that number or count. People sometimes say that the 12 courses refer to the 12 apostles. Wigila dinner is vegetarian (if you don't count fish); maybe that has to do with the "waiting" or the vigil - for meat is served and eaten on the other days of Christmas.

Each of the 12 courses is fixed or set by tradition. That means, that if you go to a household enjoying their Wigilia dinner, the dishes they are cooking, serving, and eating, are very much the same as, if not identical to, how they were for the last, well, in my family's case, about 25 years. Now, Poland being a largish country with a certain amount of variation between regions, the 12 dishes can vary from family to family. Also Poles have been poor at times in history, and the normal vagaries of cultural transmission have meant that not every family's Wigila dinner is like every other's. My own mother-in-law, for example, used to cook only 11 dishes; one of them had been forgotten, or abandoned, somewhere along the way. However any two families comparing notes will find that their Wigila dinners have a lot in common.

Here is our list - Wigilia dishes my family has cooked, served, and enjoyed:

  1. Barszcz (pronounced bar-sh-ch) - beet soup. Though the word is similar and they're obviously related, barszcz isn't the same as Russian Borscht as we in America know it. The barszcz served for Wigilia is a light, completely clear soup (no sour cream, no beet solids); sweet and tangy with a strong hint of pepper.
  2. Herring in oil. These three varieties of herring are all pretty easy to find in stores, so we just buy them.
  3. Sauerkraut with yellow split peas. Served hot, warm, or at room temperature. 12 dishes are a lot to prepare in a small kitchen, so fairly often, this dish, once cooked, just sits aside in its pot, in the warm kitchen. So when served it tends to be just about as warm as the kitchen is.
  4. Mushroom gravy.
  5. Pierogi. I won't describe these since they are the most famous of all Polish food. The word "pierogi" is already plural but Americans generally say "pierogis". However you spell them, they're great. Some people fry them; we boil them and enjoy them with the mushroom gravy.
  6. Fish.
  7. Kutia - boiled wheat berries, mixed with poppy seed sweetened with honey, raisins, walnuts, and some vanilla and other extracts. Served cold.
  8. Noodles with poppy seed - similar to the above; egg noodles boiled, cooled, rinsed, and mixed with a poppy seed mixture. You can use the very same poppy seed mixture that goes into the kutia, or a less-sweet variant.
  9. Keks - a kind of fruit cake; not like American fruit cake. It's a white cake, denser than regular white cake, but not that dense. Mixed in are chopped nuts and dried fruit.
  10. Piernik (pronounced "pee-air-neek") - a brown ginger spice cake.
  11. Makowiec (pronounced "mah-ko-vee-ets") - Polish poppy-seed cake or roll. This is the distinctive brown-and-white spiral cake. Some cookbooks say that it looks like a jelly roll - I can't attest to this since I'm not big into sweets and to my knowledge I've never eaten a jelly roll. But I do love makowiec. You can cut the sweetness of the poppy seed filling, if you're not a sweet-lover, etc. The resulting makowiec still tastes very good. Just different.
  12. Bread. I am not "big into" white bread, but for Wigilia I enjoy baking a plain loaf which may be made of white flour, or whole wheat flour is fine. I roll the dough out into long flat loaves baguette-style and bake on a flat baking sheet. Use your own favorite bread recipe or just buy it.
  13. Fruit compote - served in a pitcher, "compote" (yes, it's an English word) is basically the liquid part of stewed dried fruit.

The above list does contain 12 items if you ignore the compote. But with the extras, there are actually closer to 16 things served on the table - and then of course there may be butter, wine, coffee, tea, etc. It's quite a spread, and it's easy to fill up on the first few things, &/or your favorites. But it's worth it, traditional, nutritious, and suitably reverent to sample at least a bit of every dish.

Smacznego! (May it be tasty!)

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