I grew up in a large, boisterous Catholic family, where suppertime was a chaotic event. My parents could only hope that their nine scrappy kids would one day turn into peaceful, loving brothers and sisters. Christmas Eve dinner became my mom’s noble attempt to teach us about grace. Wigilia was its name, and it struck horror in our guts.
Mom is Polish-American, and we, her famished, half-Scotch/Irish brood, were appalled that Wigilia (vee-geel-yah), the Polish Christmas Eve dinner, seemed morefast than feast. Sauerkraut with dried mushrooms? Apple-sauce? Plain rice and fish? Are you kidding, Mom? Where’s the meat?!
We made faces and produced gagging noises. We didn’t appreciate that the meatless repast symbolized gratefulness for the earth: mushrooms for the forest, fruit for the orchards, rice for the fields, and fish for the water. And we certainly didn’t appreciate that before we could eat, we had to enact the Polish Christmas Eve tradition of the (dreaded) Oplatek.
A flat, communion-type wafer, the Oplatek (oh-pwah-tek) was the size and flavor of a large greeting card. Dad and Mom would begin by breaking off two pieces of the wafer, symbolizing unity in Christ, and dipping them in honey, symbolizing the sweetness of love. They’d say a personal blessing for each other, and eat their pieces. The remaining wafer and honey was then passed from child to child, and we had to make up a blessing for whoever was next to us (usually giggling or rolling our eyes) before we could finally eat. In our young minds, we didn’t know something important was sinking in. However, year-by-year, Christmas Eve dinner became our special event; a sacred moment to appreciate the Creator’s grace in every soul.
We’re adults now, with a spectrum of political, religious and economic differences, scattered all over the country. Dad has passed on, but dear Mom is still with us. We gather at Christmas Eve, grateful for whoever is there. We have become loving, if not always peaceful, siblings. We grown children happily dip the Oplatek in the honey, take our time to rightly bless each other and sometimes cry, while the fish and rice dinner gets a little cold. The grandchildren are the ones who roll their eyes, but they too, end up being quite sincere. Christmas Eve is my birthday, and I once resented sharing it with the Polish Vigilia. I realize now, it was grace. And it’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
Whatever your holiday traditions, may they bless your spirit, bond you with others, and bring the grace that is ours to share.