When Polish-Americans gather for dinner on Christmas Eve, it’s not just a time to enjoy pierogi, pickled herring and mushroom soup. It’s a holy night of love and peace as the family awaits the birth of the baby Jesus.
Called Wigilia (Vee-GEEL-ya), the meatless meal is prepared only once a year, and it always begins with a prayer and the breaking of oplatek (o-PWAH-tek), a white wafer imprinted with a religious scene. The head of the family or eldest member breaks off pieces of the wafer and offers them to each family member, exchanging Christmas greetings and good wishes for the New Year.
Hundreds of pierogi
In Susan Gorga’s family, everyone wants to make the Christmas pierogi.
“It’s this big production and it just seems to get stronger,” says Gorga, a Schenectady native, Church of St. Adalbert parishioner and board member at the Polish Community Center in Albany.
The fun started years ago when her father-in-law, Kazimierz Matala, along with aunts and cousins, would gather around the kitchen table two days before Christmas Eve.
“The menfolk would roll out the dough and cut the circles, and the women would fill them and pinch them together. Over the years, the grandchildren wanted to help, too.”
The young ones learned from the older relatives and then really got into it.
“They would make hundreds and hundreds. We could never eat them all,” Gorga says.
These days when it’s time to make pierogi, it’s the millennials who rule the kitchen.
“They are in college, some of them are married with kids of their own,” Gorga says. “And it has become a tradition that everyone can’t wait to get together to make the pierogi.”
This Christmas Eve, four generations will celebrate Wigilia, beginning with prayers and the breaking of the oplatek, led by her father-in-law.
“We always have mushroom soup and borscht [beet soup]. We always have fish. It has been Americanized a little. One of the cousins makes linguini with clam sauce. We always have coconut shrimp. And the pierogi are the highlight.”
Fourteen years ago, when Gorga’s three children were ages 6, 8 and 13, they learned firsthand about Christmas in Poland during a family trip to visit relatives.
“The kids found that the main gift-giving came on St. Nicholas, Dec. 6,” Gorga says. “They were surprised that there weren’t many presents under the Christmas tree.”
On Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass was celebrated in an unheated wooden church in the mountains.
“In Poland, so many people go to church that if you are not early enough, you have to stand outside. At midnight, there were people standing in the freezing cold.”
During Wigilia, hearts are filled with love, Gorga says.
“We get together for other holidays and events, but there’s really nothing like Wigilia.”
‘Hope, health and happiness’
Curious about the history of Polish Americans in Schenectady? Just ask Bob Chelkowski of Rotterdam.
His relatives left Poland in 1887 and landed in the city’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood. The Church of St. Adalbert has been his family’s parish for five generations.
When Bob, his wife of 42 years, Dianne, and their six grown children get together on Christmas Eve, the table is set with the best china and they always make sure there are 12 meatless dishes.
“We start with my homemade mushroom soup,” Chelkowski says. “Then we’ll have our haddock or codfish.”
There’s also boiled potatoes, pickled beets, kapusta (sauerkraut) with mushrooms, pierogi, horseradish and pickled herring.
“We have the same menu that we put together in 1979. We’ve Americanized it somewhat. We’ve added shrimp.”
His kids won’t eat the herring. “But they look forward to the kapusta,” Chelkowski says.
Before the feast, the oplatek wafer, which rests on a plate of straw in remembrance of baby Jesus in the manger, is shared with each person around the table.
“It’s a once-a-year special moment where everybody comes into the room and you forgive any hardships you’ve had over the previous year,” Chelkowski says. “You break it with each person and wish them Merry Christmas, hope, health and happiness.”
Later that evening, the family goes to Mass at St. Adalbert’s.
When his children were young there was a traditional “shepherd’s Mass” at midnight, and the little ones would snooze in the pew until the service began.
“Gentlemen and women were dressed as shepherds and greeted the parishioners,” says Chelkowski. “My daughters would dress as Mary and carry baby Jesus.”
From Poland with Love
For Marie Glowacki, the most beautiful moment of Christmas Eve is the breaking and sharing of the oplatek wafer.
“Oplatek is the bread of love and forgiveness,” Glowacki says. “It’s a very emotional thing around the table. People are wishing each other well. If there was any bad blood between them during the year, they would ask for forgiveness. But it also has another meaning. Even if you have the last piece of bread, you should share it with those in need.”
Glowacki, her husband Bogdan and two young children came to America in 1982 as political refugees from Poland, and were sponsored by the Polish National Alliance in Cohoes. Today, the Albany residents are dual citizens of the U.S. and Poland.
When she lived in Poland, Christmas Eve was a sacred time.
“This was a religious observance, not commercial like we see here in the United States,” Glowacki says.
Growing up in Poland, Marie’s mother would start preparing the day before Christmas Eve.
“With pierogi we did dried mushroom, and the other one was potato and cheese. We had three kinds of soup: mushroom with tiny noodles, dried plum and red borscht [beet soup] with little dumplings. We had a variety of fishes: haddock with vegetables, salted herring with chopped onions, fish in gelatin. And potatoes, sauerkraut with yellow peas, sauerkraut salad with carrots and onions, beet salad.”
Glowacki has passed down everything she learned from her mother to her children, and is now teaching her 7-year-old grandchild, Sofia.
Next week, the Wigilia menu and traditions will be the same ones she grew up with — except for the Christmas tree.
“In Poland we decorate the tree the morning of Christmas Eve. Since we have been in America, we changed it due to my children’s wishes to have the tree decorated earlier, like at their friends’ houses, so we usually put the tree up on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.”
Another Polish tradition is the singing of Christmas carols. Marie and Bogdan sing in Polish, sometimes during the meal and always after dinner.
“Then we ask our granddaughter to sing in English.”
After dinner, they go to Mass at St. Michael’s Church in Cohoes.
“This is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s very spiritual. Family is together. And there is waiting, waiting for Jesus.”
For four generations, Danny McNamara’s family has kept its Polish Christmas traditions going.
For McNamara, who lives in Amsterdam and belongs to St. Stanislaus Church, his Polish heritage comes from his mother, whose maiden name was Komazenski, a name you’ll find in Rotterdam and Schenectady, too.
“Christmas Eve is a big day in our house,” says McNamara. “It takes days of preparation. My mom learned the recipes from my grandmother. And they’ve been passed down from my great-grandmother. Everything is homemade and our house ‘smells Polish’ with the cooking.”
The family goes to Mass, and then comes the Wigilia meal, which begins with a prayer and the breaking of the oplatek. They enjoy kapusta soup, white borscht and pierogi.
“When my grandmother made the white borscht it was quite the process. She would let it sour a week before Christmas on the stove, with rye bread ends and water and old-fashioned oatmeal. Then squeeze it out on Christmas Eve with heavy cream.”
Sharing the food and being with each other is the most important thing, McNamara says.
“It’s just a very special time when we commemorate the birth of Jesus. And in general, whether you’re Polish or not, your family is what Christmas is all about.”
Another Polish custom they observe is setting an extra place at the table for anyone who may need food or companionship.
“The empty place at the table is also for people in the family who have passed on. You remember them,” he says. “It’s bittersweet sometimes because you think of grandparents and generations that have passed on. You keep the traditions out of respect for them.”
Family gatherings like Wigilia are more important than ever, McNamara believes.
“Today, people are inward, with cellphones, electronics. We need to be with one another, we need that sharing and that warmth … and that’s the Christmas message, no matter what your nationality.”