Deep in the heart of winter near the longest night of the year, as a child my heart was graced annually by one of the great traditions of Christendom. It was ultimately an experience which kept me deeply tied to my Catholic roots even during later years spent in temporary disbelief, and it imbued in me a particular sense of Catholic cultural richness, identity, and religious beauty which has translated into my adult life and career. In a time of post-conciliar liturgical flattening, increased daily irreverence and informality, and our rapidly descending new dark age, it became a yearly clinic in due reverence for the Incarnation.
The Christmas Eve vigil – the wigilia (Vy-gyl-ia) to Poles and numerous Slavic cultures – has its origins in the deeply reverent observation of the conclusion of the Advent fast, and is thought by some scholars to emerge in part from earlier Jewish traditions. Aesthetically it is in many ways the evening twin of the Rorate Masses now being rediscovered throughout the Catholic world. Slavs around the globe often consider the wiligia to be the most beautiful evening of the year, and the tradition is one worth rediscovering in the west.
Recalling the wigilias of my childhood, I remember that a particular hush fell over our home in a way unique to that day of the year. Television and music were turned off while my mother quietly (though with great haste) prepared the vigil supper. The children ate sparingly while the adults fasted. Around noon my Mother would look to the clock and murmur: “well, our loved ones are seated for their wigilia”, remembering her family left behind overseas. Tears would gather in her eyes, and my father would break his fast by pouring a drink and lifting a toast eastwards to blood, memory, and home. As the day passed, family lore was told and re-told, the presence of loved-ones far away or departed could somehow be felt, and the approach of the Nativity became deeply palpable.
As the early evening gathered, the now impatient children were tasked with locating the first star in the sky, a symbol of the heavenly manifestation which lead the Wise Men to Christ; this was the official sign of the start of the vigil meal. On cloudy evenings, somehow Dad always managed to sight the star anyhow; I grew up thinking he had an eagle’s vision. The evening melted into deep candlelight, and the Christmas tree and decorations were lit for the first time. The home would be awash in the uncommon smells of dishes made only once per year. As the table was prepared, one additional symbolic place was always set for the potential traveler or unexpected guest, and as children we sometimes imagined the angel which would sit there regardless.
Twelve meatless dishes were laid for the vigil supper, representing the twelve Apostles. Fish was the central dish, both to represent the nature of a penitential meal as well as to remind us of the humble profession of the first Apostles. Hay was placed under the tablecloth to remind of the stable of Christ’s birth. (In my mother’s tradition, a symbolic amount was placed in the center. In my wife’s tradition, copious amounts were placed to the point of making an even table setting impossible, and also allowing for the hiding of candies therein for the children’s later discovery).
Before the official meal began, my father would read a scripture passage about the nativity (generally Luke, as steaming dishes were already cooling at the table), after which my mother would then lead the blessing prayer, including a bittersweet petition for the recently departed that proved emotionally taxing some years. In a tradition that has since been adopted by many American parishes, everyone would then take an oplatek (a thin, blessed wafer) and exchange brief heartfelt well wishes and loving words with each person there gathered, breaking small pieces of the oplatek from each other’s hands as they made their way. What followed then was the special meal, as much a feast as the fasting nature of the evening would allow. (The designation of Christmas Eve as an official day of fasting existed in the United State up until the Second Vatican Council, making this prime reclamation territory for orthodox and traditionally minded Catholics).
After the vigil meal was concluded, Mom would a simple serve desert (generally a particular kind of Christmas fruit dish called “kisiel”, or another poppy seed based dish) along with homemade fruit kompot (juice). Carols would be sung, and the children began the natural gravitational pull of the larger bodies towards the Christmas tree, where most of the presents were to soon be opened. Every gesture and movement was full and purposeful: this was the most beautiful evening of the year, and nobody wanted it to end.
For larger families or ethnic enclaves, often a visit from St. Nicholas (generally somebody’s uncle) would occur before presents were opened, a source of excitement or consternation depending on the general behavior of the child in question. Later the older children and adults would attend the Pasterka, or Shepherd’s Mass (Midnight Mass), so nicknamed as an acknowledgment of the evening’s commemoration of the nativity. The time after midnight Mass was an official breaking of the fast, at which point special sweets were brought out and drinks poured. Those who stayed behind to watch the children would often emerge from sleep to take part in the early morning libations, and the festivities sometimes lasted to first light. Needless to say Christmas Day often saw the adults having a late start before the formal breakfast feast was eventually served. (To this day I am amazed at my superhuman mother, who nevertheless always found the strength to set the most beautiful breakfast table of the year on the following morning).
Wigilia, rather than New Years eve, was the passing of the year. Christmas Eve – not Christmas Day – was the deep celebration of the nativity. It was the spiritual heart of the year, and it would imbue me with a sense of reverence for this great night that I will surely keep until the day I die. For Poles today, the strength drawn from this candlelight-bathed formative tradition has doubtless served as a source of strength as the secular west assaults their religious sensibilities, while for others it has often served as a Catholic touch-point and profound memory through which to return to faith once again. See, for example, this video of one American family’s beautiful experience of Wigilia in Poland:
Versions of wigilia exist across the Slavic world. Amongst Christians in the Middle East, Christmas Eve also takes on a specific festive character; our friends the Karis (of Jordanian descent) describe a formal yet festive evening commemorating the Nativity, complete with a teamwork-concocted feast of epic proportions and various traditions unique to each family. While these Christmas Eve traditions have found their way into the new world, other cultures have also imported their special celebrations of the evening. Italians – like our own good Fr. Simone at St. Sebastian Parish in Akron – fondly remember their celebration of the feast of the seven fishes, while Byzantine Catholics celebrate the paramony, or “preparation.”
In the United States, most people without direct ethnic connections to such feasts have slowly but surely forgotten this vital tradition, with Christmas Eve becoming a time to finish shopping or watch a movie while ordering out pizza or Chinese food. Other traditions have been nurtured upon Americana and sentimentality, such as Bing Crosby’s singing of “White Christmas” and the watching of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and have predictably faded with the sure passing of that simpler age. Even in religious communities across the west, the beauty of Christmas Eve has faded into general obscurity and silence.
Yet as the broader culture abandons its Christian roots and faithful Catholics continue to search for ways to live out the liturgical calendar with deeper meaning, the opportunity of Christmas Eve stands among the paramount times in which we can outwardly express the historical reality, theological richness, and aesthetic beauty of our Incarnational faith. While it takes a bit of effort, it is ultimately a simple decision to reclaim the significance of the hush of the Nativity. All that is necessary is a purposeful daylong adoption of reverent quiet for the forthcoming birth of our Lord, the pursuit of purposeful formality throughout the day (with religious formality being a truly counter-cultural witness in the West), and the ending of the Advent season with a special meal or gathering. Once the intention is adopted, additional touches from purposeful family prayer to the singing of sacred carols to a subdued candle-lit setting can transform one’s home into a profound echo of the Nativity. For adults, meaning will be rediscovered. For children, the authentic rhythm of Christmas will be permanently imbued. This is positive enculturation at its best, a palpable way for families to celebrate the consummation of Advent unto the new hope of the season.
Awash in a sea of uncertainty and living in a new age of gathering darkness, we will nevertheless enthusiastically hold our wigilia meal this year. Joining in the motion of our ancestors and the joy of the Communion of Saints in celebrating the triumphant yet humble entrance of the Christ child, we will begin a purposeful Christmas season, enkindling candles of hope in the darkest nights of winter. In an age in which Catholics are rediscovering St. Nicholas’s feast day, the Rorate Mass, St. Lucy cakes and Epiphany blessings, the queen of these traditions warrants a rediscovery as well. This can be the year you re-institute or begin your own beautiful Christmas Eve tradition, for the spiritual edification of children “young and old alike,” for generations to come.
From our family to yours: a beautiful Christmas Eve and blessed Christmas to you all!
Postscript: As a composer, I could not write an article about Christmas Eve without sharing some of the astoundingly beautiful Polish carols which will accompany our wiglia feast. More than any description I can write, these songs underscore the hushed reverence and perfect Catholic joyful melancholy of the evening.
Mizerna Cicha (awkwardly translated: “The Miserable Silence.”) A carol describing the full poverty of conditions into which Christ was born:
Jezus Malusienki – Little Baby Jesus:
Bog sie Rodzi – God is born (Generally sung during and after Midnight Mass).
For those who would like to celebrate their own wigilia, these links may also come in handy:
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.