Wigilia, translating to Christmas Eve is the real celebration of Christmas right across the continental Europe. The late afternoon meal, eaten right around the time when the first stars become visible on the night sky, is not just a religiously or culturally important dinner. It’s also a celebration of all the late Autumn and early Winter harvest spoils. Traditionally, the dinner is pescatarian and non-alcoholic – in fact, there is a very sweet tradition of telling children that if they are well behaved, they might hear house animals whisper in human speech. Don’t ask me where that came from, probably somewhere sweeter than CocaCola’s Santa.
The dinner consists of 12 courses. Yes, 12, and the custom has it that you have to try every single one of them or else you will be haunted by bad luck through the new year. And I must say, for a very Christian country that I grew up in, kudos for all the pegan traditions which prevailed, it makes any holiday this much more pleasant. Anyway, to make the task more difficult, the 12 courses are for the most part prepared and cooked on the 24th December and up until the dinner, adults in good health will traditionally fast from the night before. Back when I was a child, the Christmas tree was cut down and dressed on the 24th too. It is surprisingly recent that we see decorations in stores as early as October. Anyway, back to the food – what goes into a typical 12-course pescatarian dinner?
The truth is, menu varies depending on where in the Eastern and Central Europe you are. Western countries such as France and Germany also celebrate Christmas Eve, but their menus are more in line with you’d see on Christmas day, including indulgent meats and alcohol. The further East you go, the more the narrative changes and oddly, the more international influences you’ll spot. A typical menu will include:
- 2 – 3 soups, usually a choice of clear barszcz with sauerkraut and wild mushroom dumplings, a wild mushroom soup, a yellow split pea soup or if you’re near the mountains, a sauerkraut soup
- 2 – 3 preserved cabbage dishes including a festive and meatless version of bigos (cabbage stew), cabbage with wild mushrooms and cabbage with yellow split peas, sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi and sometimes mushroom and cabbage pancake roulades called krokiety
- 3 – 4 kinds of fish dishes including pickled herring in cream (tastes much better than it sounds), pickled herring with vegetables (top it with a blob of mayo for a delish bite sized snack), karp fish fried in batter or in savoury jelly, cod or other white fish either fried or baked with vegetables
- 2-3 vegetable dishes such as baked potatoes, roasted carrots and parsnips, yellow split peas with garlic, pan-roasted white beans or anything else that might be on hand
- 3-4 traditional desserts including poppy seed cake, gingerbread loaf with plum stuffing, kutia (google it), baked cheesecake and selection of fruit
As for drinks, there are two at the table – a dried fruit compote and water. Once the savoury dishes are done, usually tea and coffee is also served. In addition to the above, there are also some traditional side dishes which do not make it onto the list: these include variety of breads (depending on what the family enjoys) and butter, vegetable pate in some houses as well as a traditional boiled vegetable salad with either mayo or yogurt. Oftentimes small sweets like puff pastry stars and shortbreads are also around.
If you are wondering where on Earth the international influences in this eclectic menu might be, here are some examples:
- Barszcz (also known as borscht) is not ‘just’ Polish – it’s eaten right across Europe and large parts of Asia, stopping just short of the Chinese boarder
- Yellow split peas came into Polish cuisine from Greece
- Pickled Herring is a gift from the Swedish and we sometimes stack it sushi-style too
- Karp, poppy seed cake and pierogi all seem to be rooted in Asian cultures as far as China and Japan
- Sauerkraut is often considered German, but is well known across the continent and it’s also the non-spicy sibling of Korean kimchi
Could I say that Wigilia is in fact the Polish edition of an international potluck? Probably, but only if I was to forget that all dishes are adaptation for Polish tastes and are made of locally grown (or fished) ingredients.
Since I am now unable to travel and see the family, a vegan version of Wigilia will happen under my own roof. I am going to link specific recipes for all 12 courses here. unfortunately I was only able to find some of them in English – where Polish is used, just hit ‘translate’ in google.
- Barszcz with uszka
- Mushroom soup
- Cabbage & mushroom lazanki
- Tofish (tofu fish)
- Greek style celery-fish
- Pickled aubergine ‘herring’
- Yellow split peas with garlic (I can’t find the exact recipe we use at home for this – the recipe I linked is very similar with the only difference that we keep the peas a little coarse for more pleasant texture)
- Christmas Eve pierogi
- Roasted potatoes
- Poppy seed cake
- Gingerbread cake (tomato-based!)
As sides, we are just having some brussels sprouts roasted with walnuts, french baguettes which I make in accordance to this guy’s recipe, maybe some roasted carrots and parsnips and whatever other assorted greens I have in the house.
Given that this is a financial blog, I could not let you go without mentioning the money. Empirically speaking, the cost of a traditional British dinner is somewhere in the region of £25-£40 excluding alcohol, depending on where you live and how boujie you are. This Polish dinner is closer to £20. However, it is more time consuming and demanding in terms of skills, ability to balance flavours and… since it is a 12-course meal, ability to cook just enough but not too much.
I hope that you will be able to find some inspiration in this list to add to your own Christmas table. If you do, please share your experiences! And in the meantime, I am signing off until just after Christmas. Wishing you and yours a wonderful time!