Ever since immigrating to the United States from Poland in the 1980’s, my mother has been heart-sick for the homecountry. This has manifested itself in a number of ways: frequent trips to New Britain (affectionately nicknamed New Britski for its large Polish population), referring most inventions/artworks/discoveries back to somebody Polish, teaching me about Polish history, and, most famously, re-creating Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve vigil supper, for around thirty people from our town, every year, for the past ten years.
The celebration begins around 6 pm, with a prayer and the breaking of the oplatek, or the Christmas wafer, which symbolizes our day-to-day common life, and reflects the old Christian tradition of sharing bread. Everyone gets a piece of the oplatek and then proceeds to go around the room, sharing his piece with others and exchanging good wishes for the coming year. In the countryside of Poland, my mother tells me, it’s customary to feed livestock the wafer too, as the animals of the household are to be treated as people and are traditionally believed to speak with a human voice at midnight (we are still waiting on our cat).
After the oplatek is shared and the first star appears in the sky, the supper begins. All of our guests sit down at the dining room table, which has been extended so far in our little house that it actually makes an L-shape into the living room. My mother always leaves one place-setting for an “unexpected guest” to celebrate the tradition of hospitality and inclusion. And out comes the food. Wigilia is observed as a Black Fast, so we don’t eat meat; we begin with either beet-root soup (try to suspend your judgment; it is actually quite good) or mushroom soup, and we then proceed to a course of fish. Growing up, my grandfather would apparently put live fish in the bathtub and kill them the morning of Christmas Eve; needless to say, I’m glad we don’t carry on that part of the tradition. There’s pierogi, which are like large Polish dumplings smothered in butter and sautéed onions, a mayonnaise-vegetable salad which only my mother and I ever eat, sinus-clearing beets with horseradish sauce, and green beans, among other things. After dinner my mother usually makes me give a solo-flute performance, and the group tries to sing Polish Christmas carols, which is always hilariously unmelodious, given that Polish, packed as it is with consecutive consonants, is probably one of the hardest languages to read. After dessert, coats are retrieved, goodbyes are said and re-said, and people begin trickling out into the night. The few of us who are left sleepily pack into the car and drive to midnight mass.
This year, my mother wasn’t home for Christmas; she was in Poland taking care of my grandmother and great-grandmother, who had both suddenly fallen ill. At first I didn’t know if I should even attempt to have wigilia with out her; she was the one, after all, who did most of the real work: my step-father and I were normally relegated to various trivial tasks that were clearly just a ploy to get us out of the kitchen. Ultimately I decided to do it anyway. Things definitely weren’t as seamless as usual – my mushroom soup was more like a lot of mushrooms swimming around in vaguely mushroom-flavored water, I completely forgot to do the caroling bit, and the house wasn’t immaculate – but it didn’t matter very much, in the end. I felt a deep sense of gratitude from everyone, and even a kind of relief. Many of our guests had lost loved ones this year; some had lost their jobs; the darkness of the Newtown elementary shootings, which happened only fifteen minutes away from my house, was still pressing in heavily upon us. One of our dear friends, who had lost his wife of sixty years just a few months before, began to cry as he handed me his piece of oplatek.
I don’t know what would have happened if we had canceled Wigilia this year, but the idea now strikes me as somewhat tragic. The tradition is humble in its imitation of our ancestors, fanciful in its stories of talking animals and the like, and, of course, entirely predictable. But this is precisely why it is important: it provides us with a much-needed repose from our modern society’s infatuation with all that is progressive, purely rational, and economical. It anchors and comforts the heart, and somehow expands it as well. To all those who say that tradition is deadening, I would suggest that they have confused tradition with convention. In the words of Thomas Merton, “Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it. Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine…Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving – born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way. Convention is simply the ossification of social customs.” Tradition is not deadening, as convention can be, but decidedly life-giving; I think the tears of our dear friend as he broke off a piece of his oplatek can attest to that.