By Janice Schlau
“Szopka,” the manger in Polish, is and remains today the center of the Wigilia celebration, or Polish Christmas Eve. It begins with the visit by “Swiety Mikolaj” on Dec. 6, feast of St. Nicholas, who visits the children dressed as a bishop accompanied by an angel, according to legend.
Wigilia dates back hundreds of years, painting a portrait of true anticipation awaiting the birth of the Christ child. This event certainly reflects the creativity and endurance of members of the family who collectively contribute to this hallowed day.
The first Wigilia I recall was shared with my babcia many, many Christmases ago. Nanny would make sure the embroidered damask table linens were expertly cleaned, then pressed on a mangle-iron for precision crispness.
Blessed hay is strewn on the table under lace napkins as a reminder of the fragility and severe poverty of Christ’s birth in an outdoor animal feeding trough that evening in Bethlehem.
Cooking and baking for this dinner won’t soon be forgotten by the participants, as it entails preparing between 11 and 13 meatless courses consisting of a variety of fish, mushroom and cabbage dishes. This menu, however, varies from family to family.
Beet soup with mushroom dumplings was a standard on the old East Side stove alongside prune-filled pierogi.
Nanny perennially prepared herring in sour cream with onions and dill. If she were around today in the kitchen sweating in her thin, soiled linen apron and her heavy elastic rolled-down stockings hiding her phlebitis, I’d ask her assuredly to leave that entrée off the table. “Thank you, but no, none for me.”
In very large and wealthier Polish homes, dziadek and babcia (grandma and grandpa) would visit the servants in their quarters offering the oplatek, an elaborately decorated wafer blessed by the church which, when shared, symbolizes forgiveness, love and goodwill, along with a hug, a kiss or a handshake.
In our homestead, the only servants were all of us six siblings who helped run errands, polish and clean the silver, painstakingly clean the chandelier, literally scrub and wax the floors before guests arrived in plenty of time to dress for midnight Mass where breathtaking “koledy” (carols) were sung passionately by the renowned Polish choir.
The vocalists and musicians, who have been practicing for weeks, collect in a loft complete with golden glimmering ceiling stars, shining dozens of feet above the congregation, sounding more like cherubim and seraphim in prayerful readiness for the arrival of the newborn babe.
In our church, St. John Gualbert, the manger is proceeded in with much pomp and awe amid myriad lit candles, altar servers, assistants and all the priests of the parish, adorned in profound traditional Polish hymns that reflect the important serenity and glory of this moment.
The manger is then placed with solemn guarded hushes in the crèche, which has been erected so carefully to depict the complete humility of this moment, shared by shepherds who have been drawn from afar by an unusual star that points to a family who has totally surrendered to historic predictions, that a savior would be born to free all of us from the constraints of mortal suffering to everlasting peace.
As well as shepherds, angels and trumpet-sounding guards, three majestic kings arrive by caravan offering jeweled crates of priceless gifts to a child whose simple yet most powerful gift to share is merely love.