In every Polish home Wigilia, or Christmas Eve Dinner is served on that special night. For days in advance, Poles prepare the traditional foods and everyone anxiously awaits the moment when the first star, known as the Gwiazdka, appears in the eastern sky. There is always a thin layer of hay under the white tablecloth in memory of the Godchild in the manger. Before sitting down at the table, everyone breaks the traditional wafer, or Oplatek and exchanges good wishes for health, wealth and happiness in the New Year.
The Oplatek is a thin, unleavened wafer similar to the altar bread in the Roman Catholic Church. It is stamped with the figures of the Godchild, the blessed Mary, and the holy angels. The wafer is known as the bread of love and is often sent by mail to the absent members of the family. The dinner itself differs from other evening meals in that the number of courses is fixed up to twelve in some regions. An extra place is set at the table for the unexpected guest. The Wigilia is traditionally a meatless meal. Items that would normally be included in a Wigilia menu include beetroot soup, pickled herring, fried carp fish, pierogi, beans and sauerkraut, a dried fruit compote among the others.
After the meal the members of the family sing Polish Christmas Carols called the koledy while the children wait impatiently around the Christmas tree or choinka for the gifts to be exchanged. At midnight all the believers are rushing to the Christmas Eve Mass. This Mass is called the Pasterka, which means the Shepherds Watch, and there is popular belief in Poland that during that holy night, the companions of men - the domestic animals - assume voices. But only the innocent of heart may hear them. Christmas Day itself is spent in rest, prayer, and visits to various members of the family.
In Poland, from Christmas Day until the twelfth night, boys trudge from village to village with an illuminated star and a ranting King Herod among them to sing carols. Sometimes, they penetrate the towns in expectation of more generous gifts. In some districts, the boys carry on puppet shows called shopky. These are built like a little house with two towers, open in the front where a small crib is set. Among Poles, wherever they are Christmas Eve is the most beloved and beautiful of all traditional festivities.
"Dialog", December 2012;Daniel Turko