Report from the beet herder
My hands are about to turn beet-purple because I observe the Polish traditions that Polish families have been observing for over a thousand years. Christmas Eve is called "Wielia" or "Wigilia" (depending upon what part of Poland you are from). It means "Vigil". That evening the family gathers for a "fasting feast" in that there is no meat served. Dished are made that only get made once a year. There are a minimum of 12 courses (one for each apostle.) The table is covered with a white tablecloth that has hay under it (to remind us of the manger). There is an empty place setting set. The legend has it that on Christmas Eve, God walks the streets in the guise of a stranger. Should he knock on *Your* door, He will find a place already set in welcome.
The meal begins with the breaking of a special wafer called an oplatek. Everyone breaks a bit of it with everyone else and wishes them health and love for the new year. Prayers are said. In my home, as I will host non-Christians and non-believers as well, I refer to this as our time to share our fondest wishes, one for our self and one for the world. This has been a profound moment, as we all take it very seriously. Then the head of the house lights a candle and from that light everyone lights their own candle which will burn thru the meal.
The meal...that is what I have been cooking and shopping for for days. There will be vegetarian borscht served hot with sour cream...cabbage and sauerkraut and wild mushroom soup....two kinds of pierogi (like Polish ravioli) one is cheese, the other is sauerkraut and mushroom. Then a plate with hard cooked eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and small cold fish meatballs called "galki" -- our version of gefilte fish, I guess. They take forever to make, and are my favorite item. They are served with a warm sauce made from egg, mustard, sour cream and horseradish. There will be mashed potatoes, a salad with cucumbers, lettuce and onion, a beet salad, baked salmon, almond crusted cod, tilapia fillet with lemon. There will be two kinds of rye bread and Polish Babka (a big puffy bread with almond flavors). Dessert is cold fruit compote made from 8 kinds of dried fruit cooked in fruit juice and served iced cold. And Chrust (bow knots) which are bits of light fried dough drenched in powdered sugar. There are also chocolate covered prunes, and I will make a cheesecake Polish-style which is with a shortbread crust covered with pineapple pie filling into which is poured a sweet cheese mixture of cream, cottage and farmers cheeses,and then baked. Coffee, wines, tea whatever..and then collapse. I will be cooking until late tonight and then more tomorrow. The table gets decked out on Sunday and then the guests arrive.
After the meal, I may go to Midnight mass.
I am done making the sauerkraut soup, the mashed taters(into which has been mashed sour cream, cream cheese and butter -- saints forgive me), and the fruit soup. I bought pierogis from 2 Polish gals who make them to sell. The only baked good I have to bake is the cheesecake (tomorrow). I will get the borscht done tonight and the galki tomorrow. So I am in the midst of it all. It is horrific work and I love it.
I love all the sweat and the worry and the planning and the shopping and lugging and all of it. Why? Because I feel connected to all that has gone before me. I feel connected to millions of Poles, to my heritage, to eons of hope. It's harder at 56 than it was at 36. Now it is cook, take a break -- cook, take a break. But it will all get done.
Well it is time to turn my fingers purple peeling beets (remedy - wash hands in lemon juice and salt to remove color).
I'll keep ya all posted. In the meantime, here are a couple of 14th century Polish Christmas Carols.
This one is a Lullaby for Jesus, my Mom's favorite Click here and then on "melody".
This one, In A Quiet Night was always one of my favorites.