The word 'wigilia' means in Polish day or vigil preceding an important holiday or extraordinary event. In Christianity it is closely connected with Christmas. Although we can link this word (especially when changing it into adjective) with other describing dinner eaten an evening before the Christmas Day, star that symbolises Christmas or simply evening before 25th of December, when the Poles use word Wigilia separately they usually mean family dinner that is eaten an evening before Christmas Day.
On the 24th of December, when it gets dark, families in Poland wait for the first star to appear in the sky. The very star, that showed the 3 kings the way to the barn in Bethlehem, is the sign that members of the family can gather at the table. Traditionally the oldest man reads a part of a Bible (Gospel of St. Mathew or Lukas concerning birth of Jesus Christ). Then the family prays together. Afterwards all the people taking part in the dinner share 'oplatek' - special thin Christmas wafer that is baked from pure wheat flour and water. Oplatek is usually rectangular and bears images of Nativity Scenes. Every one, when exchanging part of his wafer with another person, expresses best wishes for the forthcoming year and eats the fragment of other person's oplatek.
The table is beautifully embellished - while under the white table cloth there is hay that symbolises the poverty in which Jesus Christ was born. Extra dish and cutlery, that the Poles leave, are for unexpected guest that might knock on our door and who should be treated as a member of a family. For many people extra place at the table is an expression of remembrance over people who cannot take part in the dinner.
Traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner must consist of Lenten fare - no meat, except for fish, can be served on that day. Wigilia should consist of 12 dishes. One should try at least a little bit of each of them.
Although the dishes vary in different regions of Poland, there are some more popular ones. The most typical soup that is served in Polish families on that evening is red borscht with mushroom dumplings (called 'uszka' - small ears). In some parts of the country red borscht is exchanged for white borscht (sour soup) or mushroom soup. Carp, that is probably the most important part of Christmas Eve dinner, is usually fried. Other popular dishes are cabbage with peas or mushrooms, pierogi (dumplings) with cabbage or sauerkraut, noodles with poppy, almond soup, krokiety (rolled crepes with cabbage and mushrooms) or golabki (stuffed cabbage). Compote made of dry fruit is also traditionally served during Wigilia.
There are also many customs, some deriving from pagan tradition, connected with Christmas Eve. There are even special Christmas wafers produced for animals and pets. It is also believed that at midnight the animals might speak with human voice. What is also interesting, as many families purchase fresh (or to be more precise: alive) carp to prepare it themselves for dinner, in many homes there is at least one fish swimming in a bath before Christmas.
Although 24th of December is not officially recognised as holiday, it is perceived by Poles to be the most family day of the whole year. After the dinner the members of the family sing carol songs. At midnight in every Polish church there is a mass called 'Pasterka'. It is then when one can start singing in the church songs about birth of Jesus Christ.