Vigilia, a Christmas Eve dinner to remember

Bridging the Gap

Bishop David A. Zubik

December 24!  Christmas Eve Day.

The kids are getting most excited about the nearness of Santa Claus.  Mom and dad are making last minute preparations as Santa’s elves—wrapping, cooking, baking, decorating.  Procrastinators rushing against the clock to buy last minute gifts.

December 24!  For me, as a youngster up to and including today, it is my most special day of the year.  More important than my birthday, or my ordination anniversaries or my vacations.

December 24 grounds me in rich memories of the past and in the rich reality of Jesus in the present.

As many of you know, I came from 100% Eastern European heritage.  My Slovak mom and my Polish dad passed on the strong faith that my grandparents brought with them when they immigrated to southwestern Pennsylvania in the teens of the 20th century.

December 24 for us was a day steeped in Slovak traditions.  One of those traditions welcomed the first visitor of the day with an envelope that contained some cash.  Since my Slovak grandparents, my Baba and Dzedo, lived about five miles away from my parents’ home, it took some extra effort for me to make sure I could get that special envelope at the kitchen door.  Somehow, each year that envelope was there for me—even if I wasn’t the first visitor.

But I must tell you that my visit was not a “grab and go.”  Once welcomed into my grandparents’ home, I was there for the rest of the day helping my Porchy (the nickname I gave my Baba, my grandmother) as we prepared for Vigilia (pronounced Vee-lee-ă), which was a dinner with a once-in-a-year menu.

The simple meal would be the delight of any vegetarian.  In the days of my youth, Christmas Eve Day was for us Catholics a day of abstinence from any meat products.  So the dinner fare was homemade mushroom soup with a sauerkraut base, followed by bolbalki, a Slovak delicacy of browned dough balls moist with brown butter and dried cottage cheese, accompanied by my grandfather’s choice of Mogen David Manischewitz red wine.  Dessert was simply freshly baked poppy seed roll or nut roll.  That’s it!  Utter delicious simplicity.

But the most important part of the meal is what gave meaning to the Vigilia.  The Slovak word “Vigilia” means “Vigil.”  The purpose of the dinner and its simplicity was to awaken our senses to what we would do after the Vigilia dinner— head to church for Midnight Mass—to mark the solemn celebration of the birth of the dear Baby Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem.

To reinforce that focus, as the head of the household, as part of our grace before the meal, my Dzedo (grandfather) would hold up the oplatki, a Christmas wafer, a very thin piece of unleavened bread embossed with the image of the Nativity scene.  He would wish everyone around the table the peace that the newborn Savior brought to the world many centuries prior.  To spread his wish, Dzedo would go around the table offering a piece of the Christmas wafer to everyone seated there.

Everything about this Slovak ritual focused on the reason for the Vigilia—the birth of Jesus.

  • The Christmas wafer recalled the Christmas message—“Peace on Earth, good will to all.”
  • The sour mushroom soup recalled Jesus’ overcoming the sour nature of sin.
  • The bolbalki drew attention to the Living Bread come down from heaven.
  • The wine pointed to the “Blood poured out for us.”
  • The dessert highlighted how sweet is our salvation.

I suspect that you, my readers, have your own special memories of Christmas—perhaps of folks no longer with you, or a favorite gift, or a favorite custom, or a cherished time in your history.

My hope is that, whatever is your memory, it does for you what Vigilia still does for me—point to Jesus.

Over the course of the years since my childhood days of the 1950s, our society’s focus on Christmas has veered away from its only real meaning, that “Jesus IS the reason for the season.”

That truth remains.  It always will.

December 24!  Of all that can be said or thought about that day and what follows, we can’t forget its true meaning:  Vigilia—pointing to the newborn and everlasting Savior—Jesus the Christ.

Photo credit: Justin Merriman