Photographer's Note

The evening of Christmas Eve (24th December) in Poland is traditionally the most festive and moving evening of the year. It is the culmination of the advent experience for Christian families.
The word for Christmas Eve in Polish, Wigilia, comes from the Latin for “keeping watch”. According to an old Church tradition, on the day before a major celebration people would fast and the faithful would stay up all night, praying together. Christmas Eve only became a fixed tradition in Poland in the 18th century. The main event is the Christmas Eve supper, made up of Lenten dishes. The supper is a close family affair, but sometimes people who live alone are invited along as well as blood relatives.

The Christmas Eve Supper
The Christmas Eve supper was first celebrated in Poland in the 18th century and by the 20th century had become a widespread tradition. It has become a holy and sacred meal, and is a completely unique experience.
Before the supper Polish housewives would thoroughly clean the house. In the past and sometimes at the countryside, sheaves of grain (wheat, rye, barley, oats) would be placed in the four corners of the main room of every house. This was done so that the Christ Child would not begrudge people and their cattle food in the New Year. The table was laid with a white tablecloth, reminiscent of an altar and the robes of Jesus Christ. Underneath the tablecloth they would lay hay, in memory of the hay on which the Christ Child lay. Tradition also dictated that a strict fast should be observed throughout the whole day until the supper. The supper itself would consist of an odd number of Lenten dishes, but these dishes would be very diverse so as to include all the different meals normally served throughout the course of the year.
In Poland and Ukraine the supper begins with eating kutia, but in Lithuania this tradition is rare. Instead, poppy milk (aguonų pienas) together with kūčiukai are served and takes a significant part in the Lithuanian Christmas Eve menu. Poppy seeds are widely used for Christmas Eve dishes, because they symbolize abundance and prosperity.

Regarding the fish dishes, usually herring, carp or pike are eaten. The fish symbolizes the ichthus, a fish-like symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs resembling the profile of a fish which was used by early Christians as a secret symbol relating to Jesus and his disciples as "fishers of men." In Lithuania herring (Lithuanian: silkė) dishes are rich and variable. Usually silkė su morkomis (herring with carrots), or silkė su grybais (herring with mushrooms) are served on Christmas Eve.

Mushrooms, especially dried or pickled, are also one of the main dishes eaten on Christmas Eve. Sauerkraut with wild mushrooms or peas, red borscht, mushroom or fish soup are eaten in Poland and Ukraine.

Boiled or deep fried pierogis (dumplings) (Pl:pierogi; Ukr:вареники, varenyky; Lt: auselės) with a wide variety of fillings (sauerkraut, mushrooms, smashed poppy seeds, etc.), are among the most popular dishes. Doughnuts filled with jam (Pl:; Ukr: пампушки, pampushky) are served for a dessert in Poland and Ukraine, but in Lithuania sweet dishes are not common, as they are believed inappropriate for the atmosphere of the evening.

As for beverages, traditionally dried fruit compote or cranberry kisiel (Lithuanian: spanguolių kisielius) are common.

The Christmas Eve supper is usually held under candle light and starts in the evening after the first star appears in the sky. The star symbolizes the birth of Jesus in Christian tradition and a soul of deceased ancestors in pre-Christian beliefs. Quiet, dim-lighting, and a somewhat mystical atmosphere is characteristic for Christmas Eve supper. It is said in Lithuania that many strange things happen on that night and there are plenty of rituals and magic associated with Christmas Eve.

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