Saturday, December 25, 2010

Another Wigilia Celebration

One of my earliest posts on this blog was the one that I did almost exactly a year ago, when I wrote about celebrating Wigilia in Tacoma. I am thrilled that I got to come back for this year's celebration, and thought I'd do an actual recounting of what, exactly, a Wigilia is like -- at least, as it is celebrated by Siplons and Mannellys (my family) who learned it from our good friends, the Szuberts (the family of my closest  childhood friend, Teesie) .  Wigilia is an Eastern European Christmas Eve dinner, with a large number of dishes, heavy on the fish.  As I noted last year, our families have done modifications over the years, such as getting rid of an aspic dish that everyone passed around without actually touching, and substituting family specialties for the dessert course. But, these modifications notwithstanding, this is a dinner loaded with tradition, so I thought I'd do a post showing all the courses as they unfolded throughout the evening.

This was a smaller Wigilia than the first one I attended in fifth grade, which had included six Szuberts and six Siplons, and expanded even more over the years to encompass growing families and other family friends. Our 2010 celebration consisted of Katrinka, Brian and Tigist, Brian's dad and stepmom, Pat and Kathy, and me.

Everyone except Brian sitting down to dinner -- Katrinka, Kathy, Pat, Tigist and me --the two other 'regulars', Dave and Pat, were out due to illness

Before the dinner can begin, the first tradition to be observed is that the youngest child has to find the first star in the sky.  That's the sign that the Three Wise Men are on their way to see the Baby Jesus. 

Tigist, wearing her new Tiana princess dress from Grandma Kaye, looking for the first star in the sky

The table set for Wigilia -- there is an extra place for the Baby Jesus, but it is Tupperware rather than the special china the rest of us used because that's a tradition that Marita, one of the Szubert girls, started when she was in elementary school.
Once the first star has been located, the dinner can officially begin.  The first course starts off, as do all the others, with a vodka toast. My niece, Tigist, was born in Ethiopia, and when Katrinka and Brian went there to adopt her they bought a set of Ethiopian cups specifically for Wigilia, and we now use them for the vodka toast. 

A new(ish) tradition -- Ethiopian cups for the toasts at the beginning of each course

Brian offering the first toast of the night
The first course is a kind of greeting. Everyone is given a piece of bread that looks like a communion wafer and breaks it into even smaller pieces.  These are exchanged with everyone else at the dinner, with messages of peace and thanksgiving and good wishes for the coming year.

Next comes pickled herring, for luck.  The whole time I was growing up, I avoided it because I thought it looked disgusting, but when I tried it, I discovered I actually liked it.

News flash -- turns out that pickled herring tastes much better than it looks
The next course is canapes, which everyone loves, because there's something for everyone.  We use tiny loaves of rye bread and cream cheese for the base.

Lots of salty treats -- lox, anchovies, smoked oysters and caviar

In keeping with her princess garb, Tig went straight for the caviar ("raspberries") and picked them off as many pieces of bread as she could get away with.

The next course is a new one this year.  Brian had gone on-line doing some Wigilia research and discovered that many Wigilia traditions include a cheese course.  Given the fact that I am a Vermonter and consider cheese as pretty much it's own (the best) food group, it made sense that we add it as well. In the picture you can see Vermont's other contribution to the dinner -- Vermont Vodka, which my friend and colleague, Mike turned us onto when we were eating at his restaurant, Claire's, during Katrinka, Brian and Tig's last visit to Vermont

The cheese course is followed by the one I thought was most exotic when I was a kid -- borscht and ushkas (mouse ears).  The ushkas are mushroom dumplings that we used to go over to the Szuberts to help make in advance the day before Wigilia. In the picture below, Brian and I are using a shortcut we learned long ago - won ton wrappers for the ushka dough.

The best course of the night, at least as far as we were concerned when we were kids, was the pierogi (potato dumplings).  We ate them with copious amounts of sour cream. 
Lots of butter is the key to the perfectly-fried pierogi

Last but not least is the dessert course.  Over the years this has been the most free-floating and I can remember walnut tortes, cherry cheesecake and turtle brownies at various times and places  The last few years, Tacoma Wigilias have featured a delicious apricot tart.

Our friend Kelly shared the recipe for apricot tart with my sister some years ago, and it has become another Wigilia tradition
So there you have it.  Wigilia, at least as it is practiced by one family in Tacoma, Washington.  Seven courses (the bread exchange, pickled herring, canapes, cheese, borscht and ushkas, pierogis and dessert), all preceded with a vodka toast for each one.  But the most important components, at least in my opinion, are the memories that have stacked up over the years, and the associations I have with my family and friends in this celebration I've been doing since I was in the fifth grade.  The year 2010, the Year of New Things, has been a reinforcement of the lessons of Wigilia; what matters about Christmas, like what matters to me about life, is not things. It's experiences and relationships, which are what Wigilia (to me anyway) is all about.

1 comment:

  1. a wonderful description of Wigilia! the pierogi looked amazing (and so did their cook).