It is known that the menu for the Christmas Eve meal, the Wigilia supper, varied in Poland depending on the region, family customs and individual taste. After that, tradition dictated that twelve dishes appear on the table(or as many as a family could afford) and that the dishes be prepared from the bounty of the land – such as grains and cereals, poppy seeds, honey, mushrooms, etc.
The Wigilia meal was eaten with great abundance and variety, not to mention splendor, at the tables of kings and magnates who dined on silver plates with food prepared by personal chefs and served by a retinue of servants. In rural cottages, the inhabitants were more likely to eat out of wooden bowls with food planted, harvested and prepared by their own hands. The common denominator, however, between the tables of the rich and famous and that of the poor and humble was that meat was absent from the table and the meal always began by sharing the opłatek, the thin wafer symbolic of bread and brotherly love. After that, the differences could be enormous, except for the one other commonality shared between the two distinct classes on Christmas Eve – the presence of nuts at the table, and more specifically, of walnuts.
In Polish, the walnut (Juglans regia) is called orzech włoski. When translated it means “Italian nut” but its name identifies the way it came to Poland – via Central Asia to Europe to Italy and then to Poland in the 12th and 13 centuries. Juglans regia properly refers to the English walnut and has been around for thousands of years. When we pay close attention to the customs and traditions of Christmas, the fruit of the walnut tree appears very often, in various ways. The walnut, along with the apple, was one of the oldest forms of decorating the podłaźnik, the earliest form of evergreen branch hung in the home that was the centuries old precursor to the Christmas tree. Decorating the podłaźnik with walnuts was not accidental but associated with the beliefs of the times. The walnut shells were seen as containing something precious and magical, a gift from the gods. Walnuts became a symbol of fertility and reproduction, not just in nature, causing bountiful harvests in fields and orchards, but also among people.
Believed to bring about marriages and generate love, they were given or exchanged among young adults during Christmas and New Year season. We see it again later playing a role in wedding customs hanging on the róga weselna, the wedding branch, which was decorated with apples and nuts also as a symbol of fertility and reproduction.
In ancient times it was believed that at this time of the year of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night, the dead come back to their family home to take a seat at the table. It was at one time a meal honoring the dead. The dead ancestors were seen as powerful forces that linked heaven and earth, bridging this world with the next, and were seen as the patrons of abundance, fertility and a bountiful harvest. At a time when the world around them had gone cold and dead, the ancients offered their deceased ancestors special foods, believing that in doing so, they would bring life back to a cold, dead earth. A venerable place included among those foods were walnuts with their secret interior.
With the passage of thousands of years and the advent of Christianity, that night of the ancestors continues to be a special meal shared by family. In Poland it is called Wigilia and we can still see remnants of those very distant times when we look at the traditional foods served that night. Among the twelve dishes of Wigilia, a bowl of kutia (sometimes spelled kucya, or kucia), made with walnuts, honey, wheat grains and poppy seeds (all foodstuffs revered by the ancients), harkens back to these distant times. It was, and still is, a ritual dish in many parts of Poland, especially in the Eastern borderlands, the Kresy Wschodnie, at the Christmas Eve table. This sweet dish is generally served last. Among poorer households, if kutia was not served, the end of the Christmas Eve meal required at least cracking a handful of nuts, and peering inside to search their luck believing that the coming year will be like the first split nuts. A whole one portended health and happiness in the coming year. Broken ones were ominous signs that suggested illness or death in the family.
Walnuts are mentioned regularly in the records of Zygmunt (Sigismund) I, who reigned in the years 1506-1548. Five hundred years later, they can still be found on Christmas Eve tables in Poland and in Polonia today, having withstood the test of time.
Photo by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.