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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Eight decades of Wigilia: a Polish Christmas Eve tradition

    Dorothy Pickering on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in the dining room of her New London home. Pickering's holiday tradition was hosting a large Christmas Eve meal, called Wigilia in Polish, every year. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London — When family and friends gathered around for dinner every Christmas Eve at Dorothy and John Pickering's Ledyard Street home, they could always count 13 different dishes on their plate.

    As part of the polish tradition of Wigilia, a Christmas Eve vigil supper, the Pickerings celebrated with a dish for each of the 12 apostles and one for Jesus, from herring to pierogies.

    For Dorothy Pickering, 87, the traditions of Wigilia have been a part of her life since childhood, when she celebrated the holiday with her family in a brown-shingled, three-family home on Adelaide Street. With relatives filling all three floors of the home, and other multifamily homes up and down the street, the spirit of Wigilia was always alive in New London the night before Christmas.

    Wigilia festivities, said Pickering, traditionally can’t start until the first star appears in the sky, bringing children’s eager eyes upward to await the sign to start celebrating.

    Before feasting on their traditional Polish favorites, there’s another important tradition that needs to be followed. At the Pickerings' house, family members and friends would gather to offer one another Christmas wishes over “oplatek” — a thin wafer similar to a communion wafer in the Catholic church. The wafers have Christmas scenes printed on them and historically are a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness.

    After hugging, well-wishing and having their wafers, it was time to eat.

    Sometimes, there were upwards of 35 people in the Pickering home — too many to sit around a dining table. “When we were going to pass out the wafers, everyone gathered into the same room and stayed close while grace was said, we greeted each other with well wishes," Pickering said. "Then we got our plates and scattered around various tables and TV trays.”

    But there was always room for one more.

    “There was an empty plate to be on the table in case an unexpected guest came,” Pickering said. “The whole idea was to make sure that anyone and everyone was welcome when they came.”

    Pickering said she would be in the kitchen all day to fill the buffet table she set out for her guests, but her relatives would always pitch in to bring a dish — the table always ended up filled with foods such as fish, golabki or stuffed cabbage rolls, potatoes, squash and creamed onions.

    After dinner, they would open presents and sing Polish Christmas carols.

    Traditionally the Wigilia tradition extends late into the night, when families head to church for midnight Mass. Attending Mass has never been a forgotten part of the holiday for Dorothy Pickering; she’s belonged to the same church — Our Lady of Perpetual Health in Quaker Hill — since she was baptized 87 years ago.

    As a child, Pickering and her family would go to Mass up to three times a day, starting at 6 a.m. She would sing in the choir and listen intently to the service, she and her brother waiting eagerly to get home and finally open the gifts under the Christmas tree.

    “We were told as children that the way we behaved on Christmas was the way we were going to behave for the rest of the year, so we better be on our best behavior that day," she said. "We had to make sure we were good.”

    To this day, Pickering still spends some of her holiday at her church, singing Christmas carols that include a lullaby to Jesus, she said.

    Two of her daughters and eight of her grandchildren now live in California, and one of her sons lives in Spain with her daughter-in-law and another grandchild. Though the family is spread far apart, she carries on some traditions at home with her husband, John Pickering, and son John Pickering Jr.

    And across the country in California, one of her daughters keeps the spirit of Wigilia alive by continuing the Christmas wafer tradition.

    “It makes me feel wonderful that she does that," Pickering said, "it’s something that’s being carried over from the past and it feels like it holds the family together.”

    Although Christmas has always been a day filled with tradition and crowded with family and friends, the holiday has looked quite different since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

    This year, Pickering planned to spend Christmas Eve having dinner at her nephew's home in New London. The next day, she planned to go to Mass and enjoy a quiet dinner at home with her husband and son, a great chef who she said was planning to cook prime rib.

    Though her house isn’t full each year in the way that it used to be, she said she loves remembering the traditions the family held on to for so long. Sometimes, she’ll pull out videos and photos from parties past to look at with her family “and we’ll have a good time all over again.”

    “I look back and I think about the times that we had and the number of people that were here," she said, "and I remember that it was just wonderful.”


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