I’ve been thinking a lot lately about traditions this Christmas….family traditions, ethnic traditions, religious traditions…and how so many people I talk to have given up on them. “I’m too busy”, “They’re too much work” are the most reasons I most often hear. While I’m all about simplifying the commercialism of Christmas and the pressure to consume, I think we are about to throw the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater”. It’s a “vanilla” world, where every day is the same, and we move automatically and efficiently from one day to the next. No time is special. It is so easy to lose touch with who we are and where we are going. We disconnect from our past, and fear our future. I believe we need to mark moments, to celebrate them with all the flavor and texture of our traditions, for these moments make us stop to consider who we are and who we are called to be. These moments pull us out of the ordinary, the mundane and raise us to a deeper consciousness of the grace that surrounds us.
At the celebration of Passover, the parent in the Jewish home turns to the child and asks, “Why is this night different than any other night?” This question first names this night as special, then leads the family to consider the mystery of God’s love as the story of their salvation is recounted.
To me, Christmas Eve is that moment.
Although not a tradition in my childhood, I have been blessed for the past 35 years to participate in a beautiful Christmas Eve tradition that comes from my Polish heritage. It is called Vigilia, which is the Polish name for Christmas Eve. When the first star appears, the Christmas tree is lit and luminaries line the path to the house. The Christmas Eve meal begins with a short ritual — the reading of The Night Before Christmas (our family’s addition), the reading of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, and then the sharing of the blessed oplatek ( a thin wafer similar to that used at Communion in a rectangular shape imprinted with a manger scene). The host/hostess of the home begins with a prayer, and then they each break a piece of the oplatek and eat it, wishing each other good health and happiness for the coming year, the fulfillment of dreams, and forgiveness for any misunderstandings as they begin a new year. They pass pieces of the broken wafers to each person present, who in turn go to each other with good wishes for the new year.
Then it is time to gather at table. We begin the meal by sharing what we have been thankful for over the past year, and close with the Lord’s Prayer. In some Polish homes, an empty seat holds a place setting for an unexpected guest and a reminder that Mary and Joseph were looking for a place on that Holy Night. In others a bed of straw is the table centerpiece as a reminder of the place where Jesus lay on that Holy Night. There are nine foods, all meatless, that make up the Vigilia meal. Usually mushroom soup, fish, pickled herring, pierogi, potatoes, sauerkraut with mushrooms, beets with horseradish sauce (a personal favorite!), cole slaw, salad, bread and butter.
After an assortment of desserts, including a traditional poppy seed pastry, it is time to depart for midnight mass.
Every Christmas Eve, we can count on everything being constant – the light, the food, the stories read. But our lives change. And each year we look at our lives in the context of the familiar story.
“Why is this night different than any other night?” Because it acknowledges our roots, it makes us reflect on the past and look with hope on the future, and it reminds us that our God has pitched his tent in our lives, and will never leave us abandoned.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather live in a world of flavor and texture, where we make time to celebrate the richness of our stories and traditions, and in doing so, re-connect with our deepest longings for meaning and for life. As Catholics, we do this throughout the liturgical year, with color and with song, with symbols and stories. My Christmas wish for you is this: ”May your life be full of flavor!”