As you stroll around campus during the first week of December, you might glance at the poster with a Christmas tree and a pretty font, advertising an event organized by the Columbia and Barnard Polish Student Society . You quickly skim through it: "You are cordially invited to Wigilia Come meet fellow Slavic friends December 5th Free dinner." When you reach the free dinner part, you are sold. "Free dinner this Saturday night. Sure, I will attend. But what is this Wigilia all about?" you ponder. You swear that you've heard the name before. Wigilia, Wigilia Maybe the term popped up in one of the Slavic lectures in Hamilton, or some of your Polish friends mentioned attending a seven-course dinner and you thought it sounded neat, or perhaps you heard it uttered in church. So what is Wigilia? What are you RSVPing to? Wigilia is an old and venerable Polish tradition in which a "fasting meal" is held to fortify the faithful for the midnight Christmas mass, the "vigil" in anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ. Although Wigilia is a religious holiday celebration, the Polish Student Society has decided to open its festive meal to all members of the Columbia community. It is a step from "oh come all ye faithful" to "come all, regardless of background and faith—let's meet and get to know each other better." Education at the modern university is vested in diversity, tolerance, and embrace of multiculturalism. Columbia is an incredible mosaic—a melting pot of nations, races, cultures, ideas, attitudes, and values. How better to get to know each other than starting to share what matters greatly to our national, cultural, and religious identities? I remember as a young, curious child asking a Catholic priest in Poland what happens to people who believe in other Gods, who are raised in different religions. I asked, "Do they go to hell?" He laughed at first and then got very serious and replied that even though there are many differences, we all embrace a God and follow similar moral laws common to all cultures and denominations. He compared religion to a tree that starts from fundamental ideas and forms bark that connects us all, and then there are branches that go in different directions but are based on similar values. The Polish Student Society is quite aware that religious observance in general on a secular college campus can be a challenge. But the Wigilia event, in the context of the multiculturalism of Columbia and New York, is broader than one religious identity—it reaches out to explain and showcase an ancient piece of Polish cultural heritage, a multimedia show of Poland and its many Slavic traditions, music, folklore, and (free) cuisine. The many layers of Polish Wigilia tradition reflect geography, Slavic pagan and early Christian traditions, agricultural realities, and Polish hospitality and history. Wigilia is the most beloved and traditional meal of the year, is a powerful bonding experience between family members, and is often considered more important than Christmas Day itself. Food is prepared days in advance, and we at Columbia know how a few extra days of preparation can impact an outcome! During Wigilia, tradition holds that the number of courses at the meal is fixed at seven, nine, or 11, and there must not be an odd number of people at the table, lest one of them not live to see another Christmas. There is also a rich tradition of singing Christmas carols, or koledy, many of which are passed down through families. When they are sung at Christmas, it is said that animals assume voices that only the innocent among men are capable of hearing. Finally, a candle is lit in the window in the hopes that the God child may come in the form of a stranger and partake in the festive meal. That is also why an extra table setting is always kept for "the unexpected guest." Wigilia is a communal event. All family members, even the youngest, are actively involved in the preparation of the feast, and once the youngest child has seen the first star, the Wigilia meal can start. In the sharing of the bread and the meal, Polish families honor the bond not only with each other but also with the stranger, the "unexpected guest," and that is why it comes so naturally to invite all the members of our Columbia community to Wigilia. It is a time for miracles and unexpected things to happen, but most importantly, it is a time to get to know each other and celebrate our unity—national and cultural, and international and multicultural. The author is a Barnard College senior. She is a board member of the Columbia and Barnard Polish Student Society.
Columbia Spectator Staff