By Anna Eshpeter
Our Polish Christmas Eve celebrations began early in the morning as my dad, Mark Sebzda, my sister, Sophie, and I went out with a sled to find a good eight-foot spruce tree in the area of St. Albert where Lions Park and the curling rink are now located. It was with great joy and expectation that we set up the tree in our living room and decorated it with ornaments, some of which had been in the family for many years. It was dad’s job to snap on the candle holders into which were fitted real, yes real, candles. The “Santa Ball” went on last, even after the topmost star.
In the meantime our mother, Catherine, was busy in the kitchen preparing the food for this highly emotional dinner that reunited families and renewed friendships, often strained by the trying conditions of everyday life. The meal was meatless but that didn’t mean the table didn’t groan under the weight of it all. First there was to be honey, wheat and poppy seeds that were cooked together and represented the bountiful harvest of autumn. Next came some borscht followed by fried whitefish, pierogies, vegetables and steaming-hot sauerkraut. There were also pickled beets, pickled onions, pickled mushrooms and pickled herring plus a carrot salad. To go along with all of this there was a Babka loaf and fresh-from-the-oven poppy seed rolls. If you counted them you found twelve different dishes, representing the twelve apostles.
Before the meal began, after the guests had arrived and were seated, a handful of fresh straw was sprinkled beneath the white linen tablecloth as a reminder of Jesus’ humble birthplace. Then dad would give a prayer of thanks and remembrance for our families and the family members who had passed away. Then, pieces of unleavened bread, the texture of communion hosts and impressed with the nativity scene, were passed around the table. This bread had been sent to us by our relatives in Poland and symbolized our unity of faith.
After the meal, which was long and full of talk, the empty dishes were cleared away and we sang Christmas carols, some in English but most in Polish, played games and the children opened their gifts. All the while there was still food on the table so we could enjoy continuous snacking until it was time to bundle up and trundle off to Midnight Mass. It was truly a day to remember and cherish.
This rich tradition is still celebrated by our family today and I have the honour of hosting the “Wigilias” Christmas Celebration this year.
Reprinted from The Echoes, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, December, 2006; St. Albert Historical Society