NOBLE SQUARE— When the first star shows in the winter sky Monday, thousands of Polish-American families will gather around the table to eat meals free of red meat during a Wigilia, or traditional Polish Christmas Eve supper.
Derived from the Lati word for "vigil," Wigilia is the centerpiece of Polish Christmas and is also known as the "Star Supper," said Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America at 985 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Noble Square.
During a sold-out benefit in the museum's banquet hall earlier this month, Lorys explained the traditions at the start of the buffet-style dinner, which was cooked by a team of volunteers.
After breaking unleavened Christmas wafers, or optakek, and sharing them with family and friends and offering good wishes for the coming year, the 125 guests enjoyed an appetizer of sour beet soup. Then, it was on to a hearty Eastern European buffet featuring foods "from the orchard, field, forest and waters."
Olivia Tsampazi, 6, from a small town in Poland close to Kracow, attended the dinner with her mother, Gosia.
It was a touch of home for the two, who arrived in Chicago over the summer so that Olivia, who has spina bifida, could undergo surgery Oct. 30 at Oak Park's Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago. Gosia, who planned to head back to Poland with her daughter on Sunday, called the Wigilia "very nice."
Barrington residents Denise Mitchell and her husband Don are newcomers to the Wigilia tradition. They reconnected with their Polish roots and ancestors using the museum's geneology archives and with help from their cleaning lady, who'd arranged for her nephew to take the Mitchells on a tour of Poland.
"When I'd heard that my great-grandmother had married a man from a neighboring farm, I was thinking it was far away [from her farm]. In Poland, all the farms are small. They are right behind the houses. It's not like here," Denise Mitchell said.
Founded in 1935, the Polish Museum of America is one of the oldest ethnic museums in the United States. The space is home to a library, genealogy archives and an art collection. For more information about the museum, visit its website or call 773-384-3352.