History of Wigilia

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The Wigilia is the traditional Christmas meatless meal preceded by the sharing of the Christmas wafer called oplatek. Wigilia is served on Christmas Eve before the Pasterka, the Shepherd’s Mass – served at midnight on Christmas Eve.
“Oplatek” (singular) is a thin, unleavened wafer similar to the Holy Communion hosts used in Catholic Eucharist services. The oplatek is often embossed with the figures of the Holy Family and angels. The wafer is customarily mailed to absent family members and friends during the Christmas season.
[“Oplatki” (plural) may be ordered from the Polish order of nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, at the following address: Oplatki, Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Development Office, 4001 Grant Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19114-2999. Please include a good will offering of $5.00.]
At the Wigilia the oplatki is passed from person to person. Each person breaks a piece of the wafer and exchanges Christmas greetings and best wishes for the New Year. Since it is not practical for the association to hold its Wigilia on Christmas Eve, the association conducts it before Christmas, usually on Saturday or Sunday.
The first and second Wigilia dinners were held in the atrium at the United Republic Insurance Building on Saturday, December 17, 1977 at 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, December 10, 1978 at 2:00 p.m. Helen Wachter was the chair both years. Helen Wachter helped to find the site for the following year’s Wigilia held Sunday, December 2, 1979 at the Hummelstown Fire Company.
The members of Helen Wachter’s committee in 1977 included her husband, Ed; Irene Petrina, Katherine Kachniasz, Rose Marie Bobroski, Marcella Wall, Alan Kubarek, and Anna Krzywiec. The 1978 committee was Alan Kubarek, Rose Marie Bobroski, and Marcella Wall. “Barszcz z uszkami” (beet root soup with “ears” or dumplings), pickled herring and other baked, boiled, and fried fish dishes were featured on the menu.
Henia Kania and Lorraine Buchinski organized Wigilia 1979. Father Paul Shuda, then pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Harrisburg, gave the blessing. With several exceptions, the association has preceded its Wigilia with Mass. The association followed the custom of sharing the oplatki before the dinner.

Wigilia 1980 was held Sunday, December 14 at 2:00 p.m. at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church located seven five blocks from the Governor of Pennsylvania’s residence at the intersection of North Second and Maclay streets near the Susquehanna River. A photo in the Harrisburg Patriot on December 22, 1980 showed President Josephine “Jo” Blake, board member Leonard Wall; fourth grader Todd Mattson, son of Walter and Connie Mattson; and Michelle Wlazlo, age five, dressed in traditional Polish costume.
Thus began a series of Christmas and Easter dinners held at Our Lady of the Blessed Church, a Roman Catholic church at the corner of North Third and Woodbine streets. Leonard and Nina Konikiewicz and Lorraine Buchinski, who were Our Lady parishioners, coordinated the dinners.

The theme of the monthly meeting on Monday, November 16, 1981 was Christmas. Paula Barski demonstrated how to make tree ornaments. Leonard Konikiewicz led a rehearsal and explanation of kolendy. Although Wigilia 1981 was held December 6 at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Londonderry Road, the association returned to Our Lady in 1982. Nina Konikiewicz served as chair of the 1981 Wigilia with the help from Helen Wachter, Jean Broscius, Helen Novakowski, Irene Petrina, and Marcella Wall. Mary Mikos donated the Christmas tree.

Wigilia 1982 was held Sunday, December 5 at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church hall at 3:00 p.m. Donna Strzelecka was the chair. Her committee included Jo Blake, Halina Wyczalkowski, Helen Wachter, Maria Szczur, Maria Dudzinski, Josephine Bramwell, and Helen Novakowski.

Wigilia 1983 was held on Monday, December 19 at Market Square Presbyterian Church at 7:30 p.m. Scheduling the Wigilia on a workday evening six days before Christmas resulted in an attendance of less than 20.

Wigilia 1984 was held at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church on Sunday, December 2. The Wigilia chair was Johanna Petrilak. Her committee included Jo Blake, Mary Jane Przybyla, Josephine Bramwell, and Barbara Gida. Dionizy Atlasik played the organ during the Mass.

Jo Blake, whose photo with the Polish Christmas tree at the State Museum appeared in the Lancaster Sunday News, December 15, 1985, p.B1, coordinated Wigilia 1985 held Sunday, December 29 at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church. Monsignor Matthias Siedlecki, who had a special ministry to the Polish men in Harrisburg who had fled Poland when martial law was declared, celebrated Mass in Polish before the dinner.

“Christmas: An Ethnic Experience” sponsored by the Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission, was held at the State Museum of Pennsylvania from December 20, 1987 through January 7, 1988. Thirty Christmas trees were decorated in various ethnic traditions. Paula Barski of Camp Hill and Anna Barta of Columbia assembled the ornaments on the tree. The Paderewski Choral Society from Philadelphia, under the direction of Czeslawa Ozga, performed their repertoire of kolendy including “Do Szopy” and “Hej Pasterze” at the State Museum on Sunday, December 20, 1987.

The association’s participation in the Christmas celebrations at the State Museum heightened the awareness about ethnic customs. For several years in the mid – 1980s and early 1990s the association’s members, especially Stanley and Paula Barski and Helen Wachter, decorated the tree with hand-crafted ornaments. The event was moved to Strawberry Square in 1989 and 1991. The members decorated the tree around Thanksgiving. The tree along with trees representing Lithuanian, Puerto Rican, Swedish, and other cultures, remained on display in Strawberry Square until after Christmas.

On Sunday, December 29, 1991, the Wigilia was held at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church Hall at 2:00 p.m. The committee was Mary Jane Przybyla, Jo Blake, Lorraine Buchinski, and Teresa Malesic.

On Sunday, December 27, 1992, the Wigilia was held at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church Hall at 2:00 p.m. Attendance was 40. Mary Jane Przybyla was the organizer.

On Wednesday evening, October 26, 1993 at a general membership meeting attended by 30 members and guests at Capital Blue Cross on Elmerton Avenue, Helen Wachter and Paula Barski demonstrated how to make Christmas tree ornaments. Paula Barski’s stars, called gwiazdki, are intricate stars made with numerous tiny paper shaped cones.
On Sunday, December 18, 1993, the Wigilia began with Mass in Polish at 1:00 p.m. at Our Lady of Blessed Sacrament Church. The dinner started at 2:00 p.m. with the sharing of the oplatki. The organizers are Gene and Georgia Tomkoski. On Wednesday, December 28, 1993, ten members met at Capital Blue Cross to sing Polish Christmas carols. The club also placed a Christmas greeting ad in the Scranton newspaper Straz. The ad listed the names of the officers at the cost of $17.50.

Wigilia 1994 was held the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18. The Wigilia started at 1:00 p.m. with a Mass in Polish celebrated by Father Walter Sempko, a native of Kulpmont, Pennsylvania, at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church. Kolędy sung during the Mass included Dzisiaj w Betlejem, Wsròd Nocnej Ciszy, and Lulajze Jezuniu. The congregation was 100.
After the Mass, the attendees went downstairs to the church hall. The buffet dinner began with the singing of the national anthem, Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginęła, and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Father Sempko offered grace in English and Polish. The sharing of oplatki was next. Father Sempko extended greetings with the oplatki to 15 people. The others followed his example as they walked with the wafers to their friends at adjoining tables. Seventy men, women, and children attended Wigilia 1994.
More than 175 pierogi and pickled herring and baked haddock were on the buffet. The vegetables included cauliflower, carrots, and potatoes. After dinner, there was a singalong of koledy. A framed sheet of the postage stamp of Father Junipero Serra who appeared on the 44 cents U.S. air mail stamp in 1987 was presented to Father Sempko as a Christmas present. As chaplain of the Serra Club in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Father Sempko presided over monthly meetings to foster and pray for religious vocations.
A 50/50 raffle was held. The children were asked to draw a picture with a Christmas theme. Crayons and paper were provided. Each child received a gift after they drew and colored a Christmas picture. Polish books and calendars were sold to those shopping for Christmas gifts. Among the guests were four business students from Wroclaw who were working three-month stints as interns for local businesses. Bill Minsker had arranged for the students to attend.
Georgia and Gene Tomkoski organized Wigilia 1994 with help from Al and Ingrid Kwiatek, Rudy and Teresa Malesic, Ed Kazlaukas, and Lorraine Buchinski. Father Czeslaw Michal Krysa, a folklorist on the faculty at Saints Cyril and Methodius
Seminary in Michigan, included a report of the Harrisburg Christmas experience in his book on customs entitled A Polish Christmas Eve (Lewistown, New York: Christmas Wafers Bakery Press, 1998).

Inclement weather caused the cancellation of Wigilia 1995. The 1995 affair was scheduled for January 7, 1996, two weeks after Christmas. The Wigilia was scheduled after Christmas because the days before Christmas fall during the liturgical season of Advent, a season of reflection and contemplation. Beginning with the Shepherd’s Mass, also called the Christmas Vigil or Midnight Mass in the United States, the tone of celebration in the Catholic Church is transformed to one of joy to celebrate the birth of the Messiah.
In a change with past precedent to hold the Wigilia before Christmas, Wigilia 1995 was scheduled after Christmas to coincide with the Church’s joyous season which concludes on the feast of the Three Kings in January. A severe ice storm pounded south central Pennsylvania on January 7-9, 1996. Consequently, Tom Duszak and Bill Minsker decided at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to cancel Wigilia 1995 which had been scheduled at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church.

On Wednesday, November 20, 1996, Jolanta Troy and Joanna Kmieciak discussed Christmas customs at the association’s meeting held at the Harrisburg Area Community College. Wigilia 1996 was held at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church hall on Sunday, December 15. Johanna Petrilak was the organizer. Bob Shutty played kolendy on his accordian. Marianne Shutty prepared gift bags for children. Bozena Laszczak led the kolendy. Eva Ciesielski and Hilda Klosowski helped with cleanup. Attendance exceeded 70. On Tuesday, December 17, 1996, Tony Miscavige, Jolanta Troy, Joanna Kmieciak, and Bob Shutty organized a presentation of Polish Christmas customs at Fort Hunter Park.

Wigilia 1997 and 1998 were held at Zion Lutheran Church in conjunction with the Saturday Mass of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Polish National Catholic Church. Father Charles Taylor, an Episcopalian priest, drove from Dundirk, Maryland located in the suburbs of Baltimore to celebrate a Eucharistic service at 5:00 p.m. After the service, the Wigilia was held.

Joanna Petrilak coordinated Wigilia 1997 attended by 80 members and guests. Georgia and Gene Tomkoski and Edwina Francis coordinated Wigilia 1998 on Saturday, December 12. Both events were held in the Zion Lutheran Church hall adjacent to the chapel. The Wigilia began at the conclusion of Father Taylor’s service.

Wigila 1999 on Friday, December 3 was held at the Arches at 7:00 p.m.

Bogumila “Bo” Mangam and Edwina “Edie” Francis coordinated Wigilia 2000 at the Arches Restaurant on Saturday, December 2. In attendance were 55 members and guests, including six students studying in the United States as part of Bill Minsker’s Pennsylvania Partnership. Thomas Duszak led the opening prayer which preceded the sharing of the oplatki. Duszak read Jan Kasprowicz’s Przy Wigilijnym Stole (At the Vigil Supper Table) in Polish and English.
After the meal, accordianist Andrzej Gorski led the kolendy. Victoria Mangam, daughter of Dave and Bo Mangam, in disguise as St. Nicholas, distributed gifts to the children. Agata Czopek led the children’s choir and gave a complimentary millennium 2000 Polish Christmas tree ornament to each adult.

Harold Shellenhamer and Agata Czopek, owners of Kaleidoscope Imports, began an annual Polish Independence Day celebration at their place of business in Susquehanna Township in the suburbs of Harrisburg in the year 2000. This date, November 11, called Polish Independence Day in Poland, is known as Veterans’ Day (earlier called Armistice Day) in the United States. The 85th anniversary of Polish Independence Day was celebrated on November 11, 2003. This date marks the return to independent statehood for Poland after being erased from the political map of Europe for 123 years.
Agata Czopek and Harold Shellenhamer, who sell Christmas tree ornaments and other products imported from Poland, host an open-house and sell ornaments to members and their guests at this special event celebrating independence for Poland.
The sale is held on the Saturday which falls closest to November 11.

Wigilia 20012002 and 2003 were held at the Hampden Township Facility Building near Sporting Hill Elementary School in Cumberland County.
Wigilia 2001 on Saturday evening, December 8 was attended by 130 members and guests.
Ninety members including 19 students from Bill Minsker’s Pennsylvania Partnership program attended Wigilia 2002 on Saturday, December 7. Under the direction of Agata Czopek, the musicians and carolers included Andrzej and Basia Gorski, Janek Atlasik, Bill and Peter Boshinski; Bill Boshinski’s cousin, Adam Nowak, from Gliwice, Poland; Stephanie and Lauren Oscilowski, and Agata Czopek’s daughter, Ewelina. Victoria Mangam played the role of St. Nicholas.
Dave Mangam and Deb Boshinski worked in the kitchen. Tom Duszak and Mary Modica’s son, Michael, sold chances at $1.00 each. Ten winners won poinsettias. Among the attendees at Wigilia 2002 were the Mangam, Modica, Poole, Wachter, Boshinski, and Gorski families. Also in attendance were Anna Matejko Tulli and her daughter, Barbara; Lorraine Buchinski, Stanley Barski; Norman Kee and his new wife, Pat; and Phil Wysockifrom Lewistown.
Association secretary Meredith Hill Poole and member Terry Heffelfinger, two mothers of children adopted from Poland, organized a shipment of packages to orphanages in Poland for Christmas 2003. This effort was coordinated by the Eastern Pennsylvania Polish Parents Association.
The hostess and organizer for Wigilia 2003 on Saturday, December 6 was Nancy Coleman Miller. The total of 110 members included 25 student interns from Bill Minsker’s Pennsylvania Partnership program. Other attendees included the host families and business sponsors. The business sponsors are retail and insurance firms where the 20-something students serve their internships.
Preceding the opening prayer and sharing of the oplatki, a moment of silence was observed in honor of Stanley Barski, a long-time member who died on November 26, 2003 at age 83. Mr. Barski and his wife, Paula, decorated the Polish tree at ethnic Christmas displays held in the State Museum and in Strawberry Square.
Andrzej Gorski on accordian, Bill Boshinski on guitar, and Bill’s son, Peter, on violin were the musicians for the kolendy sung in English and Polish. Agata Czopek led the caroling. The selections included Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer and Cicha Noc, Wsròd Nocnej Ciszy, and Gdy Sie Chrystus Rodzi. Dave Mangam and Deb Boshinski worked in the kitchen. The buffet included baked haddock, three different kind of pierogi, marinated beets and sledzie, other noodle dishes, salads, and sweets.
Among the attendees at Wigilia 2003 were the Andrzej Gorski and his daughter, Basia; secretary Meredith Hill Poole with husband, Tim, and son, Christopher Zbigniew; Lorraine Buchinski, Maria Winkler, Garrett and Jola Rothman, Wojtek and Halina Wyczalkowski; Fran Oscilowski and his daughter; and Rich and Janetta (J.R.) Brenner. Norman Kee played Santa Claus on the day which coincided with the observance of St. Nicholas Day. Santa’s wife, Pat Kee, provided beautiful ribboned decorations for Santa’s chair. Fifteen children received gifts.

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