A twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper is traditionally prepared in many Eastern European cultures, including Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian. The meal (Polish: wigilia or wieczerza wigilijna, Ukranian: Свята вечеря, Sviata vecheria, Lithuanian: kūčios) consists of twelve meatless dishes representing the twelve Apostles or twelve months of the year. The tradition of the supper can be traced back to pre-Christian times and connected with remembrance of the souls of deceased ancestors.
The specific dishes may differ from country to country, but many of them are universal. As a result of the Nativity Fast, no meat, eggs or milk (including cheese) are allowed during the supper. Thus fish, mushrooms and various types of grain are the main offerings.
In Poland and Ukraine the supper begins with eating kutia, but in Lithuania this tradition is rare. Instead, poppy milk (aguonų pienas) together with kūčiukai are served and forms a significant part of the Lithuanian Christmas Eve menu. Poppy seeds are widely used for Christmas Eve dishes, because they symbolize abundance and prosperity.
Regarding the fish dishes, usually herring, carp or pike are eaten. The fish symbolizes the ichthys, a fish-like symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs resembling the profile of a fish, used by early Christians as a secret symbol relating to Jesus and his disciples as "fishers of men." In Lithuania herring (Lithuanian: silkė) dishes are rich and variable. Usually silkė su morkomis (herring with carrots), or silkė su grybais (herring with mushrooms) are served on Christmas Eve.
Mushrooms, especially dried or pickled, are also one of the main dishes eaten on Christmas Eve. Sauerkraut with wild mushrooms or peas, red borscht, mushroom or fish soups are eaten in Poland and Ukraine.
Boiled or deep fried dumplings (Polish: pierogi, Ukrainian: вареники, varenyky, Lithuanian:auselės) with a wide variety of fillings (including sauerkraut, mushrooms and smashed poppy seeds), are among the most popular dishes. Doughnuts filled with jam (Polish:pączki, Ukrainian: пампушки, pampushky) are served for a dessert in Poland and Ukraine, but in Lithuania sweet dishes are not common, as they are believed inappropriate for the atmosphere of the evening.
As for beverages, traditionally dried fruit compote or cranberry kisiel (Lithuanian: spanguolių kisielius) are common. In the earlier times oaten kisiel was more common.
The meal begins with a prayer, often the Lord's Prayer. In Russia, after the prayer the mother of the household will anoint each person present with honey, making the sign of the Cross on their forehead, saying: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: may you have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year."
The Christmas Eve supper is usually held under candle light and starts in the evening after the first star appears in the sky. The star symbolizes the birth of Jesus in Christian tradition and a soul of deceased ancestors in pre-Christian beliefs. Quiet, dim-lighting, and a somewhat mystical atmosphere is characteristic for Christmas Eve supper.
It is said in Lithuania that many strange things happen on that night and there are plenty of rituals and magic associated with Christmas Eve. In Poland, western Ukraine, and Bukovyna, an extra plate and seat are always left for anyone, such as a drifter, to be accepted as a guest. It is believed that he may be Jesus and should be welcomed.
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