There are a million little things. Christmas Eve (Wigilia - "vigil") dinner is a big deal. Because it's a waiting holiday, there's no meat. All the dishes are fish (or non-meat), and all of them are white. And there has to be an odd number of dishes (up to thirteen, if you do everything). Among the ones we typically did are baked perch; smoked pickled herring (szledzie); leniwe ("lazy man") pierogi; kapusta (sauerkraut) pierogi; mushroom soup; and noodles with poppyseeds. Oh, and Polish wodka (vodka). The rituals also include the excange of oplatki, and forgiveness of one another for the sins of the past year; and the reading the nativity story from Luke 2 (preferably in Polish).
There's also always an extra place set at the table, with a plate from which no one has ever eaten. Under the plate, straw is scattered - blessed straw, if you can get it. (My [non-Polish] parish back in Michigan distributed blessed straw at the beginning of Advent, for scattering under the creche - I kept a bag for a long time, and I wish I had it still.) The place is set for Christ, in the person of an unexpected guest. The really old version of the tradition is that if a wanderer or a beggar should knock at the door on Christmas Eve, he would be welcomed in, seated with the family, and served dinner; because the unexpected guest came in the place of Jesus.
I wrote my college admissions essay on my family's moves, and my memory of this tradition throughout the years - and how, when we celebrated Christmas with my father in a tiny, cramped apartment with no table or chairs, and put dinner on an upside-down VCR box with a green vinyl disposable table cloth, saved from year to year, we always thought that someone might really knock at the door, any moment. Even though he'd have to get through the locked door to the apartment building first. When we finally bought a house years later, we had not only a table and chairs, but an actual dining room - with room for a buffet AND a china cabinet. We always set the place for the Christchild, but, because we were older and because the possibility seemed so remote, in a middle-class village in a normal home, I no longer really believed that a stranger would knock at the door and join us for Wigilia dinner.
My father had told me in no uncertain terms not to write my college admissions essay on anything Catholic. He's a professor himself, and he told me that the standard perspective in academia is that Polish Catholics are anti-Semites. I was confused. Obviously Hitler killed Poland's Jews, and the Poles hid them at the risk of their own lives; and I was friends with all of the (few) Jewish kids in my school. Surely no one could think such a thing. I was not yet acquainted with the "tolerance" of elite academia. But I let him edit my essay anyway, and he didn't tell me to change a thing; he just looked sad.
I have to remember to buy a new plate this year - that's something my family always forgot until the last possible moment. (Actually, since there are probably plates I'd like to add to my collection, maybe I should plan ahead and buy a new plate for Christmas every year that actually matches those from other years. Would that be exploiting the tradition for materialistic ends? I hope not. It would probably be nicer than buying a $3 cookie plate with a Santa on it from the drugstore, which we not infrequently ended up doing when I was younger.)
But I have to say, the bit of scattered straw has new resonance for me this year. My little family has been waiting for an unexpected guest for a lot of Christmases now. We're probably not going to get an infant of our own to welcome at Christmas, though God always has the opportunity to surprise us and I'm not sure yet whether letting go of that hope is part of what He wants from me. But I see, in that little pile of straw, the nest to welcome a baby; the manger where the divine Child lay - something of expectation, anticipation, hope. And we are very much in need of that unexpected guest - Christ walking into our lives and joining our family, our home, and our Christmas would be very welcome. I'm not sure what I'm to anticipate exactly, but then, the unexpectedness of the guest is the whole idea. And since I have no idea what would get my life on the right track now, I would be better off with an un-looked-for visitor than anything I might actually request.
I need to be on the lookout for some straw.