Sunday, December 21, 2014

Polish Christmas Tradition: Sharing the Oplatek

One of the clients  (my job is home health care) I work with is Polish, and knowing of my own Polish heritage, she enjoys sharing with me stories of the traditional Polish customs. She also speaks Polish fluently, and shares songs and prayers.

One of the stories she shared with me is the Polish tradition of sharing of the Oplatek (op-wa-tek) or Christmas wafer, which is done on Christmas Eve. The tradition dates back hundreds of years, and was passed from my client's ancestors to own her family, who lived on a farm in the rural Midwest.

Christmas Eve or Wigilia, marks the end of Advent for Polish families, and is usually a day of fasting so the meal would not include meat. Advent is a time to remember the real reason for Christmas, people try not to have an excess of anything and give up their favorite foods and drinks. Typical foods served for Advent in Polish families include dumplings, beetroot soup, gingerbread and fish.

Advent also is a time when families begin to thoroughly clean their home to prepare for Christmas. My Mom also did this--disinfecting the floor with lemon cleaner, scrubbing cupboards, and arranging the Nativity scene to be displayed prominently in the center of our living room were some of her cleaning activities. Cleaning was a festive time because Mom would sing and dance to Christmas music while cleaning--her favorite was Motown Christmas, and "Christmas on Sesame Street" for my brother and I. There was a large, oval woven rug in the middle of the living room floor that I clearly remember Mom dancing on, often she picked up our cat Hooper as her dance partner, swaying to the music. My brother and I were given Advent calendars to remind us of the holiness of the season, and mark the passage to Christmas. Also, in my own family, Christmas Eve was a time for a family reunion and celebration. My Mom comes from a large family and we always gather on Christmas Eve, and later in the evening, attend Mass.

My client says that on Christmas Eve her family would gather at the table for a meal, and before they ate they would say grace then pass the oplatek around the table. The oplatek is a thin, flavorless wafer made of flour and water. The oplatek is rectangular in shape and embossed with images of the Holy Family or the Nativity Scene. The oplatek is shared with one family member to another, who breaks then offers a blessing or asks for forgiveness.  It is a time to tell family members that you love them, or ask for forgiveness and make peace.The oplatek is shared around the table until every member has shared it. When the oplatek is eaten, it is a sign that the blessing or forgiveness has been accepted. My client said that when her children grew older, they would break the oplatek then go in a private room to talk, catching up on recent events or laughing over memories shared.

What a beautiful tradition! I am so thankful my client shared this with me, I am excited to begin this tradition with my own children, and rekindle our connection to our Polish heritage.

~ Daylen Swift, 2014

Read More:

"Polish Christmas Wafer: A Flavorless Tradition That is Oh So Sweet" by Sarah Zielinski:

"Catholic Activity: Oplatek, Old Polish Custom" by Catholic

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