In many Polish homes throughout the world, a beloved family tradition is the breaking of the oplatek on Christmas Eve. Oplatek (plural – oplatki ) is a thin wafer made from flour and water similar in taste and consistency to the hosts that are used for communion during Mass. Oplatki are often stamped with an elaborate Christmas scene.
Historically these would be distributed by the church to parishioners’ homes during the Advent season. The Christmas wafer is shared before Wigilia, the Christmas Eve supper. Wigilia comes from the Latin word “vigilare” which means to wait.
The oplatek is meant to remind families of the Eucharistic bread at Mass and makes a further connection between Christmas and the gift of the Eucharist, the presence of God among us.
This tradition dates back many centuries when a thin, flat bread called podplomyk was baked over an open flame and then shared with the family gathered around the fire on Christmas Eve.
It is also related to an Eastern tradition of giving out “blessed bread” after the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This bread is not consecrated, but blessed by the priest as a way to extend the fruits of the Mass into the home.
Christmas Eve is the most holy and meaningful day of the year in Poland and for Polish families around the world. It is a day of waiting for and celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.
Early in the day, the women of the family start preparing the meal, which traditionally consists of twelve meatless dishes, and includes many kinds of fish, beet or mushroom soup, various dishes made from cabbage, mushrooms, or potatoes, pierogi, followed by dried fruit compote and pastries for dessert.
While the meal is being cooked, the men and children decorate the Christmas tree and set the table. Hay is usually placed in the corners of the room and on the tablecloth, recalling Christ’s humble birth in a stable. An extra place setting is added in memory of those who are not able to join the family for Wigilia.
As evening approaches, the family eagerly awaits the first star in the night sky, recalling the star of Bethlehem that signaled the birth of the Savior. Once the star has been spotted, the Christmas Eve meal begins.
The head of the household usually starts by breaking the wafer with his wife and then continues to share it with everyone at the Wigilia table, starting with the oldest down to the youngest. Wishes for peace and prosperity are exchanged and even the pets and farm animals are given a piece of oplatek on Christmas Eve.
Legend has it that if animals eat oplatek on Christmas Eve, they will be able to speak in human voices at midnight, but only those who are pure of spirit will be able to hear them.
After the breaking of the bread is completed, a small meal is served that eagerly anticipates the Midnight Mass, which many Polish families would attend on Christmas Eve.
The tradition has survived the test of time and is still celebrated in many parts of the world by various families, including many who come from a Slavic ancestry. It is a beautiful tradition, one that keeps the true “spirit of Christmas,” and unites a family to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.