Oplatki and Christmas Traditions

Every year my family eats a special Polish Christmas Eve dinner. We start at the traditional moment, which is right after spotting the first star in the night sky. We leave the customary extra place setting at the table to welcome any stranger who might visit (in case you wonder, in all the years we’ve done this there has never been such a one yet). The dinner contains no meat, dairy, or alcohol. Our meal, while not strictly following the traditional menu—as youngsters, my siblings and I even preferred Jell-O and peanut butter and jelly to the customary Polish fare—is mostly made up of different types of fish (herring, carp) prepared all kinds of ways (baked, fried, smoked). In addition to all of this, there is another tradition we follow on Christmas Eve: the Polish tradition of the oplatek.

The oplatek custom originated many centuries ago and became popular among the Polish nobility in times past. The oplatek (pronounced “oh-pwa-tek” and spelled “oplatki” in plural) has become somewhat known in the United States since several Eastern European immigrants brought the tradition over to their new country. Oplatki are thin, blessed wafers made of flour and water. They are usually white, though I have also seen them in tints of pale pink and green. On the surface of each oplatek is stamped a picture or a scene, usually of the Nativity, the Holy Family, or the Star of Bethlehem. Before Christmas Eve dinner, each family member receives one oplatek wafer. Every person then goes around the table to break off and share from every other person’s oplatek, forgiving any wrongs committed during the year and individually wishing everyone all the best for Christmastide and the New Year.

The significance of the custom is the recognition of the significance of the family. We dedicate this time every year to specifically ensuring good relationships within our family. By breaking oplatki together, we also imitate the breaking of bread in the Christian community on a smaller scale. Such holiday traditions, oplatki or otherwise, are important to bring family members together and remind them of their unity and dependence on each other.

The Holy Family depended on each other as well. The Christ Child depended on His mother for all of His basic necessities and on St. Joseph for safety and shelter. Mary depended on St. Joseph for stability and he on her for wisdom, peace, and trust. Both the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph depended on Jesus Christ for humility, mercy, and grace. Traditions like the Polish oplatek help families to model their inter-dependence, just like the Holy Family.

What are some up-building Christmas traditions that you and your families share?