Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia! (Merry Christmas!)
A few months ago, I was unpacking my 5-year-old’s overnight bag after a sleepover at his cousin’s house. Inside, I came across a small plastic bag containing a broken piece of a flat wafer-like substance. I studied it, and on it was a simple imprinted image of the Holy Family. I asked my son what it was. He lifted his hands up and said with his signature lisp, “Iths Polith Chrithmath bread, Mom!” His response was so matter-of-fact – as if I should already have a perfect understanding of what he was talking about. But in reality, I had no idea.
In a moment of bizarre coincidence, a week later, I received an email from the editorial director of FAITH suggesting that I write about the oplatki Polish Christmas tradition. I had never heard of it, so I did some research online. A bunch of photos of that same flat wafer with imprinted images of the Nativity popped up! I then had a reference as to what was in my son’s bag. An oplatek!
Oplatki (plural) are thin wafers stamped with a Christmas scene, and are part of a beautiful tradition that dates back many centuries in Poland. A priest blesses the oplatki and he or another religious member then distributes them to families to recall the eucharistic presence of Jesus at Mass. The families return home with them, carrying a blessed reminder of the meaning of the Christmas season.
The customary practice varies slightly from family to family, but it commonly begins with the father or eldest member of the family taking the oplatek and breaking a large piece off to give to his wife. He may share what he is thankful for, wish her a blessing or even ask for forgiveness. She breaks a piece off and reciprocates with a sentiment or blessing for her husband. Then each family member or loved one, oldest to youngest, continues with the breaking of the unleavened bread and sharing their Christmas wishes and blessings for each other. When the ritual is finished, everyone sits down for a simple meal before the midnight Mass.
This beautiful tradition is still popular today throughout Eastern Europe, and even here in the United States amongst families of Polish descent. I just learned that many parishes here in our area provide oplatki Christmas wafers to parishioners, which is where my brother-in-law gets them for his family. Being Polish, he grew up practicing the beautiful tradition of the breaking of the bread, and now shares the custom with his own family. As for the remaining wafers, those are used by his children to “play Mass” at home. Hence, the leftover broken piece my sister-in-law placed in my 5-year-old’s bag at the end of his sleepover with his cousins.
I am so grateful that this entire tradition was revealed to me recently, as I was not previously familiar with it. But it is an enduring custom and, though I am not Polish, I am inclined to adopt the tradition for my own family!
Q: Where do I get oplatki?
A: Some parishes sell or distribute them during the Advent season, but there are many sources online that sell them.
Q: Why are some oplatki pink?
A: The pink wafers are made exclusively for pets, which traditionally symbolize the animals that were present at Christ’s birth.