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Remembering a forgotten devotion

Sharing the Christmas wafer

When you think in December about Catholic devotions and practices that have fallen into disuse, the one that comes to my mind at once is the custom that prevailed in Polish-American homes in my boyhood and well into my adult years. It was the Sharing of the Wafer on Christmas Eve, or in Polish, the Sharing of the Oplatek.

In Europe the wafers (in the plural, oplatki) were baked and sold by the wives of parish organists. In America it was the sisters of the local convent who saw to it that every home in the parish was supplied. The Oplatek is a thin sheet of uncut altar bread with symbols of the Nativity impressed in it. “Oplatek” is derived from the Latin word “oblatum,” meaning gift or oblation, and has a Eucharistic connotation.

Before the Christmas Eve supper, a meatless meal in former days, the head of the family would take his Oplatek in hand and speak of Christmas to all who were present. There followed the exchange of individual greetings, as first the head of the family shared his wafer with all the others while expressing devout good wishes, and then all others did likewise in turn.

The Sharing of the Oplatek was sometimes the occasion of forgiveness and reconciliation of family members. It was always a warm, moving, sincere family event. During World War II, families sent Christmas wafers by mail to sons and daughters who could not be home for the Christmas Eve supper (called “the Vigilia” in Polish, “the vigil supper” in English).

In the years I was growing up we always shared the Oplatek at my maternal grandmother’s on Christmas Eve. Only later, when I was more mature in the faith, did I understand why there were always tears in my grandmother’s eyes when we broke the wafer with one another in her dining room.

When I moved to Lansing in 1975, I began to eat the Vigilia supper and share the Oplatek regularly again, after five years without it while I lived in Minnesota. The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, a religious community with its roots in Poland, were ministering at St. Casimir’s parish on Lansing’s south side. They prepared supper and provided Oplatki for the entire parish staff; and, until the shortage of vocations made them withdraw to Pennsylvania, they invited me to join them early every Christmas Eve.

There were always some at their big table whose origins were not Polish, but they all caught on right away to the idea of the Oplatek: it is a symbol of the love Jesus brought to earth and bids us to share with one another. Because of the intermarriage of third- and fourth-generation people of Polish origin with other ethnics, the custom is dying out. It is heartily observed by the more recent Polish refugees and immigrants.

The Holy Saturday custom of the Blessing of Easter Food Baskets has spread from the old ethnic parishes to the territorial parishes all over the diocese, according to published Holy Week schedules we see every year. That is a custom easier to understand than the Sharing of the Wafer, ceremony that takes some getting used to.