Oplatki: 'Holy Bread' for Christmas
A Polish tradition emphasizes reconciling with others at Christmas.
BY: Shiela Kielly and Sheila Geraghty
This Polish custom symbolizing forgiveness and unity dates back to pre-Christian times, and is still practiced in many Polish homes throughout the world. The word "oplatek" is thought to be from the Latinoblatum,
meaning "holy bread."
The oplatek, or Christmas wafer, is unleavened bread; perhaps this is a reference to manna, the unleavened bread given to the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert (Exodus 16:31). The oplatek is embossed with a picture of the Nativity scene or other Christmas-related picture.
Family & Religious Traditions
Before the Christmas vigil meal, each person at the table is given a piece of the oplatek. They then take their piece around to each member of the family, breaking off a bit of each other's bread while sharing a brief expression of love. If there is a wrong from the past year between two people, this is the time to mend the rift by asking for forgiveness and reconciliation.
The custom can also be observed by giving the wafer to the eldest person at the table, who breaks off a piece, and then passes it on to the next person at the table, who then does the same. After the eldest family member offers a blessing for health, happiness, and forgiveness, the pieces of oplatek are eaten and the family sits down to share the meal.
To include those who were not present for the Christmas vigil meal, pieces of the oplatek were sent to them in letters. Sometimes, wafers would be given to the animals on Christmas Eve in petition for their good health.
This wonderful custom provides people with a way to celebrate forgiveness for the wrongs that have occurred during the past year, and to celebrate the hope that much good will be in store for the coming year for all who sit at the table.
One of the saddest situations in any family is when one member has not spoken to another in years. Sometimes, whatever caused the dispute has long been forgotten, but the inability of each to say "I'm sorry" continues the feud. Advent provides the opportunity to reach out and heal wounds.