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What is Oplatek? It is the beginning and heart of Wigilia - The Polish Christmas Eve:

Updated on November 18, 2014

Origins of Oplatek - From a Quasi-religious Custom to a Symbol of Patriotism, Family and Friendship

Source

Oplatek - The Bread of Love

What is Oplatek? It Joinis Family and Friends on Wigilia -The Polish Christmas Eve

The Bread of Love

Oplatek, traditionally called "the bread of love," is a thin unleavened wafer - most often a flat sheet - like altar bread. The word is derived from the Latin oblatum which means "sacred bread." Old Polish oplatek, some treasured in European Museums, were multicolored and elaborately embossed by baking in heavy hand-held fire-heated irons. The embossed scenes of the God Child, Blessed Virgin or the simple creche scene on modern oplatek are not as elaborate as pictures I've seen on the old ones either.

The Oplatek Tradition and Christmas

The oplatek tradition apparently begins in early Christian times and is compared to a non-sacramental sharing of the Holy Eucharist (Host), the unleavened bread consecrated into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The "oplatek tradition", as a Christmas custom originated and spread widely throughout Poland as far back as the 17th century. It was usually part of the szlachta's (Polish nobility) culture and the custom continued to spread throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and neighboring Slovak countries.

Oplatki Symbolizing Patriotism

In the 19th century, in the aftermath of the Polish partitions, oplatki symbolized patriotic associations and demonstrated a common wish during sharing of oplatek that Poland would regain its independence. Since that time oplatki are often embossed with religious images. In the 20th century, the oplatek custom went beyond families and gained another meaning - the holiday gathering of present or past co-workers, students and friends.


Straw Under the Tablecloth

Hay spread under the tablecloth is both insurance for future good harvests and a memory of the God Child in the manger.

Hay for Christmas Eve if none is available to you.

Waiting for Wigilia to Begin

Oplatek is on the plate behind the glass of wine.
Oplatek is on the plate behind the glass of wine. | Source

Polish Christmas Eve (Wigilia): Preparation and Welcome

The house sparkles after days of cleaning, and a decorated Christmas tree shelters mounds of presents wrapped for the giving. My sister and I have set the table with company silverware, dishes and a crisp white cloth. Straw is spread under the cloth and oplatek (pronounced o pwa tek) rest on a small silver dish at my father's place. Nervous excitement runs through the house.

Finally, headlights in the driveway. "They're here!" shouts my father. Aunts, uncles and cousins pile into our tiny house - everyone seeming to talk, laugh, hug and kiss at the same time. We came together to share oplatek, and eat great traditional food. Then with a quick Merry Christmas or Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia! we scatter to our own parish churches for midnight Mass.

If you enjoyed this article and learned something from it, please let me know in the section How do you celebrate Christmas? If you feel I've missed anything, or have something you'd like to see added, please contact me via my Profile Section.


Oplatek: Spelling

Oplatek, in Polish, is singular; oplatki is plural. Sometimes the two words are used interchangeably. The Polish language has nine more letters than the typical Latin-based alphabet. In true Polish, the "l" letter symbol has a slash through it in the spelling of oplatek.

Dividing the Oplatek

Dividing and Sharing the Oplatek

The family gathers in a circle or around the prepared table. Dividing the oplatek is a solemn moment - sometimes a bit embarrassing for young family members afraid to be demonstrative. When I was growing up, each person at the table broke a piece from the intact oplatek in my father's hand and then shared in turn with everyone in the room.

Dividing or "breaking bread" continued amid hugs, kisses and Christmas greetings with every other family member. The tiny bits of oplatek clasped in our fingers at the end of the well-wishing were immediately eaten. Any large pieces left were carefully wrapped and tucked away into the silverware chest for next year.

During this time all wrongs among family members are supposed to be forgiven. It's very easy to remember how hard exchanging oplatek was with feuding cousins.

Oplatek: Pronunciation

The "l" letter symbol with a slash through it is pronounced as the "W" in the English word "Way." So, oplatek is pronounced "O-PWA-TEK." Many templates used in computers programs do not allow use of the nine additional Polish letters. This leads to confusion in pronunciation.

Description of Oplatek and Christmas Eve Tradition: Prepared by The Catholic Company Bookstore

(In Polish) Seminary in Tarnow: Interview by reporter from Radio RDN Malopolska

(In Polish) Bialystok: Interview by reporter from Kurier Poranny newspaper in Bialystok

Sources of Oplatek

During the days of Advent, the organist or choir master of the local Polish church usually distributed Oplatek for a donation or set fee. Today, these sheets of thin wafers are hard to find and obtain. The days of making Oplatek in a handheld iron mold are past. Today, thousands are baked, mostly in Polish religious institutions, on girdles which look very much like modern waffle irons. They are cut, packaged and sent around the world. Oplatek used here in the U.S. is usually obtained by importers or distributors from Poland. If you can not obtain Oplatek from a neighborhood church, below are links to online sources. There is not much difference in price from one link to another.

Celebrating Christmas Eve

How do you celebrate Christmas Eve?

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Christmas Eve Altar and Creche in a Polish Parish Church

Christmas Eve Altar and Creche in Franciscan Church, Sanok, Poland
Christmas Eve Altar and Creche in Franciscan Church, Sanok, Poland | Source

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    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      Thank you for your generous and kind comments. I am glad that the Hub brought back good memories. I also have Hubs devoted to Polish recipes for Wigilia in case you are interested.

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      ChiTownGal 3 years ago

      Thank You so much for this wonderful & informative journey down memory lane. This is exactly every 'Wigilia' of my entire life. :) I have sent this article on to my brother so his children & grandchildren have a better understanding.

      Dzien kujie i Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      Nancy, Thanks a million for stopping by and leaving such uplifting comments. They do my heart good!

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Georgene, this is a beautiful tradition, and I was really touched by the part about breaking bread with all the family and forgiving each other. It's too bad more families, even those not Polish, don't have some sort of tradition for this. I know my family could certainly benefit from it!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @Brite-Ideas: Hi, Thanks for stopping for by..food, family and noise equal wonderful holidays to me! You are one of the fortunate ones!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @ecogranny: Hi, I am so glad that I was able to share something that means so much to me with you. Since I moved I always have the Polish Christmas Eve at my daughter's house. She has carried over many of the traditions she grew up with including inviting those without families or traditions to spend the evening with us. This means someone in the family - which was usually me - has to share what the meaning of oplatek and the evening are to those gathered. You can imagine my pride when my almost-13-year-old grandson volunteered to share the meanings this last Christmas Eve. I was one proud grandma!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @junecampbell: Hi! Thanks for stopping by, reading this lens - one of my favorites - and commenting upon it. I am glad you learned something new and enjoyed the lens.

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      June Campbell 3 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I have never heard of this tradition before. Thanks for the info and great lens!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

      I had never heard of oplatek, but I love how the breaking and sharing of it is meant to help family members let go of past wrongs and hurts. It is truly a celebration in the spirit of the Christ-child.

      We celebrate the holidays quietly with our children and grandchildren. Sometimes we are fortunate to be able to celebrate with distant family members as well, which is always an added joy. Thank you for asking, and thank you for teaching me something new today.

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      There isn't a special thing we have for either day, a lot of cooking, a lot of family and a lot of noise!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @Tom Maybrier: Tom, Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Yes, the excitement was palpable as my sister and I waited for the family guests on Christmas Eve.

    • greg2biz2 profile image

      greg2biz2 3 years ago

      In modern Polish families, they serve fish and fish meals on Wigilia, since meat is not an option. Depending on the region, Poles serve herring soup and herring in oil, as they serve pierogis or stuffed cabbage rolls with barley and mushrooms. I am not a Pole, but my husband is and I spend many years studying in Cracow. (Krakow). I prepare everything from scratch, and my kids love it. We share oplatek and sing Polish folklor songs ( kolendy) .

    • Tom Maybrier profile image

      Tom Maybrier 3 years ago

      Excellent writing! I loved your intro!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @greg2biz2: I feel as if I want to interview you about your experiences in Krakow! Why not give some thought to writing a lens about your experiences there and impressions of this great city?

    • greg2biz2 profile image

      greg2biz2 3 years ago

      @GeorgeneMBramlage: Yes Krakow is beautiful. It is renewed and clean. Just beautiful. I encourage everyone traveling to Europe visit Krakow, Prague and Bratislava. People love these cities after visiting them. People are great, welcoming and educated.

      Szesliwych i wesolych swiat Bozego narodzenia to you and your family as well. God Bless/

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @greg2biz2: Very happy to read your comments. Haven't gotten around to writing about the fish recipes, but that will come. I envy you the years you spent studying in Krakow. It is such a fabulous city. "Wesoych wit i Szczliwego nowego roku"

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 3 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @julieannbrady: Yes, memories and traditions are wonderful! The glue that holds families , neighborhoods and cultures together. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my lens.

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      julieannbrady 3 years ago

      I am part Polish! I remember our Ukrainian grandparents inviting us over for the Christmas holidays -- the first time I tried buckwheat stuffed in the cabbage, I found I preferred my other grandma's Hungarian recipe. Ah, memories!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 4 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @Stuwaha: Thanks for stopping by both of my Christmas Eve lenses...it is so nice to meet a fellow Polish lover of tradition. Because I now live in a smaller "cottage," the family's Christmas Eve usually takes place at my daughter's, and like her parents she invites many people and sets out a lot of traditional foods!

    • Stuwaha profile image

      Stuwaha 4 years ago

      My family on my father's side is Polish and Christmas eve has always been a huge event for us so this is all very familiar to me :) along with copious amounts of pierogi.

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 4 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @ismeedee: Thanks so much for visiting and for your comments...hopefully your brothers-in-law do continue the Christmas Eve tradition; perhaps you'll be invited next year!

    • ismeedee profile image

      ismeedee 4 years ago

      My brothers inlaws are Polish- I shall have to ask them if they continue this tradition since they are a pretty traditional family. Very interesting reading!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 4 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @TolovajWordsmith: Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving comments. I actually grew up in a neighborhood which was more slovenian than Polish. The days of WW II were still very much near the surface for many of our neighbors.

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 5 years ago

      What a beautiful tradition. I always loved Christmas Eve growing up. Now I'm usually stressing about getting everything done by Christmas. I appreciate the reminder about the true meaning of the holiday, shared with family and friends.

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 4 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @Winter52 LM: Thank you for visiting this lens! I am happy to know that you have a delightful Polish Christmas Eve to look forward to...

    • Winter52 LM profile image

      Winter52 LM 4 years ago

      My daughter in law was born in Poland. One of these years, we will live close enough to participate in her Christmas. She has served some amazing desserts!!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      I am from Slovenia, what is not so far from Poland, but our traditions are not the same. I was raised in times of communism when everything connected with church wasn't very popular and Christmas was pretty neglected holiday, especially in towns. Now Christmas is 'in' again, but in very commercialized version.

      I remember from school when we were learning about countries in Eastern Europe, Poland was big exception. It was probably the only country with socialism and church-going at the same time. I think it i great you managed to keep traditions alive.

      Anyway, traditions related with bread are still alive in our country too and when we search long enough some similarities with 'bread of love' can be found after all. Thanks for beautiful presentation of oplatek and oplatki:)

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 5 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @greenlungsofpoland: We never visited much as I was growing up...now we do Wigilia at my daughter's house - mine is too small - and she seems to pack in as many people as I use to do. i use to make my own pickled fish...wonderful. Can't stand the canned or tinned kind.

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      greenlungsofpoland 5 years ago

      Living in a Poland with my partner, our first experience of a Polish Christmas Eve (Wigilia) was quite different to say the least! We has five houses to visit, in one evening and although we achieved our goal by the end of the evening we had both eaten so much pickled herring (Sledzie) (no meat dishes served on Christmas eve) that it is an experience I can nor will ever forget!

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 5 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @anonymous: Jack, How wonderful to hear your praise of the Franciscans and the work that they do. I think it is fascinating to hear about Polish carols being sung in kenya :+) Thank you so much for sharing your relationship with a little bit of Poland its customs. You've brought a ray of sunshine into my life...

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      In Kenya, thanks to Polish Franciscan missionaries we do have Crib in the church, and our youth present Live Crib as well before the Mass. We also sing, among others, some of the Polish traditional carols, translated into English, and I know that in their community Friars share that bread (oplatek) among themselves. That is so beautiful. I'm so proud to be a parishioner there. Thank you Poland for bringing to us such wonderful people.

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 5 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @poutine: Thanks for commenting on this lens and for sharing your own Christmas Eve traditions with our readers.

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      poutine 5 years ago

      Very interesting to learn the Polish customs for Christmas Eve.

      In Quebec, Canada, we also celebrate it after the Midnight Mass.

      We have a very copious meal which includes "tourtieres". After that, we

      open our presents.

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 5 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @SgtCecil: Thanks for leaving your comment. Not to put down Christianity and Christmas, but I think it's interesting that every culture has some sort of celebration, if not many, to welcome back the sun during the winter equinox time of the year. Of course, in the southern hemisphere it's all pretty much reversed :+)

    • SgtCecil profile image

      Cecil Kenmill 5 years ago from Osaka, Japan

      Christmas in Japan is for romance while New Year's Eve is for family. Funny, right? I celebrate with dinner with my girlfriend

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      antoniow 5 years ago

      Interesting lens, nice topic! Squidlike

    • Cari Kay 11 profile image

      Kay 5 years ago

      This is fascinating. Such an interesting tradition. Also, not related but I see you are from Ohio which is where my own polish ancestors settled. Maybe we are related :)

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      JoshK47 5 years ago

      I always love learning stuff like this! Thanks so much for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • ClassyGals profile image

      Cynthia Davis 5 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Being from Polish heritage, growing up we always enjoyed smelts, pierogies, smoked fish, beet soup, and of course oplatek on Christmas Eve.

    • perrybenard profile image

      perrybenard 5 years ago

      i really enjoy learning new things and your lenses really make that fun and easy thanks for another great lens

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      gosssysas 5 years ago

      Polling lenses are good

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image
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      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 5 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      @anonymous: Elizabeth, Thanks for leaving a comment on my lens about Wigilia and Oplatek.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Enjoyed "What is Oplatek?" Reminded me of my Polish childhood. Ordered a supply for good wishes at Christmas.