What Is Oplatek? It Is the Beginning and Heart of Wigilia - the Polish Christmas Eve:
What is Oplatek? It Joins 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 Latin word oblatum which means "sacred bread" is the foundation for the Polish word oplatek. The reason is that as Latin started to become the official language of the Roman Catholic Church in the late fourth century, it leaked to educated folk and from there into everyday speech mutating the name along the way.
There are some examples of early Oplatek treasured in European Museums that are multicolored and elaborately embossed by baking in heavy hand-held fire-heated irons. The embossed scenes of the God Child, Blessed Virgin or the 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 begins in early Christian times, and Polish people compare it 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 (plural) symbolized patriotic associations and demonstrated a simple wish during sharing of oplatek that Poland would regain its independence. Since that time most people share oplatki, 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.
Oplatek - The Bread of Love
Origins of Oplatek - From a Quasi-religious Custom to a Symbol of Patriotism, Family and Friendship
Waiting for Wigilia to Begin
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Internet Sources of Oplatek
- Amazon.com: Set of 20 Polish Christmas Wafers Oplatki (12 Large & 8 Small)
Shop Set of 20 Polish Christmas Wafers Oplatki (12 Large & 8 Small) and other Snack Foods at Amazon.com. Free Shipping on Eligible Items
- The Catholic Company
A seller of high quality Catholic books and gifts Charlotte, NC, since 1997.
- Church Supply Warehouse
A seller of many types of church supplies in business for over 40 years in Wheaton, IL.
- Traditional Polish Christmas Wafers - F.C. Ziegler Company
Sellers of goods and services for worship and devotion, public and private; located in six cities in the U.S.
- Christmas Wafers - Oplatki Christmas Gifts - Gifts, Christmas - By Polish Christmas - 644527015651 a
A a big selection of imported products; located in Sarasota, FL
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
Celebrating Christmas Eve
How do you celebrate Christmas Eve?
Christmas Eve Altar and Creche in a Polish Parish Church
© 2011 Georgene Moizuk Bramlage