My informant is half Polish from her mother’s side and was raised upholding Polish traditions. She was taught that the most important and sacred of the Polish traditions is the Wigilia, which translates to Christmas Eve Vigil.
The Wigila has many different parts, the one in particular I will discuss is the Oplatki. The Oplatek (singular) is an unleavened (lacking yeast) wafer, similar to a host for Catholics. The wafer is very thin and made of flour and water. It is larger than the palm of one’s hand, and in a square shape, with a religious image imprinted on it.
On Christmas Eve, before dinner, the Oplatek are handed out to each person in the family. Each member will then go to another, and in a pair, will break off a small piece of the other person’s wafer. Once you have broken off a piece, you give them a blessing, tell them you are proud of them, wish them good luck, good health, and that any desires or wishes they have, will come to light for them in the new year, then you eat it.
My informant says this is a very cherished ceremony because it is a genuine way of getting the family together and interacting. Each person must participate and go up to every other family member. This forces communication, any tension or ill will, if it exists, must be put aside to uphold feelings of love and good will towards all.
She was taught that this ceremony has existed for a very long time, beginning in Poland. Her family has been doing it for as long as they can remember. This specific ceremony is carried on by people of Polish heritage all over the world.
If a family member is not able to make it home for Christmas, they will exchange pieces of the wafer by mail, which shows just how dedicated to the ceremony families are.
Poland is a very religious country, with large populations of Christians and Catholics. In the Catholic religion, Communion, the taking of the host, is the climax of the mass. The host symbolizes Christ’s body, Christ who sacrificed his life for his people, when one takes in the host, they are proclaiming their faith, devotion, and praise, in a very personal, physical way.
The Oplatki takes Communion out of church and into the home, an even more personal and intimate setting. To eat the host with those that you love and are of your blood, to offer them a blessing, individually, makes it a sincere, touching experience. It is close to the hearts of those who perform it, which is why it continues as a heritage tradition.