Tag Archives: christmas

Wigilia Oplatek Ceremony – Unleavened Wafer Bread

Main Performance:

At Wigilia (Christmas Eve), JK the informant participates in a toasting ceremony with the entire family. Everyone gathers around in a big circle and collects shots of Goldwasser in ornate metal glasses for a toast. The eldest of the family (traditionally the eldest male, but modernized to just be the eldest), begins the ceremony with a toast recounting the successes, hardships, and points of growth for the family in the past year. During this time they usually harken back to previous Wigilia’s and tend to insert anecdotal humor to entertain the circle. This toast ends with the setting of intention for next year, a wish of a “Merry Christmas” to everyone and a request for everyone to enjoy the feast that is to come.

At this time, anyone else who wishes to speak up and toast as well then dives in as people drink the Goldwasser (or Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider if they are younger than eighteen). Once all the toasts have finished and the drinks have been drunk, one of the kids goes around and passes out oplatek to everyone.

Oplatek are rectangular, wafer-like unleavened bread that have been blessed by a priest. They often depict the Virgin Marry on them as well, being very connected to “the daily bread” in Catholic church. Once everyone has an oplatek, they go around to every person and perform a “breaking of the oplatek.” This is done by each person tearing off a little piece of the other person’s oplatek and then eating it. Afterwards, they wish each other a “Merry Christmas” and usually exchange words of gratitude and appreciation for the other person. In these little breakings, more stories are often told between one another, usually recounting memories those family members have shared in.

After everyone has had a piece of everyone else’s oplatek, and they themselves have shared a piece with everyone else, the ceremony is complete. From here, the entire family then moves to the dinner table to sit down for the Wigilia feast.

According to JK, his late grandmother told him that in the countryside where she was from, they had special pink oplatek for the dogs and the livestock. This was given to them as a symbolic honoring of everyone’s contributions; even the animals out in the stable.


JK was the eldest male from the Polish side of our family for a while after his father past away, and was in charge of leading several Wigilia’s and doing the initial toast. As the holiday continued to be universally celebrated by the entire extended family however, it switched to the eldest male of the whole extended family, and then to just the eldest. Thus, the informant has been both a passive and active bearer of this tradition, making the transition from passive to active as he grew older.


The ritual of breaking oplatek is an extension of the practices at the Catholic church and used to be a lead up to a later midnight mass that would be attended by the whole family after the feast. This version of oplatek thus been what some may call a more relaxed version and less religiously inclined as the informant’s family has altered it over the years; putting more emphasis on the message rather than the metaphor.


To me, this practice is a culmination of recognizing the ways that everyone in a community is connected. Since everyone is taking and sharing from everyone, it is a reminder that through sharing and selflessness, everyone can have a more complete and connected whole. Oplatek is a vehicle for the ritual to bring everyone to the realization of each family/community member’s importance to both themself and the greater “village.” It’s a reminder to the family that they always have each other and to be grateful for the bonds you have to those loved ones.


There is another collection that was done on the ceremony of oplatek that is in the archive that is linked below:


Wigilia – a Polish Christmas Eve (Polish-American Christmas)

Main Performance:

The informant, JK, and their full extended family (as many as can come, usually ~40) gather for a big feast and a host of different rituals for Christmas Eve. An extra place setting with food is traditionally set for “the unexpected guest” to celebrate hospitality and community, but this practice is not present at their Wigilia anymore. Instead, to avoid food waste, the family invites friends and boyfriends/girlfriends over to join for the big dinner and night of celebration, serving a similar symbolic purpose. At this feast, you are also not supposed to eat any meat and stick strictly to fish and vegetables.


The informant, JK, is my dad and also one of the figure heads behind putting together this gathering every year. He too has been attending Wigilia every year of his life and is part of a long line of family who keeps this gathering going. In our conversation, he noted other rituals that I was unfamiliar with that he grew up with for Wigilia. One of these practices being attending a midnight mass at the Catholic church.


Our conversation took place over the phone, where he recounted the history of the holiday and explained the different practices within the ritual time. As this post is the broad-stroke of the tradition, I will dive into the minutia in separate entries.


The general practice of Wigilia is far more religious in explanation than I had ever known it to be, as it has become much more focussed on the simple act of gathering for food and a toasting ceremony. But the Catholic roots are very present in the metaphorical significance of community, sacrifice, and family. There is also a great emphasis on the passing over into the New Year, that despite not being directly correlated to New Year’s, the time spent at Wigilia is stressed as setting a precedent for the coming year (i.e. if the community fights during this time, it will be difficult times ahead).


There is another piece on Polish Yuletide that is in the Folklore Archive that I have linked below:



“So basically, aguinalduhan is a gathering we do in our church every year on the last Sunday before Christmas where all of the adults go into, like, a parking lot and bring bulk snacks and toys and stuff like from Costco… Like those 28-pack chips or candy boxes.  They all sit in a big circle with their big packages of food and snacks.  Then the kids all line up outside the circle in order from youngest to oldest until you’re like 20 years old and it’s like a long line of trick or treaters that get older as you go… the funniest part is that we’ll usually bully our oldest cousins out of the line once they get to be around 22 or 23 because at that point, like, they’re just being greedy.  But then what ends up happening is that they have a kid a couple years later and get to go to the front of the line when their kid is the youngest out of all of us.”

Background: The informant is a 19-year old college student who was raised a Christian in a church that was led and run by his extended family members.

Context: This tradition was shared with me over FaceTime.

I experienced aguinalduhan annually with the informant when we were children, and it was a cyclical tradition that marked the end of another year.  Participants in the tradition slowly made their way to the back of the line as new lives began entering through the front.  As an adult, many of our older cousins are now the ones bringing the goodies (like Oreo snack packs, fruit snacks, Caprisuns) to hand out to all of the younger cousins.

According to limited information available about the idea of “Aguinaldohan” online, our church’s tradition stemmed from a custom named after the first President of the Philippines, Emilio Aguinaldo, where people gave back to the needy during Christmastime.  This version is definitely more sanitized and family-friendly, and serves as a way for everyone to get together and see how we’ve grown throughout the years.

Nutcracker Ornaments on the Tree

Background information: AH is a 21-year-old raised in the Bay Area. Her parents are African-American and white, and she has one younger brother. She shared a Christmas tradition she remembers from when she was a child, that she still practices today when she’s home for Winter Break.

AH: My brother and I always take turns choosing from our nutcracker ornaments to put on the tree. I always kinda thought that we considered it bad luck to not put them up, uh, but now that I think about it I’m sure it just started because my mom didn’t want my brother and I to fight over who got to put what ornament on the tree (laughs). They’re like made of glass and come in a wooden box with a certificate of authenticity and I know she got them as like a family heirloom type thing, probably because she had a bunch of ornaments my grandma gave to her. Anyways, I don’t really know the origin or anything…but it’s fun! It’s just something that I always think of fondly when I think of Christmas, which is cute. We always do it as the last thing too, so like, once we’re both done taking turns it feels like it’s officially the holidays.

Me: Do you still do this every year?

AH: Yes (laughs), even though we’re all older now it’s just for fun. It is a kind of ritual for us, probably.

This piece of folklore is one that is very specific to AH’s family, however, as she was telling me this, I realized that my brothers and I also did something similar as kids, probably for the same reason of my parents not wanting us to fight over who got to do what. It’s very cute that something that may begin in childhood like this can become so significant in a person’s memories. The fact that AH created her own sort of superstition related to this practice (connecting bad luck to the ritual of putting up ornaments) shows us how significant these traditions become over time.

Traditional Arabic Dessert – Ka’ak


EM – Ka’ak is a traditional Arabic pastry that is usually a cookie. However there is a version that is more like a sweet bread that is traditionally made for Easter. This is the version that’s been baked in my family for generations. My mom would watch her grandmother make it (she wasn’t allowed to touch it until it was done). It’s always a special time of year and a special day when it’s made. It takes most of the day and the whole house smells delightful.
Also in my family, we usually make a quadruple batch.
First, the heat in the house is turned up to at least 70°F (this is the one day a year the heat is turned up above 64° in my house). The dough, using specifically King Arthur flour (no other brand is allowed) whole milk, sugar, and a bunch of spices including anise and mahlab (crushed cherry seeds) is made early in the morning. Then it’s covered in every extra blanket, quilt, and wool coat in the house, because if the dough catches cold, it’s ruined.
After the first rise, it’s rolled into balls, and set on baking sheets for the second rise. After that, the balls are padded onto a special homemade ka’ak press made of chicken wire, then set to rise again. They’re baked and cooled, and then they’re glazed in a milk, sugar, and rose water mixture, dried, and enjoyed. We distribute it to everyone in our family and community.
Interviewer – You said the sweet bread version is usually just for Easter. Does your family make it just for easter? Or is there some other cause for celebration with ka’ak? Is “special time of year and a special day” a particular day each year, or an arbitrary day and it is just the recipe that makes the time special?
EM – The ka’ak we make is traditionally the Easter version but we usually make it at Christmas because mom had more time. We don’t make it on a specific day but because we really only make it once a year that day becomes special.
Interviewer – Why a quadruple batch?
EM – We make a quadruple batch because we give it to a lot of people. We even ship some out to family in California (From Massachusetts).
Interviewer – Since even the kind of flour is so strict, and your mother was not allowed to touch the dough as a child, does that mean there is no change allowed to the recipe?
EM – The only change to the recipe is that my great grandmother always used ghee but we use regular unsalted butter.
Interviewer – Have you learned the recipe, or done it on your own?
EM – I’ve learned the recipe, though I don’t know it by heart yet, and have made it with my mom and then with my aunt in California, when I visited and brought the spices with me from home.I got pulled aside at the airport because of them. They didn’t believe me when I said they were spices.
Interviewer – Who counts as community, when it comes to distributing the ka’ak?
EM – We give ka’ak to neighbors, some people at our church, and like I said, family, including those in California.
Interviewer – Do you feel that the recipe is part of your Arab heritage?
EM – Yes this recipe and experience is absolutely part of my heritage. All of my family’s recipes are either in our heads, or in the case of ka’ak and other desserts, the recipe is written down but no directions are given, so the only way to learn to make them is to observe and learn from our elders, making special bonds and memories.


This dessert is made only once a year and I did not collect this story during that time. The story was not performed with the actual food but rather in a context of discussing favorite foods.
Ka’ak is an example of food connecting a person to their family and their heritage. The informant has never travelled to Lebanon, and knows only a few words in Arabic, but is proud of their heritage and feels connected when they learn the recipes that are passed down through family, learned by memory, and made with and for their family. The informant is also excited to share the dessert—and part of their heritage—with people outside of their family.
It is also an interesting case when the food itself becomes cause for celebration, because it is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, so the dessert becomes very, very special.