Tag Archives: giftexchange

Polish Yuletide: The Sharing of Bread and the Self

Main Performance:

Also in polish tradition, during Christmas time and sometimes Easter, a special unleavened bread is used. You start with a whole and someone (a family member or such) will come up to you, take a piece of the wafer and in return wish good things upon you (pleasure, money, health etc.) and you go up to others and do likewise until your wafer has been taken from everyone and you took a piece from everyone. The bread is called opłatek which roughly translates into “toll” or “payment”.


The informant, JK, is one of my close friends from my Catholic high school who I maintain contact with after graduation. He hails from a devoutly Catholic Polish family. Among most of the families that I knew of while attending, most of my classmates did not speak their family lineage’s mother tongue except for most of the my Polish and Hispanic classmates. No German and definitely not any Irish being spoken there.


My informant is currently attending medical school in Poland and I reached out to him through social media to ask if he had any traditional/folk-things he could share with me given his actively apparent and practiced Polish heritage, doubly so now that he is back in Poland.

My Thoughts:

Immediately what comes to mind is the Eucharist and the transubstantiation concept in the Catholic church of how Christ’s body is figuratively and literally represented by the communal bread is akin to this is taking place where individuals represent themselves with the loaves of unleavened bread. Then they take parts of themselves and share it with their loved ones. Considering that these most likely occur at family gatherings with relatives who could potentially live far away from each other, it comes off as an encouraging reminder that they always have each other. The wording of “toll” also gives off the suggestion that they expect good deeds to be returned, or just be acted in response to exchange their own pieces of bread. One loses themselves from sharing all the bread until it is gone, but will have formed a symbolic whole from the others who have given pieces of themselves to you, which really puts the entire act of giving and receiving in a simple but introspective light.

For more on the origins of opłatek, refer to Claire Anderson’s detailed study of its Slavic roots.

Anderson, Claire M. “In Search of the Origins of the Opłatek.” The Polish Review, vol. 58, no. 3, 2013, pp. 65–76. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/polishreview.58.3.0065. Accessed 3 May 2021.

Christmas exchange

“On my dad’s side of the family there’s about 50 people. He’s the youngest of 7 kids and they have kids and even they have kids. So it’s like three generations of people. We use to do a gift exchange where we drew names with a price limit according to the generation. But now we have a new tradition where we donate to charity instead. We keep the same price limit, $40 for my dad’s generation, $30 for my age group and so on. So like my generation would pull $30 from everyone in that age group. Each age group pulls their collections into a group. And then each year, it rotates between the seven siblings, their family decides where the donations go to. So this year will be my dad’s ‘turn.’ My dad and mom will choose where their age groups donation is going to. And then my brother and I will pick where the money is going to for the collection from our generation.”

I find this tradition interesting because in the last few decades, with globalization there has been a movement towards more humanitarian actions. People have become more aware through media of human rights, health issues, natural disasters, and other struggles communities and groups are facing. This family tradition of my roommate reflects this awareness. Because her family is made up of so many members they are able to make a sizable contribution. They are definitely focusing on the theme of giving during the American “holiday season” and not of receiving. It goes against what the Christmas tradition has morphed into with the consumer culture that has developed in American and Western society. It’s also great that they involve the younger generations as well and teach them this selflessness from an early age.