Tag Archives: polish 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:


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.

Polish Christmas Eve

Context/Background: The Informant is of Polish descent and her grandparents and mother strongly identify with the Polish culture. Growing up, her grandfather orchestrated a celebration for their family which was centered around Christmas Eve and engaging in the tradition of sharing a “piece of you,” to show love and appreciation while celebrating largely at night with much festivity.


“Like… in Poland, we celebrate on Christmas Eve and you go to a midnight mass, but when you’re having dinner. you like… exchange… you like have your own wafer. My grandpa’s the one that orchestrates our thing, but you walk up to everyone in your family and you tear off a piece of their wafer and tear off a piece of you and it’s like showing them you love them ’cause it’s like… you’re giving something to them. We do that every Christmas Eve. And in Polish tradition, you stay up really late on Christmas Eve and eat a ton of food.”

Introduction: The Informant’s Family

Analysis/Interpretation: I’ve previously heard about some experiences from families that stat up until midnight (Christmas Eve, transitioning to Christmas Day) and celebrate in the middle of the night, opening presents and what not. This is a little different in the aspect of the wafer tradition. I find that custom to be very sweet and reaffirming in order to build onto your relationship with your family. I also think that because the Grandparents organize it, there’s something additionally special that’s added because there’s a sense of them passing on to the following generations and organization for them. I can personally understand this in some regard because on my mother’s side of the family, it’s always her older relatives that organize the events, particularly the family reunion they hold.