Tradition – Polish

“During Christmas on my dad’s side of the family we celebrate it Polish Christmas style, meaning we eat a ton of fried food consisting of haddock, perogi, halushki, and lots of cabbagy stuff called kaputsa.  Also, it’s the Polish tradition to break this wafer-like thingy before we all sit down to dinner and so we say grace and then everyone has to break a piece off from the other people’s wafers.  I have no idea what the significance is to this, but my best guess would be that we break the bread just like Jesus broke the bread at the last supper although Christmas is a celebration of His birth, not the last supper, so I don’t know.  My family never really explained it.  It’s just something we do.”

Annie’s celebration of a Polish Christmas seems to show the combination of different traditions within one holiday.  During Christmas, Annie said that she sang Christmas carols and watched Christmas movies like “Elf” or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, both of which are very mainstream holiday movies.  In addition to these activities, though, Annie and her family would experience Polish rituals during the holidays, especially in terms of food.

Annie said that her parents wanted her and her brother to be aware of their Polish heritage and actually experience it instead of hearing stories from family members.  Annie does identify herself as being part Polish, and noted that participating in a Polish Christmas helped connect her more to these origins.  However, Annie said that even though she eats Polish food during Christmas and engages in some Polish rituals like the breaking of the bread, she does not know the significance of all of these traditions.  Since she was raised Catholic and is actively involved in the Catholic Church, it makes sense that Annie would try to make sense of the Polish traditions by drawing on her Catholic upbringing.

In order to learn more about the origins and significance of the bread breaking, I researched the topic and learned that there are connections with this tradition and the Christian faith.  The wafer-like bread, called oplatek, is traditionally broken in pieces and shared with everyone at the table.  The bread is very similar to an unleavened, unconsecrated bread used during the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church, and it is often stamped with religious images.  The sharing of the bread serves as an act of good will and hope for success in the new year (Cantoski, “Treasured Polish Christmas”).  Therefore, Annie’s assumptions were correct; this Polish tradition is very similar to Jesus’ breaking of the bread during the last supper, since that too was a profound act of kinship with others.  Thus, Annie’s Catholic upbringing compliments the Polish Christmas she celebrates, since the two have many things in common.  Because the two traditions do not clash, it makes sense that Annie’s family continues to participate in both types of celebration.  It allows her family to enjoy a unique holiday that establishes a special family identity, and also allows her family to grow closer as they share this experience.  This is further emphasized through the breaking of the bread, since that specific ritual is especially designed to unite people during the onset of the new year.

Although sharing food often brings people together, I think that the specific tradition of breaking bread is especially significant because of its religious implications and the power it has to unite people.  The tradition may have a different meaning for families that actually live in Poland, since they are more directly immersed in their culture, whereas Annie’s family has been removed from some of the other Polish Christmas traditions.  Even so, the central meaning of the ritual remains the same; uniting the family during the holiday.

Annotation: Contoski, Josepha K. Treasured Polish Christmas Customs and Traditions: Carols, Decorations, and a Christmas Play. Minneapolis: Polanie Co.