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: