HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE: POLISH CHRISTMAS WAFER
My friend Phil gave me Opłatek, or Christmas wafers as part of his Polish Christmas tradition. This practice is now common in many countries across Eastern Europe — among Lithuanians, Czechs, and Slovaks — but in Poland it is a legacy from the past to celebrate the vigil of Christmas Eve, going back to the 10th century. During the 17th century, it spread from there, and was emblematic, especially since the 19th-century partitioning of Poland, of the country becoming independent again. During WWII, families would send pieces of oplatek to relatives dispersed around the world wherever they were.
Each wafer is embossed with an image from the Christmas story, usually the nativity scene or the Star of Bethlehem. An empty place is set at the family table in memory of ancestors, departed loved ones, and the Unseen Guest, Jesus Christ. There is high hope that the “Unexpected Guest” will come and bless the gathering. As Christmas Eve marks the end of the Advent fast, to be followed by the 12 Days of Christmas, at the start of dinner just after grace, the male head of the house takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the year to come. It might be good health or a request for forgiveness for his shortcomings. His wife breaks off a piece and eats it, then returning the blessing and shares the wafer with her husband. The ceremony continues with older relatives, guests and children from oldest to youngest.
There is an old tradition, which asserts that during the original Holy Night the animals could speak with a human voice in memory of that first Christmas, though only colored wafers are given to the farm animals.
Between friends and family, a piece of the wafer is exchanged along with a blessing as a symbol of mutual forgiveness between them, the importance of family, and that God sent his son born on Christmas Day as Savior.
“…and on Earth peace, good will toward men.” Luke 2:14
Who will you bless this Christmas Eve?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian