From the Pastor: The Traditional Oplatki
Here at Epiphany we strive to keep Catholic traditions, as well as Tradition, alive. Such things as Eucharistic and candlelight processions, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and the blessing of various foods, plants, and objects on certain feast days throughout the year come immediately to mind as examples. One tradition which comes from my Polish heritage and which gathers an ever larger and more joyful crowd every year is the Blessing of Easter Baskets on Holy Saturday morning. This year I want to introduce you (or remind you, if you are of Polish, Lithuanian or Slovak heritage yourself) to another great Polish tradition, this one for Christmas. It is the tradition of the Oplatki (singular: Oplatek). An oplatek is an unleavened and very thin rectangular bread, usually embossed with some sort of Nativity-related scene. It is made the same way that traditional Mass hosts are, using only wheat flour and water (although some may contain a small amount of food dye to color them). They are never consecrated, although they may be blessed by the priest, as ours will be. These are meant to be taken home for the Wigilia, or Christmas Eve gathering of the family.
Although details of this custom do vary, the basic format remains constant. On Christmas Eve the entire family gathers for a full day of celebrating the end of the penitential season of Advent and the coming of the Christ Child in just a few more hours. The house must be cleaned, for a dirty house on Christmas foretold a dirty house for the rest of the year, or so many a mother convinced her children. The fresh Christmas tree was cut and decorated with apples, oranges. candies, chocolates, tinsel (angel’s hair!), glass ornaments, lights, and homemade paper chains. This was a day of abstinence, so the great evening feast, which consisted of many courses (7, 9, and 13 are listed in various sources), was completely meatless. Appetizers, soups, fish dishes, and desserts were prepared. The table was strewn with a light layer of straw (reminiscent of the straw lining the baby Jesus’ manger) and covered with a white tablecloth (swaddling clothes). There were place settings for everyone plus one extra in case a beggar or unexpected guest came by. But before anyone dared to touch the food, the father of the family would take an oplatek, break it and share a piece of it with his wife. As he gave it to her he would ask her forgiveness for any harms he had done to her during the past year and ask special blessings for her in the upcoming one. She would then break off another piece from her piece of the oplatek and share it with the child next to her, and do the same. From one to another, each would follow suit. Then all would share a piece of their piece of the oplatek with everyone in the family, not just the one next to them. Only after the oplatki were all distributed and consumed was the main meal eaten. No hard liquor was served but beer and wine may have flowed in generous amounts, as celebrating Christ’s love being spread among family and friends in such a special way was certainly worth a toast or three.
When the meal was completed, it was time to sing Christmas carols. The children had already received their gifts on December 6, when St. Nicholas made his visit, but adults may have exchanged simple gifts among themselves on Christmas eve. Finally, it was time to walk to church, hopefully, through freshly fallen snow. Midnight Mass brought to completion all that was symbolically done in the home earlier that day. Christ was born. Our Savior had arrived. The Gospel message was now to be seen, heard, and wonderfully lived out.
This year I have some oplatki available in the social hall. I was only able to get a limited number this year, so please do not take them if you won’t use them, and please don’t take extras to send to family and friends unless there are some left over after Christmas. Oh, and don’t forget your barnyard animals! The pink oplatek is for them. Of course, you will have to do the breaking, sharing, and praying on their behalf, but an ancient tradition holds that at midnight, when Jesus is born and the angels are singing, the animals, who, aside from Mary and Joseph, were the only ones present for the Holy Child’s birth, are able to speak. Only the pure of heart are able to hear and understand them, so be ready!
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka