There’s no sourdough starter in it. There’s no mysterious bake time. Still it says “I love you.” Oplatek is a piece of a thin, flat tasteless wafer and every Christmas Polish American families share it with family members and friends and anyone who comes to the door. Oplatek carries all the goodness of the season. And this is not a tradition that is isolated; rather, it takes place at Christmas Eve dinner in families with roots in Poland and many Eastern European countries, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.
“For us, Polish Americans, the oplatek, that wafer, is Christmas Eve,” says Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of the book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore. “It defines people’s heritage.”
Poles had the tradition of a meal on Christmas Eve that traditionally had 12 foods, representative of the 12 apostles. The meal would include fish dishes as well as soups and boiled and stewed fruits and vegetables. Usually before this meal came a small ceremony which followed the grace prayer. The head of the house would take the wafer and would express a hope for the new year and perhaps give wishes to someone for good health. This exchange was repeated again and again with those present.
The sharing of this unleavened bread with another person is sharing all that is good with life,” says Knab. “It’s a time to tell each other, ‘I love you, I care about you.’ And you do it in an open area, where everyone else can see you.”
The wafer is made of flour and water and is pressed between two flat or engraved piece of metal. Its taste and texture is similar to the Holy Communion wafer used in churches. It is often sold in ethnic churches but is also available on line.
Bread in the Middle Ages was hard to come by and sharing anything to do with bread was a caring kind of exchange. Families would often make flatbread from the leftover flour blended with water to share with those around them. During World War II, with families scattered all over the world, people would send pieces of oplatek to remind family members that they were thinking and praying for them.
The ritual is not complicated and not tasty, but the feeling of connection is strong. Those who have gone before us, those who struggled as we do, those who loved and cared as we do – all those people connected to one another with a tiny wafer called oplatek.