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What Is Opłatek, the Heart of Wigilia? (Polish Christmas Eve)

Celebrating Wigilia, sharing opłatek with family and friends, and attending Midnight Mass continue to be my most favorite time of the year.

The Bread of Love

The Bread of Love

The Opłatek Tradition and Christmas

The opłatek tradition began in early Christian times. Polish people compare it to a non-sacramental sharing of the Holy Eucharist (Host), the unleavened bread consecrated into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.

The "opłatek tradition" originated and was spread widely throughout Poland during the 17th century. It was part of the szlachta's (Polish nobility) culture, and the custom continued to spread throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and neighboring Slovak countries.

Christmas Eve altar and Creche in Franciscan Church, Sanok, Poland

Christmas Eve altar and Creche in Franciscan Church, Sanok, Poland

Opłatek Unites Family and Friends on Wigilia (The Polish Christmas Eve)

Opłatek, traditionally called "the bread of love," is a thin unleavened wafer, most often a flat sheet-like altar bread.

The Latin word oblatum, which means "sacred bread," is the foundation for the Polish word opłatek. As Latin started to become the official language of the Roman Catholic Church in the late fourth century, it spread among the educated folks and into everyday speech, mutating the name along the way.

There are some examples of early opłatek treasured in European Museums that are multicolored and elaborately embossed by baking in heavy hand-held fire-heated irons. The embossed scenes of the God Child, Blessed Virgin, or the creche scene on modern opłatek are not as elaborate as pictures I've seen on the old ones either.

Oplatek: An envelope open for sharing, including the traditional pink wafer offered to farm animals, if any.

Oplatek: An envelope open for sharing, including the traditional pink wafer offered to farm animals, if any.

Opłatek is on the plate behind the glass of wine.

Opłatek is on the plate behind the glass of wine.

Dividing and Sharing the Opłatek

The family gathers in a circle or around a prepared table. Dividing the opłatek is a solemn moment; sometimes, it is a bit embarrassing for young family members afraid to be demonstrative. When I was growing up, each person at the table broke a piece from the intact opłatek in my father's hand and then shared it in turn with everyone in the room.

Dividing or "breaking bread" continued amid hugs, kisses, and Christmas greetings with every other family member. The tiny bits of opłatek clasped in our fingers at the end of the well-wishing were immediately eaten. Any large pieces left were carefully wrapped and tucked away into the silverware chest for next year.

All wrongs among family members are supposed to be forgiven during this time. I can remember how hard it was exchanging opłatek with feuding cousins.

Origins of Oplatek: From a quasi-religious custom to a symbol of patriotism, family and friendship

Origins of Oplatek: From a quasi-religious custom to a symbol of patriotism, family and friendship

Where Can You Buy Opłatek?

During the days of Advent, the organist or choirmaster of the local Polish church usually distributed opłatek for a donation or set fee.

Today, these sheets of thin wafers are hard to find and obtain. The days of making opłatek in a handheld iron mold are passed. Today, thousands are baked, mostly in Polish religious institutions, on girdles that look very much like modern waffle irons.

They are cut, packaged, and sent around the world. Opłatek used here in the U.S. are usually obtained by importers or distributors from Poland. If you can not get opłatek from a neighborhood church, below are links to online sources. There is not much difference in price from one link to another.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Georgene Moizuk Bramlage


Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on September 26, 2020:

Thank you for your enthusiastic and appreciated comments. I have other articles on Polish cooking with my mother's recipes as a base. I need to get them "cleaned up" so that I can publish them here on HubPages. GMB

Barb on September 16, 2020:

My dad’s parents were both born and raised in Poland. We used to gather at their home every Christmas Eve for oplatek and dinner. Our dinners always started with fish soup which was a creamed soup followed by various fish and side dishes. My grandma and a couple of aunts would cook dinner for my dad and his 7 siblings and 29 grandchildren,total of 45 people. How they did it I’ll never know as it was a sit down dinner after which Santa Claus came. After giving out gifts at the bottom of the bag was a card for me at which time I had to stand up so everyone could sing happy birthday to me as I was born on Christmas Eve. This is a special memory that brings tears to my eyes remembering it.

James B Davis on June 05, 2020:

Does anyone have a recipe for the oplatki? We have my Father in laws iron after he passed but cannot find his recipe.

Lingago from San Francisco on April 25, 2020:

nice article

Southern Babci on April 22, 2020:

You brought back many wonderful memories. My parents were first generation Americans and we followed many old world traditions including Wigilia which started at sunset. My father always started passing the oplatki, everyone broke off a piece then everyone broke off a piece from everyone else. We each had many small pieces to eat. Crumbs were never left, they were also consumed as this was Holy, blessed wafer. We then had a many (up to 7) course meal of our traditional food - Wine, then mushroom and barley soup made with sauerkraut juice, then pickled and sour cream herring, beets & Polish rye bread, followed by fried smelts, Pierogies and carrots. Several additional courses depending on how many were at the table - the more family the more courses. We always ended with a fruit compote made with dried fruit and wine and always homemade babka and poppyseed bread. When my father died we left his place empty with straw under his plate. The evening was spent with singing, opening gifts then off to Midnight Mass. Many wonderful memories of Christmas Eve. I also followed old traditions for Easter - eggs dyed using natural dyes - onion skins, grasses, turmeric, purple cabbage. Thank you for this wonderful site.

Shar on February 29, 2020:

We always shared oplatek on Christmas with family at my Grandmothers. Grandparents were from Warsaw.

Today one of my cousins has Wigilia. It is meatless with,kasha, fish,etc. Bible verse and prayer are offered at sundown. Wonderful evening I look forward to every year.

Cori Semlak Schuyler on February 25, 2020:

Thank you for sharing! My father was 2nd generation Polish American~ we always celebrated Christmas Eve with my 100% Polish grandparents and shared “wafers”...grandma was a proud “American” woman and sadly refrained from teaching us Polish words...we were to speak English

Helen Genevieve Sznajder Damico on December 07, 2019:

Such great memories of my mother’s and my father’s families. Thank you

Robin scheel on November 29, 2019:

I remember as a child doing this ritual with my grandmother it was so important to her and I always looked forward to it to see the joy on her face every year how I miss it

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 08, 2014:

Thank you for your generous and kind comments. I am glad that the Hub brought back good memories. I also have Hubs devoted to Polish recipes for Wigilia in case you are interested.

ChiTownGal on December 08, 2014:

Thank You so much for this wonderful & informative journey down memory lane. This is exactly every 'Wigilia' of my entire life. :) I have sent this article on to my brother so his children & grandchildren have a better understanding.

Dzien kujie i Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 01, 2014:

Nancy, Thanks a million for stopping by and leaving such uplifting comments. They do my heart good!

Nancy Carol Brown Hardin from Las Vegas, NV on November 18, 2014:

Georgene, this is a beautiful tradition, and I was really touched by the part about breaking bread with all the family and forgiving each other. It's too bad more families, even those not Polish, don't have some sort of tradition for this. I know my family could certainly benefit from it!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 24, 2014:

@Brite-Ideas: Hi, Thanks for stopping for, family and noise equal wonderful holidays to me! You are one of the fortunate ones!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 24, 2014:

@ecogranny: Hi, I am so glad that I was able to share something that means so much to me with you. Since I moved I always have the Polish Christmas Eve at my daughter's house. She has carried over many of the traditions she grew up with including inviting those without families or traditions to spend the evening with us. This means someone in the family - which was usually me - has to share what the meaning of oplatek and the evening are to those gathered. You can imagine my pride when my almost-13-year-old grandson volunteered to share the meanings this last Christmas Eve. I was one proud grandma!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 24, 2014:

@junecampbell: Hi! Thanks for stopping by, reading this lens - one of my favorites - and commenting upon it. I am glad you learned something new and enjoyed the lens.

June Campbell from North Vancouver, BC, Canada on March 22, 2014:

I have never heard of this tradition before. Thanks for the info and great lens!

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on March 21, 2014:

I had never heard of oplatek, but I love how the breaking and sharing of it is meant to help family members let go of past wrongs and hurts. It is truly a celebration in the spirit of the Christ-child.

We celebrate the holidays quietly with our children and grandchildren. Sometimes we are fortunate to be able to celebrate with distant family members as well, which is always an added joy. Thank you for asking, and thank you for teaching me something new today.

Barbara Tremblay Cipak from Toronto, Canada on March 21, 2014:

There isn't a special thing we have for either day, a lot of cooking, a lot of family and a lot of noise!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on January 29, 2014:

@Tom Maybrier: Tom, Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Yes, the excitement was palpable as my sister and I waited for the family guests on Christmas Eve.

Tom Maybrier on January 29, 2014:

Excellent writing! I loved your intro!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 21, 2013:

@greg2biz2: I feel as if I want to interview you about your experiences in Krakow! Why not give some thought to writing a lens about your experiences there and impressions of this great city?

greg2biz2 on December 20, 2013:

@GeorgeneMBramlage: Yes Krakow is beautiful. It is renewed and clean. Just beautiful. I encourage everyone traveling to Europe visit Krakow, Prague and Bratislava. People love these cities after visiting them. People are great, welcoming and educated.

Szesliwych i wesolych swiat Bozego narodzenia to you and your family as well. God Bless/

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 20, 2013:

@greg2biz2: Very happy to read your comments. Haven't gotten around to writing about the fish recipes, but that will come. I envy you the years you spent studying in Krakow. It is such a fabulous city. "Wesoych wit i Szczliwego nowego roku"

greg2biz2 on December 19, 2013:

In modern Polish families, they serve fish and fish meals on Wigilia, since meat is not an option. Depending on the region, Poles serve herring soup and herring in oil, as they serve pierogis or stuffed cabbage rolls with barley and mushrooms. I am not a Pole, but my husband is and I spend many years studying in Cracow. (Krakow). I prepare everything from scratch, and my kids love it. We share oplatek and sing Polish folklor songs ( kolendy) .

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 18, 2013:

@julieannbrady: Yes, memories and traditions are wonderful! The glue that holds families , neighborhoods and cultures together. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my lens.

julieannbrady on December 18, 2013:

I am part Polish! I remember our Ukrainian grandparents inviting us over for the Christmas holidays -- the first time I tried buckwheat stuffed in the cabbage, I found I preferred my other grandma's Hungarian recipe. Ah, memories!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on November 25, 2013:

@Stuwaha: Thanks for stopping by both of my Christmas Eve is so nice to meet a fellow Polish lover of tradition. Because I now live in a smaller "cottage," the family's Christmas Eve usually takes place at my daughter's, and like her parents she invites many people and sets out a lot of traditional foods!

Stuwaha on November 25, 2013:

My family on my father's side is Polish and Christmas eve has always been a huge event for us so this is all very familiar to me :) along with copious amounts of pierogi.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on January 27, 2013:

@ismeedee: Thanks so much for visiting and for your comments...hopefully your brothers-in-law do continue the Christmas Eve tradition; perhaps you'll be invited next year!

ismeedee on January 21, 2013:

My brothers inlaws are Polish- I shall have to ask them if they continue this tradition since they are a pretty traditional family. Very interesting reading!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 17, 2012:

@TolovajWordsmith: Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving comments. I actually grew up in a neighborhood which was more slovenian than Polish. The days of WW II were still very much near the surface for many of our neighbors.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 17, 2012:

@Winter52 LM: Thank you for visiting this lens! I am happy to know that you have a delightful Polish Christmas Eve to look forward to...

Winter52 LM on December 16, 2012:

My daughter in law was born in Poland. One of these years, we will live close enough to participate in her Christmas. She has served some amazing desserts!!

Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on December 15, 2012:

I am from Slovenia, what is not so far from Poland, but our traditions are not the same. I was raised in times of communism when everything connected with church wasn't very popular and Christmas was pretty neglected holiday, especially in towns. Now Christmas is 'in' again, but in very commercialized version.

I remember from school when we were learning about countries in Eastern Europe, Poland was big exception. It was probably the only country with socialism and church-going at the same time. I think it i great you managed to keep traditions alive.

Anyway, traditions related with bread are still alive in our country too and when we search long enough some similarities with 'bread of love' can be found after all. Thanks for beautiful presentation of oplatek and oplatki:)

KimGiancaterino on November 18, 2012:

What a beautiful tradition. I always loved Christmas Eve growing up. Now I'm usually stressing about getting everything done by Christmas. I appreciate the reminder about the true meaning of the holiday, shared with family and friends.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on November 05, 2012:

@greenlungsofpoland: We never visited much as I was growing we do Wigilia at my daughter's house - mine is too small - and she seems to pack in as many people as I use to do. i use to make my own pickled fish...wonderful. Can't stand the canned or tinned kind.

greenlungsofpoland on November 04, 2012:

Living in a Poland with my partner, our first experience of a Polish Christmas Eve (Wigilia) was quite different to say the least! We has five houses to visit, in one evening and although we achieved our goal by the end of the evening we had both eaten so much pickled herring (Sledzie) (no meat dishes served on Christmas eve) that it is an experience I can nor will ever forget!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on October 06, 2012:

@anonymous: Jack, How wonderful to hear your praise of the Franciscans and the work that they do. I think it is fascinating to hear about Polish carols being sung in kenya :+) Thank you so much for sharing your relationship with a little bit of Poland its customs. You've brought a ray of sunshine into my life...

anonymous on October 06, 2012:

In Kenya, thanks to Polish Franciscan missionaries we do have Crib in the church, and our youth present Live Crib as well before the Mass. We also sing, among others, some of the Polish traditional carols, translated into English, and I know that in their community Friars share that bread (oplatek) among themselves. That is so beautiful. I'm so proud to be a parishioner there. Thank you Poland for bringing to us such wonderful people.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on September 06, 2012:

@poutine: Thanks for commenting on this lens and for sharing your own Christmas Eve traditions with our readers.

poutine on September 06, 2012:

Very interesting to learn the Polish customs for Christmas Eve.

In Quebec, Canada, we also celebrate it after the Midnight Mass.

We have a very copious meal which includes "tourtieres". After that, we

open our presents.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on August 07, 2012:

@SgtCecil: Thanks for leaving your comment. Not to put down Christianity and Christmas, but I think it's interesting that every culture has some sort of celebration, if not many, to welcome back the sun during the winter equinox time of the year. Of course, in the southern hemisphere it's all pretty much reversed :+)

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on August 06, 2012:

Christmas in Japan is for romance while New Year's Eve is for family. Funny, right? I celebrate with dinner with my girlfriend

antoniow on June 23, 2012:

Interesting lens, nice topic! Squidlike

Kay on April 18, 2012:

This is fascinating. Such an interesting tradition. Also, not related but I see you are from Ohio which is where my own polish ancestors settled. Maybe we are related :)

JoshK47 on April 15, 2012:

I always love learning stuff like this! Thanks so much for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

perrybenard on February 04, 2012:

i really enjoy learning new things and your lenses really make that fun and easy thanks for another great lens

gosssysas on January 03, 2012:

Polling lenses are good

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on December 16, 2011:

@anonymous: Elizabeth, Thanks for leaving a comment on my lens about Wigilia and Oplatek.

anonymous on December 16, 2011:

Enjoyed "What is Oplatek?" Reminded me of my Polish childhood. Ordered a supply for good wishes at Christmas.