History of Christmas Eve: Polish Christmas Wafer
HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE: POLISH CHRISTMAS WAFER
My friend and neighbor 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 World War II, families would send pieces of oplatek to relatives dispersed around the world wherever they were.
History of Opłatek
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, 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 returns the blessing and shares the wafer with her husband. The ceremony continues with older relatives, guests, and children from oldest to youngest.
Christmas Eve Tradition
An old tradition 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
I bless YOU, Bill. Thanks so much for sharing this because I’ve never seen it anywhere else and I always wondered.
A Czech girl and I were volunteers at a monastery in Switzerland and she gave me a whole pack of those tasty wafers; but I never heard all the traditions that go with them.
And when I worked at Heifer Ranch in Arkansas some fellow volunteers told me that tradition said that for one hour, starting at midnight Christmas Eve, the farm animals could speak in human language. I always planned to hide out in the barn then, but it was always too cold, too late, too crazy. Now I’m sorry I never did it. I’d love to hear what the animals have to say.
Happy holiday season to you!
I am 85 years old and reading all the different stories about the origin of the Christmas Tree to be found on the Internet, just amazes me, that as long we live,never stop learning more. I enjoyed all the stories you collected and wrote. My first understanding in my childhood was, that the pine tree was selected because it represents the eternity of Jesus Christ by its evergreen nature and secondly it points allays up to the sky or le’
s say “Heaven” where Christ resides. I always remembered this facts every Christmas time til today over the years.