Thursday, January 21, 2016

Passing the oplatek

Each Christmas Eve, I stand my ground and won’t let traditions die.  Partly I’m a stickler for them because I cherish the unity of people in celebration and recognizing the specialness of any given day, and partly because I love to eat good food.  And as with most festivals that involve heritage, there is food involved.  Delicious, complicated, once-a-year food that takes hours if not days to prepare and mere moments to devour.
Because my family is of Polish heritage, we have celebrated Wigilia on Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember.  It is one of my most favorite days of the year because just seeing all of the dishes set out with the smell of onions that completely permeate the walls takes me back to my grandmother’s dining room.  If I close my eyes I can see her china cabinet and feel my great grandmother’s mushy peas and barley stuck in my throat and taste the milk while I force myself to gag down her old country recipes.
The meal itself consists of an odd number of dishes, all meatless, and contains wonderful things like pierogi, mushrooms, baked apples, and sauerkraut, all of which need to be tasted even if you don’t like them.  I drool just thinking of it.  Any number of other little special things go into the event, but the older I get, the more I find myself finding one of them to be extra important: the opłatek.    (Don’t even try to pronounce it unless you know what I’m talking about.  For reading purposes, say it like OH-PLAT-KEY.)
It’s really nothing more than a Christmas wafer, a thin and rectangular concoction of flour and water with the imprint of a religious symbol of the season.  But it’s what you do with it, or what my family has always done, is what is so very cool.
The head of the household starts with the opłatek and to his wife, offers up a personal wish to her.  She accepts his wish, breaks off a piece of the wafer, puts it in her mouth and wishes him something back as he breaks off and eats a piece.  She then makes a wish for the next person around the table as that person breaks off a small piece and so on and so forth until it and all of the wishes goes all the way around the table.
A simple ritual, really, but hearing your family wish each other health and happiness year after year never gets old to me.
In fact, if I could, I would have a table as big as a football field and line the whole thing with people I love and pass around the world’s biggest opłatek and wish each and every one of them, and all of you, a happy and healthy holiday season and a new year.  And I won’t even make you eat the sauerkraut, unless you want to.

Originally written/published 12/14/14


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