By the time we gathered together around the table on Christmas Eve, the kitchen windows were completely fogged up and you could hardly see what was going on outside. It gave me a sense of being cut off from the world and that everything that was important was now happening inside. My mother has been cooking the entire day. The kompot (compote) of apples and raisins, made early this morning is chilling .The mushroom soup is hot. There are pots and pans all over -on the stove, on the counters, and a there's huge board with cheese pierogi waiting to be boiled and served as desert later on. There's an overall sense of urgency to get things done by dusk.
On the cloth covered table are my mother's best dishes, the ones with the picture of wheat on it that she painstakingly collected from boxes of Duz detergent. I set out the silverware she bought when she redeemed her S & H green stamps. In the center of the table, one of the smaller wheat plates, is the opłatek, sent to my mother from her family in Poland. The white earthenware pitcher that traveled from Germany, then to France and here to America, is filled with a milky hot tea. To the table is added a platter of fried fish and then bowls of boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. My mother covers all the hot food with lids from the cooking pots to keep the food warm and calls everyone to come and take our respective places at the table.
Standing by our chairs in our nice clothes my mother takes off her apron, so that she, too, is at her best. She slowly looks around at all of us, gathers her thoughts together and begins our Wigilia tradition with the sign of the cross. "W imię Ojca, Syna i Ducha Świętego. Amen." In the name of the Father son and Ghost. Amen. We pray together in Polish. First the Our Father, then a Hail Mary and then we fall silent to listen to my mother give thanks for the gifts. " O Jezu, dziękujemy Ci za wszystkie łaski i dobrodziejstwo Twoje i błagamy ci.." (O Jesus, we give you thanks for all your graces and goodness and beg of you...). When she is finishes, we remain standing for the single, most important part of this night, of this entire Christmas season. All of Advent, all the day's work and preparation, with all of our ancestors looking over our shoulders, it boils down to this moment: the ancient Polish custom of sharing the "opłatek"(pronounced "oh-pwah-tech"), the Christmas Eve wafer.
In its physical form, the opłatek, the Christmas Eve wafer, is a thin, white, unleavened piece of bread made from flour and water similar to the wafer used during holy communion in many Christian religions. It is considered holy, but it is not consecrated. In earlier times it was circular in shape but is now mostly a large or small rectangle. The word opłatek comes from the Latin word oblatum, meaning "to offer" or "to bring to, " because in its centuries-old history, this thin bread has always been shared with family and friends and gives it its intangible, symbolic meaning: offering it to others is a sign of caring, of friendship and love. It is also a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness because in old Polish tradition it was an acknowledged fact that if you invited your worst enemy to Wigilia to share opłatek, to share bread, it meant that you forgave whatever differences there were between you; that you were looking for reconciliation and words need not be said. The sharing of oplatek is done with an open, accepting, loving, and also forgiving, heart.
It was always my mother that initiated the moment of sharing by taking the plate containing the opłatek off the table and asking my father to join her in the center of the kitchen. Standing there in front of us, my mother could have said a lot of things to my father. He worked very hard, never missed work, but drank too much and often gambled but I don't remember any recriminations, any accusations on this night. In that moment there was only unconditional positive regard. Offering him the opłatek she had in her hand she'd say "Józek, you work so hard to provide for us and I want you to know how much I appreciate that. May you be healthy and strong and be continually blessed..." My father would accept the wafer she offered to him and then offered her a piece of his opłatek, expressing his gratitude for her housekeeping skills, for being a good mother and raising the children. And then it was my oldest brother Michael who approached them and then each of us in turn with both our parents and with each other - breaking and offering each other the opłatek.
I always felt a bit shy and uncomfortable being praised by my parents. Most of the time they were busy correcting me and telling me how to do better but not on this night, not while sharing opłatek. It felt good to hear the good things - that I was a help around the house, how pleased they were that I was studying hard and doing well in school and to keep at it. It felt wonderful to be recognized for the positives. That's the power of sharing the opłatek and why the custom has endured over the centuries; why it remains one of the most significant aspects of the Christmas season for Poles and Polish Americans; why, regardless of wars and governments and separation, it is sent to families across continents and oceans: why the custom is so cherished: it is a symbolic bread of love and forgiveness that nourishes the soul and spirit of all those who partake in it.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.