Old Polish Christmas custom still lives on
Tradition even finds its way into a parish that has Irish roots
By Joanne Flemming
For Americans of Polish descent, oplatek is as much a part of
Christmas as decorated trees.
Oplatek or Christmas wafers, said Bob Jankowski of St. Patrick
Parish in Lebanon, are made from the same bread as Communion
wafers. They are about the size of old-fashioned holy pictures
and they depict a Nativity scene or the Magi.
Polish families share pieces of the wafers at their main
"To the Poles, oplatek has become almost a sacrament. It is a
symbol of family unity and brotherhood wherein all hurts and
unpleasant incidents are forgiven and forgotten, as heartfelt
wishes are exchanged," Jankowski said.
Chris Baranczyk, assistant in the Franciscan Friars' development
office in Pulaski, said 10 parishes in the Green Bay Diocese
order oplatek from her and distribute it to their members,
usually beginning with the First Sunday in Advent.
The Friary begins distributing the wafers in early fall when the
first order of 800 packs comes in from Canada. There are three
wafers in a pack. Baranczyk also sends oplatek to California,
Texas, Florida, Michigan, Rhode Island, New York and
Orders have decreased in recent years, she said. "There are not a
lot of Polish traditional people left. The tradition is not
passed on a whole lot. I'd like to keep it alive. We're working
She said she grew up with the oplatek custom. "It just wouldn't
be Christmas without it. I remember Christmas Eve dinner with Dad
at the head of the table, breaking them and passing them around."
For Fr. Patrick Gawrylewski, OFM, pastor of Assumption BVM Parish
in Pulaski, the sharing began with the oldest person at the
table. That was his grandmother, "who we called Busia. She would
begin, then my father, my mother, and then us children in order
Jankowski said his mother broke the wafers into pieces and placed
one on the plate of each of the family's five members. His
parents exchanged pieces and Christmas wishes first. His father,
"in his own way, was saying I'm sorry things didn't go right in
the past year but hopefully we can better ourselves."
When his father got to him, as eldest son, his heart rose in his
throat. Jankowski explained that his parent always had an
admonition for each child.
"It was the idea that he's not forgotten what I did the past
year," he said. It also symbolized forgiveness and was his
father's way of saying, "We're a family. Let's get along
Jankowski said his "heart went down to where it belonged" when he
father moved to the next person.
For Fr. James Esser, pastor of St. Casimir Parish in Krakow,
breaking the oplatek was "the sharing of peace."
Even as the wafer shrank as it was shared, there was always
enough, Jankowski said. "Offering these tiny pieces is a way of
saying, "No matter how little I have, I will always share with
you. And no matter how little you have, if need be, I will accept
it from you."
Theresa Collier, secretary at Mt. Tabor Retreat Center in
Menasha, remembered when oplatek was not available during World
War II at St. John Parish in Menasha when there was an emphasis
on being American.
About seven years ago when Jankowski and his wife moved to
Royalton, outside New London, from St. John Parish in Menasha, he
introduced oplatek to Msgr. Dennis Lally, administrator at
"I wanted to show everyone what a beautiful custom this is,"
Jankowski said. "You don't have to be Polish to do it."
The custom was explained to St. Patrick's Irish-American
parishioners. Several have told Jankowski that oplatek takes
their children's minds off the presents and puts them onto the
real meaning of Christmas and the "real meaning of being a