The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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December 22, 2000 Issue
Local News

Old Polish Christmas custom still lives on

Tradition even finds its way into a parish that has Irish roots

By Joanne Flemming
Compass Correspondent

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 Christmas meals.

"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 Pennsylvania.

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 on it."

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 of age."

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 together."

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 Lebanon.

"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 Christian family."

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