A Family Tradition: Oplatki


Most Polish will know this one, this thin wafer symbolizing a long standing, tradition done at Christmastime: Oplatki. Ever since the very first Christmas that I spent with my dear husband’s family, I have lived this familial tradition, and with it, stages of my own emotional reaction to it.

For those of you interested in incorporating something new into your Christmas, this tradition begins with a rectangle shaped wafer, usually having some image of the Nativity on the surface. Each person breaks off a small piece of another’s while at the same time wishing or praying for some grace or virtue for God to bestow upon them.

My husband’s family has always included some additional feature to this process, just prior to a prayer or wish, is the recognition of some gift the other has….something admirable. In teaching my children how to participate each year, we remind them, “Say something you love about them, then what you wish for them, and then break a piece off and eat the small bit of wafer.”

Each child, so unique had something so special to say to both me and their Dad, it nearly brought me to tears. As the groups of families mingle to find others to share Oplatki with, the tradition remains, however something unique and interesting tends to happen when it’s between adult men and women.

There can be a great healing that can happen, as throughout a whole year’s worth of interactions, who knows whose feelings got hurt, or some small disagreement went un-dealth with. I say ‘can be’ as it is possible to go through the motions of this Christmas tradition with the standard blurb of “Yes, I wish you health and happiness, yadda, yadda”.

Anyone can go through the motions, but the loss is theirs. I’ve been doing this tradition, at the start so foreign to me, yet now, 15 years later, recognizing a great gift a tender moment with another individual can really be.

It can heal.

Not many things in our day can heal a wounded heart. And these moments between two people who may not even be close friends, though called family, can begin something special, unique and healing for past pain.

Imagine having to tell someone that you struggle to admire, what characteristic of theirs you love….and then state the wish or prayer you have for them in the New Year. It helps to love an individual, that might be hard to love….All you need is one little thing that you can point to, to say, “Yep, that’s something I love about them, I can admire, I can learn from.” And what happens?

Their heart can be healed in some way, and then mine can be too. I can then speak a little kinder, a little softer, a little more compassionate and loving, as I just spoke words of love to them. It’s a beautiful tradition, but it wasn’t and isn’t still, always met with such eager anticipation.

Early in our marriage, having normal difficulties combining two families, made this tradition very stressful, very difficult and tied my stomach into new kinds of pretzel knots. It always brought me to tears, always had me hearing things that I felt were exaggerated, or it always had me saying nice things to individuals, who were driving me crazy the other 364 days of the year. It was tough.

Over the years, out of love for my husband, I have participated and given this tradition of Oplatki chance after chance, to impress me, to show me why it was necessary to say this or that, or make this wish or prayer for another. Why? I wanted to know.

This year in particular, I think I just might have found the why of such a long-standing family tradition.

It heals. Not in dramatic ways, but in subtle ones. And healing of past unintentional hurts is something that usually goes unaddressed. We expect to just ‘get over it’, or ‘let it go’, or ‘forgive without needing apology’ and all that jazz.

This Oplatki allows a moment of forgiveness, even without the ‘I’m sorry’, as it’s implied in the process. Looking a little deeper into this Christmas tradition, leaves me with a sincere desire to bring more ways of forgiveness into our home, whether subtle or not, it’s necessary to have a loving home.

Forgiveness is necessary for Love.

My little Babe so darling, puts this all into perspective, as he said to me, “Momma, I like you because you hold my hand, and keep me from hurts from cars.”

What does that simple statement do for me? All the times I had to run ahead, grab his hand and negotiate the reasons for him to stay by my side in parking lots….well, it was all worth it, for this little man to recognize that I did that for him and his safety. And you know what, his statement will motivate me for years to keep up my quicker walking pace to keep up with him and yet again, grab his hand, negotiate the reasons for my demand, and even discipline when necessary to ensure his safety.

That’s the power of Oplatki.

And that’s what I learned this year participating once again, as I tore small wafer pieces off another’s, we can let go, we can be motivated, once we face a true reality.

And so while I can’t necessarily expect each reader here to pick up this new tradition of Oplatki, what I do challenge you with, is the nuts and bolts of it into the New Year. Instead of a New Year’s resolution, which is all too many times, self serving, consider this: Tell people around you what you admire in them, and be sincere in what you choose. And tell people too, what you wish for them, or what you pray for them, and then actually remember to pray for those people.

It can change your life and those around you, perhaps not in dramatic ways, but in subtle ones, and slowly, if you live your life appreciating all those around you, things do change, because YOU have changed.

And really, that’s the only person you have control over, anyway.

May God bless you in this New Year with a great sense of gratitude for His many gifts.

Copyright 2012 Sahmatwork


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  1. I love this reflection! So beautiful and so true.

    My grandma was Polish, and though she didn’t keep a lot of traditions from her culture, this was one of them. She would always take two oplatki and put them together with honey in between. A few years after her death, I found a way to get some wafers and surprised my extended family with them at Christmas dinner. It is a ritual that always makes my grandmother feel very near. There is something very Eucharistic about it all as well.

    Thanks for the moving reflection. Happy New Year to you and yours!

  2. My husband’s family keeps this ritual–and it is a beautiful one, and as you said, healing. At least one person will have tears in their eyes as everyone circulates around the room wishing everyone else well.

  3. Susie, We have also done in that past for family that lives far away, tear off a small piece of wafer, write a prayer for them, and send off the note and small wafer in the mail. I encourage it for you and your Polish friend. Oplatki knows no distance and it could be a great tradition between the two of you!

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