Cultures around the world have developed unique Christmas traditions that have carried on and developed in the United States, and the tradition of oplatki (pronounced o-pwaht-kee), or the Christmas wafer, has taken root in Arkansas thanks to immigrants from eastern Europe.
Oplatki began in Poland in the 10th century, spread to neighboring Lithuania and Slovakia, and today is practiced by people around the world. In the Diocese of Little Rock, the tradition is carried on in parishes with high percentages of eastern European descendants, including Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche), St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home and Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Slovak.
The oplatki ritual is simple, but very meaningful, said Marcin Bielawski, a Polish immigrant who attends Immaculate Heart of Mary and Christ the King in Little Rock.
Families gather around the dinner table on Christmas Eve before the evening meal, and every member gets an unleavened wafer, or oplatek (o-pwah-tek), baked from pure wheat flour and water, embossed with Christmas images, including the nativity scene, Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and the star of Bethlehem. Oplatki wafers are usually thin, rectangular, about the size of an index card and identical in composition to the altar bread that becomes the Eucharist at the consecration during Mass.
The ritual begins with the eldest member of the family breaking off a piece of their wafer, handing the piece to a family member and offering a prayer or well wishes for their loved one in the coming year. This is repeated until every person at the table has received a piece of the eldest person’s wafer. Then it is repeated, in age order, until the youngest member of the family shares their wafer and prayers.
The Christmas wafer symbolizes the unity of the family, the main pillar of society, as well as forgiveness and reconciliation, Bielawski said.
“It’s a traditional breaking of bread, a meaningful connection of family over a meal,” he said. “It involves multiple generations — grandparents, parents, children — coming together to share well wishes and blessings. If there are any problems between family members, this is the moment to forgive and forget. Problems don’t exist anymore. We are united again. It’s like a fresh, new family life.”
Marilyn Saranie, a member of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Slovak, grew up in a Polish section of Chicago and remembers her family partaking in the oplatki tradition from her earliest days. Her husband, Raymond, grew up in a Polish-Slovakian family in Arkansas who had the same traditions.
“My grandma would get oplatki from her sister, who was still there in Poland,” Saranie said. “We would always wait for that box to come.”
Saranie said her grandfather would make a little cross out of honey on a plate and then the family members would wish everybody a Merry Christmas and blessings for the new year, dip their wafer in the honey and eat it.
The tradition is important, she said, because it is focused on the family.
“Family is the pillar of the community, and this is just a really nice family tradition,” she said. “We would say a little blessing to each person, tell them that we love them, and if there was anything that needed to be forgiven, we would forgive it.”
Oplatki are created at home, picked up from a church or bought from a bakery.
Father Ruben Quinteros, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary, said the tradition mirrors the sacrament of the Eucharist. He said his church distributes oplatki for families to take part in the 1,000-year-old tradition.
“I’ve been told the translation of oplatki means ‘the bread of love,’” Father Quinteros said. “As a pastor of a community with a large Polish background, I think it is important to provide a tradition that is part of the devotion that they have to Christmas. They share the Eucharist at church and the oplatki at home. It’s a beautiful tradition for the domestic church. It’s really powerful. It’s forgiveness and moving forward.”
Marilyn Henderson, 80, who attends Immaculate Heart of Mary, said she remembers her grandfather B.W. Szymanski, who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s, leading the ritual in Polish.
“I have such wonderful memories, and it almost makes me cry when I think back on them,” Henderson said. “My grandfather did not pray that much out loud. For him to do that, it was just so spiritually moving, heart-warming and comforting. It is a wonderful tradition. It’s a lot like taking the body and blood at church. You feel a belonging. It's such a wonderful feeling.”
Henderson said it is important to keep the tradition going to keep hers and other families’ heritage alive.
“It’s such a good, spiritual ritual,” she said. “It’s part of what our families have experienced for centuries. It’s part of embracing what we have, our Catholic traditions.”
For loved ones who cannot attend in person, an oplatek is often mailed in a Christmas card to ensure they receive intended prayers and blessings, too.
Pete Stabnick, a member of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, said his family receives an annual Christmas card from a Polish friend who includes an oplatek with their season’s greetings.
“We look forward to it, especially the kids,” Stabnick said. “It really gives a sense of being connected, not just as a family, but with friends who are like family, too.”
Please read our Comments Policy before posting.Article comments powered by Disqus
This church is named for patron saints of Slovakia
Coca sisters enjoy two magical seasons as MSM teammates
Parishes look for ways to entice faithful back to church
Bishop announces new pastoral appointments
Activist to teens: Jesus’ mercy is available after abortion
Sister ministers on the Mexico border as Jesus would
Goal: CPR, first aid training for ushers across diocese
Catholic leaders concerned over new state child labor law
Catholic faith a front runner in Oaklawn Park backstretch
Your baby's name ‘almost like a prayer for their life’
Fort Smith Knights host Stations of the Cross
Women's retreat at Subiaco Abbey
Singer Donna Cori Gibson visits Bentonville
Dr. Edward Sri speaks in Bentonville
Prayer, fasting help put aside sinful ways
Overcome temptation first, then comes holiness
Jesus loves bad people the same as good people
The mess and miracle of Santo Niño de Cebú
We are recipients of God's providence, can share it