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September 09, 2003 - 12:00 PDT



WYANDOTTE, MI -- Although Christmas Eve is but a few months away, Polish, Lithuanian and Slovak Catholics turn their thoughts in advance to centuries-old traditions and customs that have been lovingly preserved from generation to generation. In contemporary households these customs and traditions are often neglected or forgotten and oftentimes even the availability of the Oplatki wafers has become difficult if not impossible.

The traditions and customs of Christmas Eve have always occupied a very special place in the hearts and souls of Polish, Lithuanian and Slovak individuals. The sacred symbols, the treasured customs and festive foods - some only served once a year, set apart this season from all others. Through the centuries the timeless traditions and customs have continued to strengthen the sense of both religious and national identity. Perhaps more than any other set of customs, the tradition of the Oplatki Wafer has aided in keeping the family bond together. The Oplatki tradition and custom first originated in Poland, it was adopted later by the Lithuanian and Slovak peoples and has made its way into countless other households that find its rich symbolism an adoptable annual custom of profound meaning.

In a very real sense, the Wigilia (Christmas Eve Vigil) is what being Polish, Lithuanian or Slovak are all about. Rather than just another festive event, it is more a mood, a feeling, a frame of mind that gives a person, a sense of belonging and deeper meaning, the conviction that everything is right with the world, at least this one night of the year. To those of Polish, Lithuanian or Slovak descent, Christmas Eve is not just the day before Christmas, it is even more than the main event of the holiday season. Many feel it is the single most important day of the year. Not only does everything that is important about Christmas take place on that day, in that Christmas Eve could indeed be described as everything that is held dear - God, country and family - all wrapped into one. No other annual event contains such rich symbolism, so many time-honored customs and so much love and legend.

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The Oplatki Wafers are thin unleavened wafers similar to communion wafers. The Oplatki Wafers are large rectangular wafers which are embossed with figures of the Christ Child, or other Nativity scenes. The Oplatki Wafers are specially baked and are imported from Poland so that they may be made obtainable by anyone wishing to preserve or to adopt this centuries-old tradition.

The ancient Christmas Eve tradition centers on the anticipation of the first star appearing in the eastern skies. In menory of the Star of Bethlehem, the festive Christmas Eve supper is not supposed to begin until the evening's first star appears in the sky. The family then gathers at the table to take part in the oplatek-sharing ritual. The great moment has now arrived. Members of the immediate family, dressed in their holiday best, now gather at the festively set table. As a rule, only the nearest of kin - grandparents, parents and children - take part in the Vigil supper. A candle is lit on the table to herald the imminent arrival of Christ, the Light of the World. In the more devout families, St. Luke's Gospel account of the Nativity is uead usually by the eldest person present, and grace is said. The eldest member then takes the oplatek wafer, breaks it and shares it with the next in line. Each then shares pieces of the oplatek wafer with everyone else present at the table. The sharing ritual is accompanied by copious kisses, embraces and the exchange of good wishes. Typical wishes might go: "I wish you much health, happiness and the Lord's bountiful blessings as well as the fulfillment of all your plans and of everything you wish for yourself." Children are often wished that they get good grades in school, be well-behaved and grow up to be their parents' pride and joy.

Needless to say, this is a tender and touching moment of love and forgiveness when past grudges are forgotten, a fleeting magical moment which has a spiritual dimension all its own. Except for the youngsters still unable to grasp the solemnity of the moment, many are often moved to tears. They may feel so as they reflect on the Christmas Eves of their childhood and the smiling faces of those who have long since passed away. Perhaps they also nostalgically recall their own youth, when they enjoyed good health, things were simpler and life in general seemed more beautiful.

The table at which the family gathers typically has some straw strewn beneath a fine white tablecloth to commemorate the birth of the Christ Child in the manger. In contemporary adaptations, straw or sprigs of evergreen are placed on a serving platter and covered with a fine white napkin on which the oplatki wafers rest.

The Christmas Eve or Vigil supper now follows. This annual supper is anything but another fancy dinner party, and the symbolism that has marked its introduction is carried on throughout the meal. The supper not only consists of certain types of foods but even a specific number of dishes. Although the origins are unclear, to this day it is customary to serve an odd number of dishes. In the olden days, the number was fetermined by the affluence of a given household, with aristocratic families serving eleven different dishes, the nobility - nine and the peasantry - seven.

Many of the dishes served are served only this once a year, and most feel they are well worth waiting for. The more so that many families abstain from all food on Christmas Eve prior to the Vigil supper.

The complete meatlessness of the meal (even meat drippings or meat stock are not used) symbolizes the cleansing effect of abstinence in preparation for the great event at midnight. Judging from the variety and abundance of what is served, this supper is anything but penitential. The fish which dominate the table have long been a symbol of Christianity. The head of the pike, when dismembered, contains bones in the shape of a cross, ladder and mails: the tools of Christ's crucifixion. Horseradish is said by some to be a reminder of life's bitterness, while honey represents its sweetness and poppyseeds symbolize tranquility. Some families serve a compote (stewed fruit dessert or drink), made of 12 different fruits in honor of the twelve Apostles.

Unlike the typical meal, at which a cold appetizer such as herring would be served first, the first course is traditionally soup. The most common is a clear beet broth with tiny mushroom-filled dumplings floating within or a clear mushroom soup served over egg noodles. Next comes the herring, usually marinated, in oil or in sour cream. This is followed by the fish dishes, the favorite being carp in various forms: fried, baked, in raison sauce or in aspic. Pike has traditionally come in a close second, often served in a horseradish sauce or cold, stuffed in its own skin and served as is or in aspic. Other common fish dishes include perch or walleye with hard-boiled egg topping, tench baked in red cabbage or crucean stewed in sour cream.

Other dishes include sauerkraut stewed with mushrooms and/or peas, pierogi with various meatless fillings - both savory and sweet, buckwheat groats and mushroom gravy, golabki (cabbage rolls) filled with rice or barley and mushrooms.

Rounding out the meal are such sweey dishes as almond soup, cranberry jelly, stewed prunes and dried fruit, noodles and poppyseed, wheat and honey pudding, rice and apple casserole plus nuts, raisins, dates and figs to snack on. Traditional cakes include poppyseed rolls, fruit cakes, and honey-spice cake. Although driking is rather subdued, often a hot honey-spice cordial known as krupnik is served.

Singing koledy (Christmas carols) in the family gathering has long been the crowning touch of the Christmas Eve Vigil supper. The family would move to the room in which the Christmas tree stands, light its tapers and joyously sing the age-old hymns in honor of Christ's birth. As the night grew late, then as now people's thoughts began turning to the Pasterka (the Shepherd's Midnight Mass), a fitting culmination to this unique evening of nostalgic traditions and customs, good food and good-natured merriment in the innermost circle of the family.

In certain areas the Oplatki Wafers are often very difficult to locate or obtain for those wishing to preserve and continue this centuries-old tradition. To resolve this problem, St. Mary's Guild ( in cooperation with the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Society, are making the Oplatki Wafers available to anyone wishing to obtain them for Christmas Eve, 2003. Envelopes containg three large white rectangular Oplatki Wafers imported from Poland are available for a donation of $6.25 per envelope to cover costs, mailing, and to fund Catholic charitable works undertaken by St. Mary's Guild and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Society. There is no limit to the amount of envelopes which can be requested. Requests for the Oplatki Wafers will be honored until December 12, 2003 to assure delivery by Christmas Eve.

Proceeds from the Oplatki Wafers this year will be used to assist abandoned and mentally challenged children in eastern Europe that are cared for by Religious Sisters, the needs of the poor and hungry, and to assist in the re-building efforts of a community of elderly Sisters whose convent was destroyed by fire this past July. All donations and contributions are tax-deductible.

Requests for the Oplatki Wafers should be mailed to:
P.O. Box 785
Wyandotte, MI 48192-0785.

Checks or money orders should be made payable to:
ST. MARY'S GUILD - MOCC, and marked "Oplatki Wafers".






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