It’s Christmas Eve. The table is set for the family and one chair and place-setting is left vacant just in case someone comes by and needs a meal. Cooking has been going full force for days, but Christmas Eve is a fast day, the last day of Lent. The table is groaning under the weight of baked goods, herring, fish and egg dishes—no meat on this day. Since the dark comes early on winter days, the evening meal comes relatively early.
But before anyone sits down to eat, there is an essential custom that gives deep meaning to this gathering. First we share the opłatek. This humble wafer, baked with a Christmas scene, is placed on the table and everyone gets a portion. Youngster, oldsters, parents, children and guests all have a piece of the opłatek.
Then the sharing begins. Every person at the table will break bread individually with every other person present. It is not just that we share a piece of wafer: what we really share is love. Each child will walk up to the parents and other adults, give best wishes, hopes for the coming year. Shy kisses on the cheek will be exchanged.
Each duo stands in communion. The adults are able to maintain eye contact though the moment is often too strong for the young ones who may glance away. But then the children share with each other, one on one, and there is laughter to make this important moment a little lighter.
And so it goes until everyone has greeted everyone else, individually, with love and best wishes. This is a custom in Eastern Europe. My family is Polish and while my spouse and my children and their wives and husbands, and the grand children have never seen the places where the opłatek is celebrated in every home, they all know how it’s done.
These embraces, these little murmured phrases, these small nibbles of a small, dry white wafer are the glue which confirms us as a family. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, wonderful holy days, and could wish nothing more than that you could share an opłatek with each other, and to husband the warmth of this moment for the year to come.