Saturday, December 02, 2006

Good wishes for the holidays, Polish style

Wigilia (or "vigil") is the Christmas Eve celebration in Poland. There are so many customs associated with the evening, that if I want to have a chance to share any of them, I will have to start early. One of the most interesting parts is the opłatek (oh-PWAH-tek), which is a paper-thin wafer made of (I think) wheat paste. Each one is pressed into a religious Christmas design, although the pictures are not easy to see.

A wafer is placed at each dinner place, and before the meal begins, the sharing of the opłatek takes place. One by one, you go to each person present and offer your wafer to them. They will break off a tiny piece, and you must take a tiny piece from their proffered wafer. Then, you exchange Christmas greetings and good wishes for the new year with each other and eat the wafer together. The "good wishes" are extremely formulaic, and fairly complicated--"I offer good wishes and good health to you and your family during this holiday season and for the coming new year." (Of course, I mean it's complicated in Polish.) I usually listen to the spiel and offer the ultra-abbreviated wszystkiego najlepszego (all the best) or the even more pathetic wzajemnie (likewise). If I'm sharing good wishes with an American, I can manage much better.

All this greeting and well-wishing is carried on simultaneously by everyone present, so it's a noisy, bustling time if you have any number of people. But, no matter how long it takes, it is not finished until every single person present has exchanged greetings with every single other person present. It's tradition!

The wafers taste much like the cardboard they resemble, so when I say that you break off a tiny piece, I really mean it--because you have to eat it. Unless you are eating with scores of people, there will always be part of the opłatek left over. That part should be saved and fed to any animals on the premises, because, according to tradition, an animal who shares the opłatek will be able to speak with a human voice at midnight.

I've been told that you can serve two wafers together, spreading honey thinly between them, to improve the taste. But would cardboard really taste better with honey?

I enjoy this Polish tradition, which I believe is practiced in other Slavic countries, and will probably continue it as long as I live. I took plenty of opłatki to the States with me last year, so we could enjoy this Polish custom with our families.

Wszystkiego Najlepszego!


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