by Melissa Gordon
Like just about everyone else in Winona, I am Polish-American. In the late 1800s, at the tender age of 17, my great-grandmother came to America by herself after just three-days notice. By the time I knew her, she was an old woman who had lived an utterly amazing and unimaginable life — the life of an immigrant. My strongest memory of her is sitting on her lap, rocking back and forth (in the same rocking chair in which I now sit with my daughter) as she taught me to count to 10 in Polish (yeden, dwa, trzy, cztery, piec, szesc, siedem, osiem, dziewiec, dziesiec). But a close second is my memory of her bread. Her wonderful, magical, aromatic, exotic, mouth-watering bread that no one but my aunt Jean has ever been able replicate. Beyond that, what I know of my great-grandmother is from stories passed down to me (like the one about the first time she ever tasted a banana shortly after arriving in America — and found out that they are quite bitter and unpleasant if you don’t first peel them), and Polish traditions in which I was immersed, especially the ones surrounding Christmas.
During my childhood, the days leading up to Christmas were filled with a festive frenzy of food. There were noisy gatherings where extended family came together to prepare an impressive number of “pierogi” (Polish dumplings) and “kolacky” (cookies); there were trips made to the Polish deli for “kielbasa” (sausage) and “kapusta” (sauerkraut) and “chrzan” (horseradish); there were formidable descriptions of the “czarnina” (duck blood soup) that for years was central to our family’s Christmas Eve dinner.
Of all these traditions, though, my favorite is the “oplatek” (the Christmas wafer). Oplatek is a tasteless, cardboard-y wafer, just like the Eucharist distributed at a Catholic mass. In our house, the oplatek held a similarly sacred aura (so much so in fact that I had to pause just now because it feels so wrong not to capitalize it, despite what Wikipedia says). Its arrival at our house seemed to somehow designate that Christmas really was here, and the true excitement could begin. It was always set in a special place until just before Christmas Eve dinner, and when you’d happen to catch a glimpse of it in the midst of Christmas preparations, for that one moment all the hurriedness around you would fade and the spirit of peace and love and togetherness — the spirit of Christmas — would arise in you.
Just before Christmas Eve dinner, the oplatek would be brought out. As with most traditions, there are slight variations, but the way it worked in our family is the oplatek (there I go trying to capitalize it again) would be broken so that each person would get a more or less equal piece. Then, the magic happens. Each person goes around the room offering a piece of his/her oplatek to another, who in turn offers a piece of his/her oplatek to that same person. It’s a literal breaking of bread, and it’s not over until every person has exchanged with everyone else. As we eat of each other’s wafer, we express our love for the person and our best wishes for them for the next year.
It would probably make sense to try to find a recipe for oplatek to share with you. But really, any family could try this by simply substituting chunks of bread for the oplatek. And I suspect that most families already have their own favorite Christmas recipes and traditions anyway.
So in lieu of a recipe this week, I wish for you that the following ingredients are always plentiful in your home, and never left to burn, rot, spoil, or otherwise lose their nutrients!
• Love and gratitude
• Happiness and joy
• Forgiveness and healing
• Compassion and empathy
• Contentment and peace