Straw or hay, a reminder of Christ’s birth in a stable, is placed under a white linen tablecloth, which symbolizes Mary’s veil, which became the Babe’s swaddling cloth. The mother of the family places a lighted candle in the window to welcome the Christ Child. The eldest woman of the house places the blessed Communion-like wafers –- oplatki (oh-PWAHT-kee) -– on the finest plate she owns. Today, in a concession to tradition, many people place straw and evergreen sprigs on a serving platter covered with a fine white napkin on which the oplatki rest.
An extra place is set for any weary stranger who happens to pass by, in the same way Joseph wandered from home to home looking for a place for Mary to give birth..
After sunset, the youngest child is sent to watch for the first star. This is why the wigilia dinner is also known as the Star Supper. Only then are the candles on the table lit and the dinner begun.
The eldest family member takes the oplatek wafer, breaks it and shares it with the next eldest with wishes for good health and prosperity, and a kiss on each cheek. Each person then exchanges oplatek with everyone else at the table. It can be a very emotional time as grudges are forgotten. When this activity is over, they all sit down and enjoy a tasty though meatless supper, after which they sing koledy (Christmas carols and pastorals) until time for midnight Mass, also know as Pasterka (“the Mass of the Shepherds”).
(From my World Vision colleague Tadeusz Mich.)