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A wigilia (vigil) supper, a pasterka or shepherds' Mass and breaking of the oplatek or Christmas wafer will be among traditions observed by several hundred Polish Catholics this Christmas in Utah.

And for the first time in the state, a Christmas Mass will be celebrated in Polish, said the Rev. Stanislaw Herba, associate pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church and Catholic chaplain for Polish members of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese.The mass will be concelebrated at noon Christmas Day at St. Vincent's, 1375 Spring Lane, by the Rev. Herba, a native of Poland, and by the Rev. Andrzej Skrzypiec, another Catholic priest, who will arrive Saturday from the Diocese of Katowice, Poland.

Preceding the service, a Christmas play will be presented in Polish by a group of children from the Polish community. The dramatization will be followed by a celebration visited by St. Nicholas.

The Rev. Herba worked in the Fall River, Mass., diocese and in Rhode Island for about 13 years before coming to Utah last March. Previously, he worked about 11 years with Portuguese people in Brazil. His Utah chaplain's list contains the names of approximately 230 Polish immigrants, but he believes that at least 500 people from his homeland live in the Salt Lake metropolitan area.

For their families or other relatives living in Poland, Christmas is far less commercialized. Even Christmas carols are not traditionally sung until Dec. 24 in Poland, but the Christmas season ends on about Jan. 6, with the Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the homage of the wise men from the East. It also manifests the divinity of Christ.

According to Polish tradition, everyone attends midnight Mass following the wigilia (supper), a time uniquely different than any other feast day in Poland. It is a time to strengthen family ties.

An even number of guests are seated at the supper, and every effort is made to invite a guest to share the meal. If a guest is not found, a place at the table is left vacant for an unexpected guest or a beggar, because of the belief that a guest in the home is "God in the home." Traditionally meatless dishes are served to honor animals that were present at the birth of Jesus.

The pasterka or shepherds' Mass - so named because of the shepherds' visit to the Christ child - begins at midnight.

The oplatek or Christmas wafer is an ancient Christmas custom first mentioned in Polish history in the 10th century.

"It is one of the oldest and probably the most nostalgic of all Polish Christmas customs. The fragile and inexpensive bit of holy bread has become the one tradition that spiritually binds the near and the far-flung Polish people during the holidays.

"At Christmas, oplatek is sent to family and friends throughout the world, rekindling the very best of memories. Oplatek has become the symbolic repository for all that is good: love and family, brotherhood and harmony, forgiveness, and Christ. All wrongs are forgiven and forgotten with the breaking of the Christmas wafer," the Rev. Herba explained.

"For us it a very meaningful ceremony. Because my family is in Poland, I will put a piece of a wafer in an envelope and send it with a Christmas card to them," the priest said.