USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘polish’
Adulthood
Folk speech
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Proverbs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Polish Wedding Joke

Main Piece

QJ: “Can it be a dirty joke?”

Collector: “Yes.”

QJ: “A lot of the jokes I grew up with are kind of dirty…most Polish ones are…I think one that my grandfather would say asks what is long and hard that a Polish bride gets on her wedding night?”

Collector: “What?”

QJ: “A new last name.”

Analysis

This joke seems to be fairly popular among Polish people, and I have heard it beyond my informant. In fact, I have heard it outside of the realm of Polish culture, and have seen different ethnic backgrounds attached to it. It seems that many prideful Slavic people make light of their often long and hard to pronounce last names through jokes like these. Given my informant’s background for the joke and explaining that he heard ones like these growing up, I would also assume that his culture and family have more of an openness to tell dirty jokes in front of younger audience. Generally, it would seem that older people have more of a relaxed ability to tell jokes that otherwise would not seem appropriate. This joke also implies a patriarchal society, where a woman would receive something from her husband in any interpretation of the joke, but no jokes suggest the woman giving the man anything.

 

Adulthood
Customs
general
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish Funeral Custom — Cannot Dance

Text

The following piece is a Polish funeral custom that I learned of through my family’s babysitter whose father had recently passed away. The woman is a forty-eight year old Polish native who lives in Chicago now. I had been dancing around and in my attempt to get the Informant to join me, she explained why she was unable to.

Informant: “No, no…Can’t dance, no.”

Collector: “Come on! Why not?”

Informant: “No, no…My father die. I no dance for six months.”

Collector: “You can’t dance for six months because your dad died?”

Informant: “No dance for six months for father and mother. Four months for brother, sister.”

Context

The Informant has understood this Polish funeral custom for as long as she can remember. She remembers not dancing for a while after her grandfather had passed away, and has always understood it to be something she must also partake in. When her father passed, her entire family made the unspoken vow not to dance as a sign of respect to the dead.

Interpretation

While surprised at first, after hearing the Informant’s absolute belief in this funeral custom, I was beginning to also see it as a reasonable practice of mourning. I believe that the reason the Informant and her family undergo such a long process of morning, with such a specific time period, is out of respect for the ones they loved who have passed away. By vowing to not dance for six months, the participants must make a conscious effort everyday to not partake in overly joyful actions, excluding dancing altogether. I believe that commitment to this vow displays a respectful process of mourning, a way of honoring the dead by not moving on quickly after they are gone.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Catholic Polish Christmas Tradition: Oblatek

Content: Oblatek (pronounced “Obwatek”)
Informant – “Oblatek is an unleavened wafer. On Christmas, the head of the household breaks off a piece of the wafer and gives it to his spouse with some message. Could be ‘I know I am not perfect, but I will try harder,’ or ‘the best of everything for you.’ It’s a confession of love. Then the wife breaks off a piece and gives it to the next oldest person in the room with a wish of her own for that person. And so on and so forth until everyone has a piece. Everyone shares a message with someone.”

Context:
Informant – “It’s about love. Sharing love and well wishes at Christmas. It’s a family bonding activity. The wafer is very similar to a communion wafer.”
The informant learned of this tradition from his family. He used to do it when he was a child.

Analysis:
It’s very Catholic and very Polish. The bread, though similar to communion wafer, is a uniquely Polish recipe. It’s interesting that the informant never lived in Poland, and only practiced this ritual in America. It was, perhaps, a way for his family to preserve their cultural identity while simultaneously observing a religious holiday.

Legends
Narrative

Trumpeter of Krakow

Content:
Informant – “The trumpeter of Krakow’s responsibility was to wake up the town with his trumpet. He would give a trumpet call from the tower of the church. Supposedly he would do it from Saint Mary’s but the story takes place in the 1300’s so Saint Mary’s hadn’t been built yet. Anyways, one day the trumpeter saw the dust of the huge tartar army approaching ‘I must warn the people’ he thought. So he started to play the trumpet to tell the people that something bad was happening. He continued to play and after a while people caught on that something was wrong, that this isn’t the right time to play, bladdah bladdah bladdah. And so they fled. And as the trumpeter continued to play, an arrow from the army pierced his throat. And the trumpet call ended on a short note, a very unexpected ending. And to this day, every hour on the hour a trumpeter plays at each window of the top of the tower, north south east and west. And every time the ending is abrupt to signify the death of the trumpeter and commemorate his heroism.”

Context:
The informant heard this story from his father when he was a child.
Informant – “It’s a source of pride for me. The trumpeter is a national hero, and Saint Mary’s is iconic.”

Analysis:
This story did not originate as folklore. It’s based on a fictional novel written in 1929. Also, Saint Mary’s Basilica was built in the 1300’s, which is around the time the original novel takes place. It’s interesting that the informant does not associate the story with the book. It seemed like the informant was not aware of the book at all. He only knew the story his dad had told him.

For another version of this story, Kelly, Fred James, Trumpeter of Krakow.

Foodways
general
Material

Pierogi Recipe

Main piece: Place potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water. Heat to boiling and simmer until potatoes are very tender. Drain potatoes, reserving 1 cup of the liquid. In a small, non-stick frying pan, sauté onions in a little butter or oil until soft. Add onions to drained potatoes and mash using a potato masher or electric hand mixer. (Add reserved potato cooking water as needed to reach a smooth mashed potato consistency.) Add cheese, garlic, and salt. Mix well. Set aside to cool. Serve with cabbage and/or potato salad.

Context: The informant (BB) grew up in Schlesien (Silesia), Germany and immigrated to the United States when she was 24 in August 1960. BB and her husband, who was from East Prussia (now known as a territory in Poland), started a family of 3 children in Orlando, Florida, and ran a greenhouse business until their retirement. BB is a devout Christian with Lutheran roots. She is fluent in both German and English. Our conversation took place by the fireplace in my home in Atlanta. The informant learned of this dish from her mother-in-law; she is not Prussian herself, but she learned the recipe to honor her husband’s family tradition of eating pierogi at Christmas. BB loves pierogi because she is proud of embracing a tradition she did not grow up with but is nevertheless very important to BB, as it reminds her of her late husband. BB even adapted the recipe for her growing family in America. Although the original recipe dictates that the “filling” portion of pierogi be stuffed into dough and boiled, BB does not use dough at all in her recipe and instead opts to make pierogi as an open dish, often with potato salad on the side. She put this spin on the recipe because not everybody necessarily likes the dough and she can’t fit as much of the filling as she would like to into a dough pocket. Because of this, she’s able to make the pierogi in bulk so that it can feed a family for a week down the line.

Personal thoughts: What is perhaps most interesting about this particular recipe is the way the informant adapted it – and why. BB mentioned taking away the dough and to be able to make pierogi in bulk. As a young child growing up poor in World War II Germany, BB barely had enough to eat each day, as her community was forced to send the food they produced to the Nazis supporting the war effort. Hunger playing a significant role in her upbringing is evident in the fact that she has 2 refrigerators and 2 pantries in her house that are always stocked full of provisions. So, when BB makes pierogi in bulk, her motivations are not gluttonous or greedy; rather, they stem from an unshakeable, foundational feeling that she must ensure her and her family’s next meal in case of any unforeseen circumstances. Therefore, BB’s adaptation of the traditional pierogi recipe is a product of her childhood circumstances of WW2 scarcity.

general
Legends

Wanda

Informant IT is a sophomore studying Computer Science and Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She is of Polish descent and has lived in many parts of the world. She is fluent in several languages including Polish, English, and Mandarin, and she considers herself very good at learning languages. In this piece, she tells the interviewer (AK), about a Polish legend about a very beautiful Polish queen. This piece is not as well-known, but it is indicative of the Polish spirit.

IT: This story is interesting, because it gives an insight so I don’t know how much about the history or Poland, but it’s located to the east of germany, so it’s kind of the most western of easter Europe and it’s kind of the center of Eastern Europe with Germany and all of those countries. And it’s been fought over for many many centuries, the land itself. So there’s always been and the reason why it’s still stuck together for such a long time and still exists today through all these troubles is because people have always had a huge sense of nationalism and so the story is called Wanda. And it’s this story of this Polish Queen … who I don’t think, I doubt she ever existed. She might have. Who ruled Poland and she was a single young beautiful girl and she was living in a Polish castle. And the King of Germany… you know noticed this and he noticed how beautiful the lands of Poland were. And he was like well, it’s only this one girl ruling it and I could really take advantage of it. And I would love to take her as my wife, so he sent several soldiers over as messengers from Germany to the castle in Poland with the message to her saying that “either you marry me and give me the lands of Poland as the dowry, or I wage war against Poland.” And the Polish had been fighting many wars, so their army you know … was very down. They just couldn’t stand a match against Germany. In the end she had decided that she would drown herself and kill herself instead of giving over Poland to Germany and marrying this guy. So she killed herself and drowned herself in the Vistula River, which is like a big … also has a lot of historical significance. So she would have rather killed herself than give the German control of Poland.

AK: So is she like a memorialized figure and seen as a hero?

IT: Not really, because it’s kind of like a legend you know. I don’t know if it ever actually happened. This one I would say isn’t as well known as the other story I told you. Still most people would know it, but it’s more kind of just … I just don’t know if she was ever actually a queen.

AK: So I guess it’s just part of the Polish cultural identity.

IT: Yeah, and it invokes a huge sense of nationalism. Even in the Polish national anthem … umm (laughs) I have to remember it. As long as we are here and we love Poland and we love each other, Poland will still be here.

I found this piece of folklore to be very unique from most that I had heard. For one, this was one of the few folklore that featured a woman as the main protagonist and ruler of the land. I found this to be a very progressive stance for Poland, and I’m glad this story represents a part of their national fabric. I also found this story to be unique because it didn’t really portray Poland in the best light. It demonstrated that Poland couldn’t really stand up to Germany. Their only option was to pick between two terrible options. I guess the act of sacrificing herself is indicative of the bold spirit and courage Polish people probably seek to embody.

For another version of this legend, see  http://www.anglik.net/polish_legends_wanda.htm

Folk Dance
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Flying Dutchman

The informant is a new professional in post-secondary administration. He lives in New Zealand, but he is originally from Apple Valley, California and went to university at the University of California, Irvine, where he was involved in student affairs and studied computer science. His background is Italian and Polish, and he has 3 older siblings.

This piece describes a dance that the informant’s family performs at Polish weddings.

“So at Polish weddings, there’s a polka dance called the Flying Dutchman, and so it’s pretty traditional to always do it. And so, basically how it works is you get in groups of three and you all kind of line up and walk around in a circle. So, the groups of three all go in a circle and there’s basically two tempos of the song—one is slow and one is fast. So when it’s slow, you’re just in your group of three with all your arms linked going in a circle, really simple. And then once the tempo picks up, then you start doing kind of a do-si-do thing. So the one person in the middle is always going to be moving around really really quickly because they’ll go to the left and swing around to the person on the right and then go around to the person on the left, so they’re basically doing a figure eight around the two people on the outside.

The reason it’s called the Flying Dutchman is cause if you’re going fast enough, eventually they should start actually flying. So then it’ll go really fast for about, I don’t know, 30 seconds, and then it’ll slow back down again and everyone gets back into their group of three and goes around in the slow circle again. And then it picks up and you do it really really quick, and then it slows down and you slow down, and it picks up, and it slows down. So it’s a very very very fun wedding song. I’ve been to….five weddings now? For my cousins, no—four, because two cousins and my brother and sister, and at all four of them, they did the Flying Dutchman. It was fantastic.”

What does the Flying Dutchman mean to you?

“Mainly it’s fun, but I also think of weddings—Polish weddings. Cause I’ve been to weddings with other people and no one knows what it is, or they haven’t done it, so, like, at every wedding I go to I would want to do the Flying Dutchman, but not everyone does it cause it’s a Polish thing.”

Do you know anything about where this tradition came from? It’s okay if you don’t, I’m just curious.

“I have no idea.”

Analysis:

I find this dance most interesting because of how it requires three people to a group instead of two, especially as it’s performed primarily at weddings. The do-si-do portion of the dance almost seems like a depiction of an inability to choose between the two partners on either side of the dancer. The informant did not describe whether or not the bride and groom performed this dance in any particular way.

The name of the dance is also interesting—as it’s a Polish tradition, it was surprising that the name of the dance is the Flying Dutchman. As the informant did not know the origin of the tradition, he did not know why it has the name it does, or whether or not it also is performed by the Dutch.

Foodways
Material

Polish galumpkis (stuffed cabbage rolls)

INFO:
Ground beef with some seasoning
Rice with garlic and onions
Cabbage

Wrap the ground beef and rice (season with pepper and salt) with the boiled cabbage. Bake them in tomato sauce for four hours at 325F.

BACKGROUND:
The informant’s grandmother would make them, maybe a dozen times total during the informant’s childhood. It’s a recipe that’s been passed down for a while that they would have it around holidays, Christmas mostly. The informant’s family is Polish, so though he didn’t connect with the food much, he still felt obligated to eat it, as it was a part of his family heritage.

CONTEXT:
The informant shared this with me in conversation.

ANALYSIS:
The fact that the informant ate the food despite not liking it shows how strong this particular tradition runs in his family. I always think that it’s so interesting when people participate in their “heritage” rites without acting engaging with them on an enjoyable level. I also think that the particular mix of ingredients in galumpkis is reminiscent of Polish cuisine, but the informant couldn’t answer as to the sentiment.

Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish-Catholic religious rituals

INFO:
Receive blessed chalk from priest. Above each doorway to your house, write the initials of the three Wise Men: Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior. Then you light some incense by those doors. For his family, Christmas didn’t end until the Epiphany, that’s when the Wise Men find Jesus, which was January 6th.

For Christmas and Easter, you exchange an oplatek (a more synthetic-feeling communion wafer). You’d take a piece from a plate and then go around to each of your family members and break off a piece of their’s yourself and take it, and then they’d take a piece of your’s, and you’d all wish each other well. After everybody’s exchanged and had a piece with everybody else, you eat it.

BACKGROUND:
The informant participated in these rituals growing up and still participates in them now, usually in family-based groups of six or seven people, all Polish-Catholic.

CONTEXT:
The informant shared this with me in conversation.

ANALYSIS:
The informant isn’t particularly religious now, so it’s interesting to me that he still participates in these deeply religious ceremonies in the presence of family. Additionally, though I’ve heard of the practice of taking communion wafers, I didn’t realize that there could be regional/event-based differences in the supposedly universal, standardized practice.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish Christmas Traditions

Nationality: Polish-American
Primary Language: English
Other language(s): Polish
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Performance Date: April 22, 2013

My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about some of the similarities and differences between the ways that Christmas is celebrated in America versus in Poland. This is his account:

“In Poland, little kids are told that Santa Claus comes in early December. On the 6th, you come home form school. And there are gifts under your pillow. I don’t know why Santa puts gifts under your pillow, but he does. So they’ll be like, chocolates or little toys. Like small-scale gifts, like Pokemon cards or a Gameboy game. And the Polish tradition is to open gifts on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day. These are the gifts from family members, not Santa. And then we would sing Polish carols and stuff. Some of them are the same as English songs, but just in polish, like it’ll be “Jingle Bells” sung in Polish.”

Analysis: My informant’s broad descriptions of some of the differences between Polish and American Christmases seem to indicate that many of our traditions are the same. Some noticeable changes are that Santa visited my informant’s family on December 6th, whereas December 24th is his usual visitation date in the United States. My informant also mentioned that he didn’t understand why Santa put gifts under his pillow—instead of in stockings, as is common in the U.S.—but to me, stockings seem stranger than under pillows. This is one example of how certain traditions can develop seemingly arbitrarily; placing presents under pillows did not really make sense to my informant, but his family did it ever year, and putting presents in stockings seems somewhat silly to me, but my family keeps this tradition alive. Despite the lack of concrete explanations for these habits, they still certainly have meaning. Christmas in particular is especially ritualized because of its religious and cultural significance. And although these rituals may differ from Poland to the United States, the fact that citizens from both nations make efforts to sanctify this holiday show that these cultures both see Christmas as an important holiday. This common ground seems more significant to me than the specific differences in how it is celebrated; essentially, Christmas is a unifying celebration for multiple cultures.

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