USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘polish’


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

Folk Dance
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.”


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.


Polish galumpkis (stuffed cabbage rolls)

Ground beef with some seasoning
Rice with garlic and onions

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.

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.

The informant shared this with me in conversation.

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.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish-Catholic religious rituals

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.

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.

The informant shared this with me in conversation.

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.

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.



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 a card game that a Polish visitor taught him. This is his account:

“Okay so, the game is Remyk. You can play it with anyone you want, because it’s a card game. I learned it from my great-aunt, who came to visit us from Poland. It’s often played by middle-aged people who basically tailgate the parking lot after church. So you play this game with two decks, that’s important. The game is, you get thirteen cards, and you draw from the pile to get fourteen. And you want to get a sequence—so like, 2, 3, 4—or you want like three of a kind of four of a kind. And they’re all worth points; face cards are all worth ten. And to start off, you need to get 52 points before you can, like, lay any cards out. And if you can’t, you have to discard one, so you go back to thirteen cards. And eventually, you’ll have a combination of sequence, and like three of a kind or something, so it all adds up to 52. And then you drop that. So let’s say you drop nine cards, because you have like a 7-8-9 and like, three queens and three jacks. And then you still have, what, 5 cards left? And you discard one and you have four. So then from there the goal is to get rid of all your cards, and you can do so by like, adding on. So you have three queens and you pick up a queen, you can add it, because it’s like the same. Or you can add on to like a sequence. And if it’s like three queens, it has to be the fourth kind. And you just play until you’re done—until the last card is discarded.”

Analysis: My informant associates this card game with Polish culture for a couple of reasons. First of all, he learned it from a Polish relative. Secondly, as he said, the adults who he saw playing this game were all Polish, and they typically played in the parking lots of Polish churches. Yet he also admits that this game is basically gin rummy, a card game enjoyed by all nationalities of people today. A quick Google search of “origins of rummy” yields answers ranging from New York City to “the orient.” This game, then, is yet another example of the dissemination of traditions, and how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly which culture can “claim” something as their own. For my informant, this game connected him to the country his parents grew up in as well as to the various groups of people with whom he played the game. He said he usually played Remyk with his family, so the game was something for them to bond over. Therefore, Remyk is not only culturally significant to my informant, but it is important to him on an individual level as well. It connects him to his family. It is fascinating how something as simple as a card game can have more impactful implications when explored more deeply.

Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Kutchky’s Army

The source’s mother grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, in a predominantly Italian neighborhood. Most of the families on her street didn’t have more than three children.

When she was growing up, her mother and a lot of the other people in the neighborhood had a saying, if they have a lot of something, they would say they have enough for Kutchky’s Army. So if they had a lot of food, for example, they’d say “We have enough food to feed Kutchky’s Army.” Growing up, the source’s mother always assumed it was a reference to a real army in a war.

However, it was really a reference to the one Polish family on the block that had at least ten children.

Now, neither the source, nor the mother live in Chicago, but its been adopted as a common saying inside the family, and their friends from back home in Chicago.


Chicago has been, and still is one of the most segregated cities in the country. I think the saying reflects the tension between established ethnic groups in certain neighborhoods, and newcomers from different ethnic backgrounds. The saying probably started as a way for the established Italian families in the neighborhood to playfully separate themselves from the Kutchky’s, who they probably saw as Polish interlopers.


Polish Pierogi Recipe

The informant is 83 years old. He is Polish, but was born in Michigan.

Over Easter Brunch, my informant told me about his own Easter tradition that he used to celebrate with his family:

“Every Easter, we used to make Pierogis. These were somewhat of a delicacy for my family and they were more expensive to make than anything else my family usually had to eat. Pierogis are made with cabbage and pork, kind of like a Polish ravioli. We would only ever be able to make them for special occasions, so we chose to make them for our Easter Meal.”



2 cups flour, sifted

1 egg

½ cup lukewarm water

½ cup milk

1 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. melted butter

In a large bowl, beat all ingredients. Add additional flour to firm if needed. Roll out and double. Cut into ½ inch circles.



1lb. of pork

3 carrots

1 leek

1 celery stalk

1 onion

Butter or oil for frying

Parsley leaves

2 eggs

Salt & pepper

Wash beef and put in salted water. Cook, until the meat softens. Peel and cut into small strips. Throw vegetables into stock with meat and leave gently cooking for 30 minutes. While the meat is being cooked with vegetables peel onion and cut it into cubes. Fry onion on the frying pan with the addition of butter, until lightly browned. Take the meat out of stock and tear into smaller pieces. Add fried onion and mix everything. Grind the mixture of onion and meat in a meat mincer. Chop parsley leaves up and add to stuffing. Break two raw eggs into a meat mixture. Add salt and pepper. Mix. Season to taste. Arrange stuffing on pierogi dough circles and carefully glue the dough, forming pierogi. Cook pierogi in salted water. After floating to the surface cook until become soft. Then sift out. Pan-fry the cooked pierogi. Use butter or sunflower oil. Fry pierogi, until browned on both sides. Serve.

Earth cycle
Folk Dance
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Eve of St. John’s Fires

On the midsummer solstice, or the Eve of St. John, fires are lit and maidens wear wreaths in their hair to celebrate the longest day of the year.


My informant first attended this festival with her family as a little girl, and mostly remembered the beautiful wreaths all of the girls would wear in their hair.  She was also able to recall the many fires that were lit and that the men in attendance would jump across them.  Also, those in attendance would stay out all day without sleeping to celebrate the length of the day and to appreciate the sunshine.  At the end of the festival, all of the girls will throw their wreaths into the fires.

One of the most interesting aspects of this festival is that the different flowers worn in a girl’s wreath have different meanings.  My informant remembers wearing white roses, which she remembers symbolized simplicity and purity.  Perhaps the most significant flowers worn in the wreaths were lavender and myrtle, and they both represent love.  If a girl wears one of these flowers in her wreath, throws her wreath into the fire and the burning wreath is thrown into the river and recovered by a single man, the girl would be said to be engaged to that man, by tradition. Symbolically, this union represents the birth of a new relationship, and the longer days are conducive to this birth.

This festival is uniquely Polish and has been celebrated for more than a thousand years.  While mostly celebrative in the native Poland, my informant knows several Poles in other countries that also celebrate the Eve of St. John’s and she believes it’s, “because it’s romantic to look back on one’s culture.”

Earth cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays


My informant was raised in Poland and has lived there most of her life.  In the late 1970’s, she first participated in this traditional festival as one of her Girl Scout activities.  She explained that this festival dates back to pagan times, and that everyone was allowed to participate.  They would build a doll of straw and tree branches and dress it in old clothes.  The clothes were supposed to look rather trashy and they would decorate the doll to look ugly.  Then everyone would gather around to throw the doll into a river.  Hence, the Americanized name for this festival is the Drowning of the Doll.

Traditionally, the doll symbolizes winter.  After months of freezing weather, the Polish wish to free themselves of the cold, so they personify the winter as a doll.  My informant explained that the doll “symbolizes winter, so it’s ugly.”  Then, when the doll is thrown into the river, it’s like they’re killing the winter that has passed and they can look forward to warmer months.

The festival is only celebrated by the Polish because it represents their unique pagan past, a time without the foreign influences of modern times.  This does not mean that this holiday is only celebrated in Poland.  My informant has not attended Marzanna since her youth, but she has heard of instances of people of Polish heritage having their own festivals in other countries to connect them with their homeland