Tag Archives: polish

Polish Dragon

Context: Poland has many mythical beasts in its folklore, however, very prominently featured are its dragons. Poland’s dragons are very big beasts, which are fearsome but not very smart. Mostly villainous in nature, the dragon must be defeated by a Polish hero, oftentimes through outwitting the dragon, rather than use of physical force. Wawel is a Polish castle, which is made of stone and stands on an outcrop on the left bank of a Polish river.

Informant: “The Wawel dragon in Poland. So my mom told us this story growing up and she told us the kid friendly version but its this legend about this dragon that was terrorizing this town and eating the livestock and knights tried and tried to kill it but no one could until this young boy, i think his name was Skuba or something, took a dead sheep and stuffed his stomach full of hot hot pepper and when the dragon ate it, it was so spicy that he breathed fire and went to drink from the river and then either died or flew away idk but Skuba saved the day and theres a statue in Krakow of him about that story.”

Background Knowledge: The informant’s mother lived in Poland for most of her life, and only moved to the United States a few years before Informant’s birth. Despite not knowing the language, and being mostly ingrained in American culture, the Informant tries to keep in touch with their Polish heritage. The informant remembers this story from their childhood, as a story their mother told them. It is, I believe, a very old Polish story. The informant does not speak more than basic conversational Polish, and did not hear the story in its original Polish language. However, the informant has visited Poland a few times, and has much Polish influence from their mother. Informant is proud of their Polish heritage, and spoke of this story with fondness.

Thoughts: I wonder if the story of the Wawel dragon came before or after the building of Wawel castle. It’s interesting to see how these Polish stories have come to emigrated to America along with its people. Despite being based on/being the inspiration for the wawel castle, the story of the wawel dragon leaves its castle, and travels to America without it. It’s interesting that the story can outgrow the location which it is originated from, even when the location is so inherent to it.

Polish Joke

Context: Informant is of Polish heritage, and although they are very proud of their Polish background, they do not necessarily engage in the culture of Poland within their daily life.

Informant: “We used to tell a lot of Polish jokes.  How do you get a one armed Pole out of a tree? You wave to him. I heard this from my grandparents. I have more Polish jokes. Did you hear about the Pole while in a frantic called the police? He said for the police to hurry.  He locked his keys in the car. The police said that it wasn’t an emergency. The Pole said that wasn’t the worst part. His family was locked in the car with them.”

Background Information: Back when the informant was a child, it was common for people to tell ‘Polish Jokes’. Although the Polish slander has decreased dramatically since then, the informant still remembers when these jokes were common. They’ve stated that when they were a child, they were uncomfortable telling people they were Polish. Now, however, they have learned to embrace their Polish heritage, and they tell these jokes with an air of pride. The jokes represent a hardship the Poles have faced, yet by telling the joke themselves, they reclaim the joke for themselves while simultaneously not forgetting the struggle they endured.

Thoughts: Although I have some Polish heritage, I was still uncomfortable listening to these jokes. On one hand, I was uncomfortable having a personal identity attacked, but on the other hand, it was uncomfortable seeing this Polish person slander their own name. I think this encapsulates a lot of the general history of the jokes. They were meant to belittle the Poles, but now the Polish people are fighting against this ridicule and in turn making everyone else uncomfortable instead. It’s an interesting dynamic. I think it is empowering to see these jokes be reclaimed, and the jokes themselves have become representations of power.

Wigilia Oplatek Ceremony – Unleavened Wafer Bread

Main Performance:

At Wigilia (Christmas Eve), JK the informant participates in a toasting ceremony with the entire family. Everyone gathers around in a big circle and collects shots of Goldwasser in ornate metal glasses for a toast. The eldest of the family (traditionally the eldest male, but modernized to just be the eldest), begins the ceremony with a toast recounting the successes, hardships, and points of growth for the family in the past year. During this time they usually harken back to previous Wigilia’s and tend to insert anecdotal humor to entertain the circle. This toast ends with the setting of intention for next year, a wish of a “Merry Christmas” to everyone and a request for everyone to enjoy the feast that is to come.

At this time, anyone else who wishes to speak up and toast as well then dives in as people drink the Goldwasser (or Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider if they are younger than eighteen). Once all the toasts have finished and the drinks have been drunk, one of the kids goes around and passes out oplatek to everyone.

Oplatek are rectangular, wafer-like unleavened bread that have been blessed by a priest. They often depict the Virgin Marry on them as well, being very connected to “the daily bread” in Catholic church. Once everyone has an oplatek, they go around to every person and perform a “breaking of the oplatek.” This is done by each person tearing off a little piece of the other person’s oplatek and then eating it. Afterwards, they wish each other a “Merry Christmas” and usually exchange words of gratitude and appreciation for the other person. In these little breakings, more stories are often told between one another, usually recounting memories those family members have shared in.

After everyone has had a piece of everyone else’s oplatek, and they themselves have shared a piece with everyone else, the ceremony is complete. From here, the entire family then moves to the dinner table to sit down for the Wigilia feast.

According to JK, his late grandmother told him that in the countryside where she was from, they had special pink oplatek for the dogs and the livestock. This was given to them as a symbolic honoring of everyone’s contributions; even the animals out in the stable.


JK was the eldest male from the Polish side of our family for a while after his father past away, and was in charge of leading several Wigilia’s and doing the initial toast. As the holiday continued to be universally celebrated by the entire extended family however, it switched to the eldest male of the whole extended family, and then to just the eldest. Thus, the informant has been both a passive and active bearer of this tradition, making the transition from passive to active as he grew older.


The ritual of breaking oplatek is an extension of the practices at the Catholic church and used to be a lead up to a later midnight mass that would be attended by the whole family after the feast. This version of oplatek thus been what some may call a more relaxed version and less religiously inclined as the informant’s family has altered it over the years; putting more emphasis on the message rather than the metaphor.


To me, this practice is a culmination of recognizing the ways that everyone in a community is connected. Since everyone is taking and sharing from everyone, it is a reminder that through sharing and selflessness, everyone can have a more complete and connected whole. Oplatek is a vehicle for the ritual to bring everyone to the realization of each family/community member’s importance to both themself and the greater “village.” It’s a reminder to the family that they always have each other and to be grateful for the bonds you have to those loved ones.


There is another collection that was done on the ceremony of oplatek that is in the archive that is linked below:


Wigilia – a Polish Christmas Eve (Polish-American Christmas)

Main Performance:

The informant, JK, and their full extended family (as many as can come, usually ~40) gather for a big feast and a host of different rituals for Christmas Eve. An extra place setting with food is traditionally set for “the unexpected guest” to celebrate hospitality and community, but this practice is not present at their Wigilia anymore. Instead, to avoid food waste, the family invites friends and boyfriends/girlfriends over to join for the big dinner and night of celebration, serving a similar symbolic purpose. At this feast, you are also not supposed to eat any meat and stick strictly to fish and vegetables.


The informant, JK, is my dad and also one of the figure heads behind putting together this gathering every year. He too has been attending Wigilia every year of his life and is part of a long line of family who keeps this gathering going. In our conversation, he noted other rituals that I was unfamiliar with that he grew up with for Wigilia. One of these practices being attending a midnight mass at the Catholic church.


Our conversation took place over the phone, where he recounted the history of the holiday and explained the different practices within the ritual time. As this post is the broad-stroke of the tradition, I will dive into the minutia in separate entries.


The general practice of Wigilia is far more religious in explanation than I had ever known it to be, as it has become much more focussed on the simple act of gathering for food and a toasting ceremony. But the Catholic roots are very present in the metaphorical significance of community, sacrifice, and family. There is also a great emphasis on the passing over into the New Year, that despite not being directly correlated to New Year’s, the time spent at Wigilia is stressed as setting a precedent for the coming year (i.e. if the community fights during this time, it will be difficult times ahead).


There is another piece on Polish Yuletide that is in the Folklore Archive that I have linked below:



RITUAL DESCRIPTION: This ritual is called Kapparot. The ritual is done on the Eve of Yom Kippur. The ritual consisted of waving a chicken over everyone’s heads on the eve and the chicken was to be slaughtered. 

INFORMANT DESCRIPTION: Male, 83, Polish, Jewish

CONTEXT: His mother used to do this ritual up until they immigrated from Poland to Mexico in the 1940s. Then his family stopped. It was supposed to be a sort of charity or sacrifice in order for future prosperity. The ritual could also be done with money and then the money donated but his mother believed the blood of the chicken was more powerful. To him this ritual was dated, and he recalled being young and slightly uncomfortable by it. He also felt sad his mother had to give it up when they immigrated because he saw how important it was to her. 

THOUGHTS: I think this ritual is definitely a very specific one in its cultural significance. I think it is slightly extreme to me but that is because I am not close to it culturally but if I were it would not be so surprising. I think all different cultures have rituals that can all sound strange but are significant in their own way. I also felt bad to hear his mother had to give it up in order to assimilate to her new country.