Tag Archives: polish

Kupala Night – Polish tradition

Intro: The following is a transcribed from my informant, P.

Main Piece:

P: This is something you do in Poland with your lover. You strip down and hold hands then try to jump over a fire. If you’re still holding hands jumping naked over a fire, then you are truly significant to each other. If you aren’t holding hands, then the relationship is doomed. It’s called Kupala night, sometime in the summer.

P: I heard about it from my mom when I was little, but I think it’s one of those things that I wasn’t supposed to know about, so I don’t think I have the full story.

Background: My informant is an old friend of mine who I once worked with. Both of his parents are Polish and he learned Polish before English, but he was born in America. He has a rocky relationship with his family as he had a difficult childhood and by extension does not currently connect much with nor seek out his Polish identity, even though it was at the forefront during the formative years of his life.

Context: We got dinner, and I asked if I could also interview him and if he had any folklore to share.

Thoughts: P recalled this as a scandalous practice and one of the few things he remembers about his mother, though he never asked his parents if they did this which I found odd. Funny enough, P didn’t have the full story– I looked up the tradition, and it’s part of a larger festival that involves this as one small component.

See https://www.inyourpocket.com/warsaw/Midsummers-Night_72214f to learn more about it as a summer solstice festival.

I think it is interesting how the story can change through generations and a willingness to remember.

“spoko” Polish Slang

Pronunciation: spôkô


The informant–MF–is a 39 year old male who was born and raised in Zagłębie, Poland but has lived in the US since 2016. This is a slang term he remembers from childhood. The interview from which this word was collected was conducted in English.


It means all right. All there is no problem. Everything is alright means spoko. So for instance, uh, if you know somebody is in trouble or somebody is very sad. So you can say oh don’t worry, everything is spoko. Everything’s gonna be all right. So we can say like that.


This term has multiple variations in Poland, including “sponio” (pronounced spōnyō).

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.”


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.


Polish Funeral Custom — Cannot Dance


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.”


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.


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.

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.”

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.

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.

Trumpeter of Krakow

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.”

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.”

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.

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.


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

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.