As a child I was always excited when my Great Aunts Odie, Ruth and Irene came to visit us on holidays. They brought a very special influence into my life — the Polish life. I am a quarter Polish, however, these aunts were full blooded, second-generation Polish immigrants. I remember their generous spirit, their laughter, and their jokes. They loved children and always had a story for us when they came to visit. In honor of Polish American Heritage month, I decided to share with you some Polish American traditions that we celebrated in our home.
Swiety Mikolaj (Feast of St. Nicholas)
Most of our traditions revolved around different holidays. One of my favorite days was St. Nicholas day — December 6th. The night before when we went to bed, all 7 of my brother and sisters and I would line up a pair of shoes by the front door in our home. I remember giggling about how we had so many shoes we had to have more than one row! Upon waking up, we would go downstairs and find a small gift in our shoes. St. Nicholas had visited overnight.
St. Nicholas, historically, visited homes of the people in the villages throughout Poland dressed in his bishop’s robes. When he visited, he always had a gift for them if they were good and to help them remember the gifts the three Kings brought the Christ Child at the time of His birth. Many of the Christmas customs celebrated in the United State are a result of Polish American traditions entering the mainstream. St. Nicholas has become known to children as Santa Claus or the “Father of Christmas.” In my Catholic elementary school, St. Nicholas would visit and gift each of us with a treat. St. Nicholas day was a big day in my young life, and it was the official beginning of the Christmas season.
Other Polish Christmas traditions at my house included:
- Stockings hung by the fireplace. There is a story that when St. Nicholas was rescuing some poor girls from being sold into slavery, the gold money he tossed through the window landed in the stockings left to dry by the fire.
- Candy Canes were hung on the Christmas tree. These symbolized St. Nicholas’s bishops staff called a crozier. It looked like a shepherd’s crook, thus the candy cane.
- Secret gift-giving overnight. Nicholas did his gift giving in secret during the night. He didn’t want to be seen or recognized. He wanted people he visited to give thanks to God.
The Epiphany or Feast of the Three Kings (Trzech Króli)
On January 6th, Polish people along with others celebrate the arrival of the three Kings who traveled to Bethlehem from the east to celebrate the birth of Jesus. King cakes are eaten. Small boxes with chalk, incense, and a gold ring, symbolizing the three gifts the Kings brought to Jesus, are taken to church to be blessed. Many communities and churches put on three Kings plays.
In our family, this was quietly recognized by adding the three Kings and camels to our Christmas creche. Until that time, they were set up in remembrance on a mantel. Upon their arrival, the official Christmas celebration was completed.
I regularly ate Polish foods at our home when growing up.
Golabki (goh-wom-kee) or Cabbage rolls (pictured here). Cabbage rolls are another Polish food served at our family gatherings. I have to admit, they were not my favorite, although as an adult I can appreciate them. There are a myriad of ways to make them but a basic recipe includes rice, sauteed onions, beef or pork.
Polish Makowiec (Ma-KOH-viets). This is a poppy seed roll that is delicious. Although the linked recipe is not my family recipe, it sure looks the same.
Polish Sausage with Sauerkraut. My father loves this meal. He simply gets canned sauerkraut adds salt and pepper and sauteed onion to it and heats it on the stove. He then adds pre-cooked polish sausage to the pan and heats until warm all the way through. When I was young my dad made homemade sauerkraut, however, canned is easier for him now that he is living alone and 86 years old. There are many fancier recipes available online, but this is the Polish meal I was frequently served growing up.
Polish jokes were an integral part of my growing up life. Each night around the dinner table, as the 10 of us visited about our day, inevitably my father would add a joke or two into the mix. Since he is half Polish and half Irish, the majority of his jokes were based on those ethnicities. Today, many of these jokes would be considered in bad taste, but as it was Polish-Irish Americans making fun of Polish and Irish people and traditions, it was very appropriate at the time.
Polish Americans have had a huge positive impact on American culture. America is great today, in part, because of Polish Americans. When I look back at my childhood, I am reminded that we need to honor the cultures from which we all come and respect our differences. As I have aged, I feel less Polish, German, or Irish and more American. I greatly appreciate my heritage and I hope I can instill a respect for heritage traditions and languages into my students. If you are interested in bilingual books and other children’s resources about Poland read 11 Polish Fairy Tales & Bilingual Books.
Happy Polish American Heritage Month!