10 Polish Fun Facts You May Not Have Known

Each country has fun little tidbits of information that set it apart from others. Poland is no exception, except it’s often not the first country that comes to people’s minds.

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The Warsaw Radio Tower

Here are 10 fun facts about Poland you may not have known about–no particular order. If even one or two of them surprise you, I’ll consider my mission accomplished.

1. At 2,120.7 ft tall, the Warsaw Radio Tower was the second-tallest man-made structure ever built.

2. Not counting Russia, Poland is Europe’s 8th largest country in both population and land area.

3. At its peak in the early 17th century, Poland, along with its partner Lithuania, controlled 450,000 square miles. That’s roughly 3.7 times its current size.

Castle Malbork
Malbork Castle

4. Many consider the Polish constitution of 1791 to be the world’s second oldest—after the United States.

5. Malbork Castle in Poland is the largest castle in the world by surface area.

6. The Polish flag is the exact opposite of the Indonesian flag.

7. Poland is one of the world’s most Catholic countries—92.2% of Poles follow the religion, according to a Pew Research poll.

8. There are an estimated 60 million Polish people in the world. More than one third of them live outside Poland.

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Polish flag (left), Indonesian flag (right)

9. Mount Rysy is the highest point in Poland, standing at 8,199 feet.

10. Poland’s Białowieża Forest is one of Europe’s last primeval forests and the last remaining home of European bison.

The 5 Levels of Being Polish

20160507_132246There’s roughly 60 million Polish people living on the planet, and we come in all shapes and sizes. You could say there are different “levels” of being Polish. Here are those levels the way I see them.

Level 1: The Prodigal Pole

In the Bible, there’s the story about the Prodigal son, who ran away from home and wasted his wealth and talent on meaningless pleasures before finally hitting rock bottom.

Prodigal Poles are those people of Polish descent who have “run away” from their nationality. They have no interest in learning about their Polish ancestors, language or culture. Some of them might even know Polish and have gone to Polish school, but refuse to ever speak it out of shame. If given the choice between a vacation in Poland or getting wasted with strangers in Indiana, they would probably choose the latter. The only hope is that, like the prodigal son in the Bible, the prodigal Pole will see the light and come back…

Level 2: The Developing Pole

Out of all five levels of being Polish, the developing Poles deserve the most respect. They may be several generations removed from a Polish ancestor but are nevertheless heavily invested in discovering their Polish past. From researching genealogy, to trying out Babcia’s recipes, to reading Crazy Polish Guy, these Poles desire to know everything they can about Poland.

Although many of them don’t speak a word of Polish and have never visited Poland, they are, perhaps, the purest Poles due to their genuine desire to learn about their nationality. Their motivation comes from the heart, and that’s what matters most.

Level 3: The Proud Pole

Proud Poles are typically those who grew up in a strong Polish household or have developed in their knowledge of Polish culture to the point of showcasing it whenever possible. They speak Polish when they can, listen to Polish music, attend Polish events, go to Polish Mass and generally make Poland a regular part of their lives.

Proud Poles typically celebrate all major Polish traditions with their families—from Wigilia to Fat Thursday. They treat their colds with AMOL, gorge on Kołaczkis and have probably seen the movie Sami Swoi at least twice. Through their undying love for Poland, proud Poles ensure that the old ways will carry on.

polish heroLevel 4: The Crazy Pole

Consumed by the Polish spirit, the crazy Pole cannot go a day without doing or saying something Polish-related. He’s a nutcase who annoys his friends by bringing Polish beer to EVERY SINGLE get-together and will ramble for hours about how the Poles saved Europe in 1683.

The crazy Pole is not satisfied to live out his Polish culture and let others be (unlike the proud Pole). He actively promotes it, disseminating information about Poland whenever possible so that others too may understand the glory of that blessed nation. He takes developing Poles under his wing and does what he can to bring prodigal Poles back into the fold. A word of caution before becoming a crazy Pole: you run the risk of people viewing you as Polish and little else. If you’re ok with that, then jump on in. The water’s fine.

Level 5: The Actual Pole

The highest level of being Polish…is actually BEING Polish. You were born in Poland and Polish is your native tongue. You don’t have to do any of the other stuff because you can just say “I was born in Poland.”

Of course, just because you were born in Poland, doesn’t mean you can’t be horrible at being Polish. Although you cannot change your blood and birthplace, you can choose to ignore it. It’s possible for an actual Pole to also be a prodigal Pole if he or she has chosen to forget where they came from—that’s probably level zero of being Polish.

I guess the highest level, then, would be a crazy Pole who was actually born in Poland. But is the world ready for that?

Snapshots From the 125th Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago

Saturday was the 125th annual Polish Constitution Day parade held in Chicago, commemorating the May 3rd Polish Constitution of 1791. Since 1891, the event has been a focal point of Polish-American life in Chicago and draws thousands into a yearly sea of red and white.

This year, the parade was held along State Street, in between Lake and Van Buren Streets. Below are some images from the parade.

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A major theme during this year’s parade was the 1,050th anniversary of Poland’s baptism, which these traditionally-dressed children emphasized at the front.
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Some older marchers dressed as various figures from Poland’s history. We see a couple knights and winged hussars in the mix.
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A traditional Krakow “Lajkonik” leads a group of Polish folk dancers down State Street in Chicago.
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A man driving a horse-drawn carriage with a horse fully decked out in Polish colors.
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Some historical reenactors dressed up as World War II Polish soldiers.
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More Polish World War II historical reenactors standing with the flag of Poland.
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A float dedicated to the 1,050th anniversary of Poland’s baptism, which possibly took place in the town of Gniezno, Poland in 966.
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Members of “Dziennik Związkowy,” Chicago’s premier Polish-language newspaper.
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Members of the famous Polish folk dancing group, Wici.
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Polish highlanders from southern Poland join the march.
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These communist-era cars no doubt struck a chord with audience members who remembered them back in the 1970s and 1980s in Poland.
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Polish motorcyclists closed off the parade in a hardcore fashion.

A Polish Palm Sunday

Polish Palm Sunday
Poles often make their palm branches very ornate and colorful on Palm Sunday.

It’s Palm Sunday, the Christian feast day that commemorates  Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. For Poles, as for many other people, Palm Sunday has long been an important day during the Lenten season, filled with unique practices and traditions.

There was just one problem for Poles trying to celebrate Palm Sunday back in the day…

PALMS DON’T GROW IN POLAND

Instead, Poles would find whatever plants they could in the forests or fields. In the region of Mazovia, willow branches were often used because they were the first plants to bud after winter. Other parts of Poland used pine or juniper branches. In many instances the branches were decorated and colored in a very festive way. The various branches were then taken to church for Palm Sunday Mass, much like is done by many Catholics today.

Check out this video on Polish Palm Sunday preparations

After church, the branches were considered blessed and capable of inviting good fortune into the home. Even though Poles are Catholic, they have long held on to various superstitious beliefs. This was even more true hundreds of years ago.

The branches would be…

  • Tucked into beehives so the bees would make a lot of honey.
  • Slid behind religious pictures in the house to protect the family from danger.
  • Placed in the barn rafters to protect against lightning strikes and promote the farm animals’ health.
  • Slipped under a goose’s nest to safeguard her babies.
  • Buried in the earth to protect the crops.
  • Fastened to the farmer’s plow to encourage a good growing season.

Some people would even eat the bud of the pussy willow branch, believing that it would keep them healthy. Palm Sunday was an opportunity to cleanse oneself and one’s home from anything unclean.

Besides the palm traditions, some parts of Poland had customs that wouldn’t entirely make sense to us today.

One was called puchery and involved schoolboys dressing up in colorful costumes resembling soldiers, shepherds, etc. In a tradition almost mirroring Trick or Treat, the boys would go from door to door singing songs and praising Christ’s Resurrection in exchange for baked treats.

In Krakow, there was a custom called koniarz on Palm Sunday where a boy would cover his face in soot, wear a sheepskin coat and carry a wooden sword and basket. Like puchery, boys partaking in koniarz would recite various verses and songs in exchange for treats.

Overall, Palm Sunday represented, and continues to represent, the last festive day before the solemnity of Holy Week. For Poles, it was also a way to mentally prepare for the coming spring and get into a hopeful state of mind.

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My main source for this post was Polish Customs, Traditions & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab

 

How the Polish Flag Got Its Colors

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Biało Czerwoni, Napewno Oni!

That’s a famous chant that Poles use to cheer on their national teams, and it roughly translates to: The White and Red: It Will be Them!  White and red naturally correspond to the players’ uniforms , which are colored after the Polish flag.

Poland’s national flag consists of two, equally-sized rectangular strips, the upper one being white and the lower one being red. In another article, I discuss the origins of Poland’s official symbol, the famous white eagle.  Delving into the origins of Poland’s national flag and official colors is a natural follow-up.

In the United States, the symbol of the bald eagle and the red, white and blue flag are separate and don’t necessarily go together. Similarly, the Royal coat of arms in the UK and the Union Jack Flag, though both representing the union of Scotland, England and Wales, are quite distinct.

Poland, on the other hand, closely intertwines its national symbol of the eagle with the national flag. In fact, you cannot truly understand the flag without understanding the story behind the eagle, which you can find by clicking here.

Poland’s flag didn’t always exist as it does today. National flags, in general, are a result of nationalism, which only began to develop 200 years ago when people began to think of themselves as belonging to one nation or another. The colors red and white, however, go back much further in Polish history.

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The Royal banner of Poland being carried into battle in 1605.

The color white is intricately tied to the white eagle which Poland’s legendary founder, Lech, supposedly  discovered in modern-day Gniezno. It represents purity and innocence. The color red has various different connotations for Poland. In one tale, Lech observed the white eagle spread its wings across the red sunset and was enthralled by the sight. In another tale, the red represents the white eagle’s blood that was spilled when the bird defended its nest against Lech. The red came to symbolize blood and sacrifice, a symbol reinforced during Poland’s many struggles for freedom over the centuries. No matter what its origin, for the earliest Polish nobility, red represented prosperity and valor, and they often honored that color above all others.

As a result, by the 14th century, Polish royalty and nobility were carrying red banners with a white eagle into battle. These early “flags” had the practical purpose of distinguishing combatants on the battlefield. The practice continued for several hundred years, but it’s important to understand that this wasn’t yet a national flag. It was a banner for military and nobility. You wouldn’t have found ordinary people waving it.

That began to change only in the 18th and 19th centuries as nationalism spread across Europe, and Poland began fighting for freedom from the three empires that had partitioned it—Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Already on May 3rd, 1791, Polish civilians were wearing white and red to celebrate the adoption of the Polish Constitution. There was an effort at this time to make red and white the official colors, but it was inconsistent. Some Poles preferred red, white and blue—the colors of the French Revolution. Others preferred only white.

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A woman fastens a white and red cockade to a soldier’s hat during a Polish uprising in 1863.

It was during the November Uprising of 1831 that the Poles officially adopted white and red as Poland’s national colors. The Sejm of the puppet-state Kingdom of Poland decreed:

Kokardę narodową stanowić będą kolory herbu Królestwa Polskiego i Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego, to jest kolor biały z czerwonym” (The national cockade will be denoted by the colors of the crests of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, white and red.)[i]

Soldiers began wearing a white and red cockade, which was a knotted ribbon pinned to their hats. Civilians, too, began to wear the colors to support the captive Polish nation. Wearing them united Poles with their past and gave them a greater sense of identity and distinction.

When Poland gained independence after World War I, it was finally able to make the red and white flag fully legal. The particular shade of red was presidentially decreed to be vermilion in 1927, although, in the 1980s, the shade changed to crimson.

Today, you can see the Polish flag anywhere there are Poles. It’s on rear-view mirrors, front lawns, painted on peoples’ faces during sporting events and tattooed on people’s arms. For those Poles living abroad or of Polish descent, the red and white flag symbolizes a unique identity that we proudly wear to distinguish ourselves from others and to promote our beautiful heritage.

 

 

 

[i] http://wyborcza.pl/magazyn/1,133483,5164372.html?as=1&ias=5&disableRedirects=true