How the Polish Flag Got Its Colors

polish story

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.

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.

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.





The Best Things About Poland: Episode II

It’s time to conclude my two-part series on the best things about Poland (Check out episode one here). Like I said two weeks ago, this could be a 10-part series, but there’s so many other wonderful topics to write about. If enough of you comment on this one, though, I won’t be able to help myself. Here it goes…

The Language

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters. Notice the 3 types of “z.”

Polish is not a language for the faint of heart. If your native tongue is English, it’s guaranteed to be one of the most difficult languages you can possibly learn. With seven grammatical cases, a boatload of various word-endings and three versions of the letter “z,” it will unleash hell on your brain.

So why is it so great? I can’t say I’m fluent, but I’m good enough to begin realizing its beauty. Unlike German, which sounds like yelling, or French, which sounds very nasally, Polish sounds soft, fluid and innocent. I especially become entranced whenever I hear Polish women speak it on TV, the radio or in person—it’s such a delicate and soothing collection of syllables.

If you ever read the Polish literary masters—Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Kochanowski—even if you don’t understand everything, you’ll definitely see how beautifully the language flows from the page. It makes learning it, even a little bit, worth it.

The Music

When it comes to music, Poland has so much to offer. For traditionalists, there are plenty of folk songs that will whisk you away to old Poland with their violin and accordion sounds. Folk fans should check out Rokiczanka and Brathanki. There is also, of course, Polka music and the Polish-favorite “Disco Polo.”

In the early twentieth century, tango was big in Poland. When you listen to these old songs, you can’t help but feel like you’re in an old café or saloon in pre-war Warsaw or Kraków. Check out Sława Przybylska for an example.

For rock and pop fans, Poland has a ton of music from the 1960s through today. Lady Pank, Wilki, Elektryczne Gitary, Perfect, Marek Grechuta, Gosia Andrzejewicz, Ewa Farna, and Urszula are just some examples. I purposely didn’t add hyper links to all those names—stay tuned to my blog for much more on Polish music in the near future.

Oh, just don’t listen to Polish rap. It sucks.



Polish Żur soup.

Ok, soup isn’t just Polish, but it definitely plays a big part in Polish life. I remember visiting my grandmother in Poland during my childhood. After the long, tiring, transatlantic voyage from the U.S. to Poland, and the additional journey from the airport to my grandma’s house, the first thing she greeted us with was a hug and kiss. The second, a bowl of hot soup. So soup plays a pivotal role in my conception of Poland.

Traditionally, soup is the first course in a Polish meal. From rosół, to tomato soup, to żur, Poland has no shortage of belly-filling, heart-warming soups. Polish soups are especially delicious and gratifying when you’re sick—a spoonful of warm vegetable, chicken and broth can often provide relief from the worst colds or flu.


Slavic beliefs
An imaginary painting of Poland’s Slavic origins.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about Polish traditions and customs—from Wigilia to Zaduszki—and there is much more to come on that front. The reason I can write so much is that Poland offers a seemingly infinite supply of intriguing cultural and religious practices.

Remember, before Poland became Catholic in 966 AD, it adhered to the ancient Slavic beliefs. Like many pagan peoples, the ancient Poles worshiped nature and believed in numerous supernatural entities. With the arrival of Catholicism, many of these beliefs were eliminated, but many were absorbed. This is why, even today, many Polish traditions are loaded with superstitions.

Aside from that, each region in Poland has its own customs—from the Górale in the southern mountains, to the Kashuby of the northern shores—you will find a rainbow of local costumes, dances and dialects across Poland. It’s a “melting pot” in its own right.

The Polish National Anthem (Mazurek Dąbrowskiego)

Poland has not yet perished. Those lines begin the Polish national anthem. They symbolize the Polish people’s undying hope and strong desire to preserve their identity. Written in 1797, just two years after Poland had been partitioned and erased from the map of Europe, this anthem was, from its inception, a statement that the Poles weren’t just going to lie down and die. As we have seen, there are just too many great things about the Polish nation for that to happen. Generations of Poles have fought and died to protect the idea of Poland, of its customs, food, music, language and people—it’s this Polish spirit that is embodied in the national anthem, making it perhaps the greatest thing about Poland.