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A Polish Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day (Święto Dziękczynienia) is celebrated in the US on the fourth Thursday of November. While certainly not a traditional Polish-rooted holiday, it has been eagerly observed by Polonians and Americans of other ethnic backgrounds as far back as anyone can remember.

There is something very universal and appealing in the notion of gathering with one’s nearest of kin, thanking God for our numerous blessings and sharing a festive holiday meal.

Thanksgiving dinner
While ethnic foods may enrich the holiday dinner, Polish immigrants follow the Thanksgiving tradition of serving a stuffed turkey.
“Thanksgiving is above all the holiday of the ‘wayward traveler’ who made it over to this safe haven known as the United States (...) It reaffirms America’s immigrant heritage and inclines every inhabitant of this country to briefly reflect upon not only the uniqueness of that first Thanksgiving, but also upon all the other such feasts that followed with the participation of newcomers from alien and distant climes,” wrote a Polish-American columnist Andrzej Hetnal in Chicago’s Polish-language daily Dziennik Związkowy a few years back.

Thanksgiving is probably America’s most family-centered holiday, even more so than Christmas. To many Americans, Christmas is mostly about shopping, decorating the house, wrapping presents and partying with friends, but on Thanksgiving it is the family circle that reigns supreme.

In some ways, that “big Thanksgiving dinner” is closer in spirit to the Polish Wigilia than any other American gathering. Like Polish Christmas Eve, the menu is also rather structured: roast turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, etc.

We Polish Americans and our fellow-citizens with different ethnic roots have all enjoyed taking the kids to Thanksgiving Day parades or at least watching them on TV. And we have all enjoyed the roast turkey with all the trimmings. But, this being a land of immigrants, many of us have enriched the festive spread with the distinctive delicacies of our own heritage.

In addition to the turkey, some Polish-American families also serve bigos, kiełbasa, meatballs in mushroom gravy, pierogi, gołąbki and other favorites. Besides the pumpkin pie, szarlotka (apple cake), babka, placek or sernik may also turn up on the holiday table.

Italo-American families often include some of their wonderful antipasti and pasta dishes, washed down with Chianti and followed up with such desserts as pannetone, cannoli and tiramisù. Americans with links to Hispanic, German, French, Scandinavian and other traditions do likewise.

Some Polish-American parishes hold Thanksgiving dinners for those living alone, the poor, elderly and others who might otherwise be deprived of this traditional celebration. That is a practice worth propagating, especially if the younger generation gets involved in the effort. Taking ready-to-eat Thanksgiving dinners to shut-ins is another possibility.

A community parish or club Thanksgiving Dinner open to the general public might also prove successful in places with many temporary residents, retired couples or people living alone.

Perhaps the officiating clergyman’s or emcee’s remarks or a printed program could recall the fact that Polish immigrants were no newcomers to this country, especially in connection with the recently celebrated 400th anniversary of the Polish presence in America.

It should also be remembered that the Mayflower Pilgrims, whose legend became the basis of the Thanksgiving holiday, had come to America to seek religious freedom. But only for themselves, for they denied it to other Protestants, Quakers, Anglicans, Catholics and others who worshiped God differently than they did.

The message of the Jamestown Poles, who had arrived in America 12 years before the Mayflower, was quite different. They believed that all people should enjoy the right to vote regardless of their nationality or creed and staged America’s first civil-rights protests to prove their point.

Author/Source: Robert Strybel