I was about twelve when I first heard a Polish joke.
I have no idea what the joke was, nor do I care to remember. Undoubtedly, it was a crass joke about the purported intelligence (or lack thereof) of Polish people.
I recall being instantly offended. But at that age, I did not have the courage to speak up. The idiots who told the joke were classmates of mine, and they did not direct the joke at me. Not that that matters. Dumb, offensive jokes, no matter who they are making fun of, should not be told. Period. The boys did not know that I am of Polish heritage, and really, there was no way for them to know, without me telling them. I am half Polish, on my mother's side, and my father's side of the family is German, Scottish, and Irish. Therefore, my maiden name is German. However, the heritage and traditions that are most familiar to me, the ones my family has always embraced, have been Polish.
I love a good joke. I get many different kinds of humor. I like to think I am humorous on many occasions. That said, I have no interest in jokes or generalizations that make fun of any race or nationality. Really? That's the best you can you do? That's all you got? You're going for the cheap laugh?
Racial stereotypes? Are so last century.
As ashamed as I am to admit it now, I did not speak out against the jokesters, because in my young, awkward mind, I did not want to single myself out from the pack. Twelve is a tough age. It didn't help my confidence any that I had short, naturally curly hair, I was a gawky kind of skinny-in-the-wrong-places, shy, and, as a few boys in my class loved point out frequently, "flat as a board".
If you know what I mean.
I thought, why draw more attention to myself? Why give the idiot-boys more ammunition? "Hey dudes! That's a lame joke! I'm Polish, and Polish people aren't stupid!" is what I said in my head, but what came out of my mouth?
Yes, I have done many stupid things in my 36 years on this planet. But none of them have to do with the fact that I am Polish. The last time I checked, all people do stupid things once in awhile, regardless of their nationality.
Guess what? The other day I changed a light bulb in my kitchen. All by myself. Without having to call ten other Polish people to come help me.
Fancy that, lame joke tellers with your lame jokes that are not rooted in any kind of truth.
If I could go back and talk to my 12-year old self, I would tell her to speak up, even if it was just a shrug of her shoulders, and a, "Whatever. That joke is so dumb."
Over the years, I have wondered how and why the wonderful people of Poland, the country of my ancestors, got a rep for being less than intelligent. Now, however, I don't care.
Sticks and stones, y'all.
I do know that I am Polish and Catholic and proud, and I want my children to feel the same. I want them to be tolerant of all nationalities, races, and religions, and to respect the traditions that others follow. I hope that my children never hear a joke, or even worse, tell a joke that attacks the essence of a person and what makes a person unique.
My family celebrates our Polish heritage, with a Wigilia dinner, just as we have every Christmas Eve that I can remember. Wigilia is a Polish feast that takes place on Christmas Eve, after the first star is seen in the sky. The menu is varied in different households, but it is always meatless. We eat fish, potatoes, and pierogi, and occasionally mushroom soup. We set an extra seat at our table for the Baby Jesus.
It is a wonderful tradition that is a cherished part of my childhood memories, and I am now proud to share this tradition with my children. My husband's family is not Polish, but they will be sharing in our Wigilia dinner. We will break the oplatek wafer and share our wishes for health and happiness in the coming year.
In preparation for our upcoming Wigilia dinner, my oldest son and I spent most of last Sunday afternoon making pierogi, which are round circles of dough filled with cheese, berries, or potatoes. We made the dough from scratch, as my grandmother taught me, and filled each circle with farmer's cheese, folded it over, and pinched it tightly closed. Three hundred miles away, my grandmother, or Babcia, ("Ba" as we affectionately call her) was making the same recipe in my mother's kitchen in preparation for their own Wigilia dinner.
The voice of Ba was in my head as I made the dough. "Don't over-knead! You'll get chewy dough!" "Pinch them tightly or the fillings will escape!" "When they float to the top of the water and stay up there, they are done boiling!"
I passed the wisdom on to my sons as she had passed it along to me.
Thank you, Ba.
We froze most of the 5 dozen pierogi that we made, but of course, we had to sample the fruits of our labor, and fried up a few tasty ones in butter.
This is not exactly health food, people. But the taste? Perfectly scrumptious.
Our traditions may have been Americanized over the years, but there is a kinship in knowing that in a village in Poland, on the same night, under the same stars, another family is partaking in their own Wigilia meal, similar to ours. The sameness warms my heart. It makes me feel like I am a part of something bigger. It makes me proud to be Polish, just as I am sure you are proud to be Italian. Or Swedish. Or German. Or African. Or whatever nationalities make up the essence of who you are.
Whatever you are, celebrate it.
Merry Christmas to you and yours. May you have health and happiness all of your days.