One of the fascinating aspects of the Valley is the variety of people and cultures that are found here. Blending together are customs of the Americans, Méxicans and other Hispanics, Canadians, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Polish, Phillippines, Indian, Europeans of many nations, Native Americans and more. Each group has their own culture and traditions they are brought up with to instill their heritage in their very beings.
Back in 1979, a few of the local Polish people decided to start a club to keep their language, culture and traditions alive. Interestingly, within their ranks they found traditions were interpreted differently in the various regions of their country. They not only have kept their own traditions alive, they have been able to embellish and enrich them, from their own compatriots.
Take for example, the Lenten season and Easter. One major tradition is Fat Thursday. Yes, that’s right — Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent.
“You go crazy eating fat,” said Margarita Patino, laughing. “You eat donuts, lots of donuts, except they don’t have the hole. It’s as big as a tennis ball and it’s fried. Inside you put sweet fillings like jelly. It’s the last day we can splurge before lent.”
The donuts are called paczki and were traditionally made to use up any sugar, lard, eggs or fruit in the house, which was forbidden during lent.
On the day before Easter, the Poles would put together baskets of food — eggs, Polish sausage, bread, butter, salt, pepper — and take it to the church to be blessed. On Easter morning they would start off the day eating blessed food.
Easter eggs were part of the deal. They would boil onionskins (the favorite), beets and oak bark to get coloring for their eggs. Melting wax they would apply it to the eggs in various designs before coloring the eggs, then removing the wax. The designs would show through the coloring.
In the afternoon they would head for the village square to toss the boiled eggs.
“We would take our decorated eggs and throw them in the air and try to catch as many eggs as we could,” said Tony Pogorzelski, delighting in his memories. “Everybody’s trying to grab the eggs. It doesn’t matter if the eggs hit someone; it was a lot of fun!”
The day after Easter is an official holiday — called Smingus Dyngus. The boys would hide and then throw water on the girls. It’s even told the girls did not try hard to dodge the wetness for the unfortunate dry one’s fortune wasn’t good for the year. Some areas even said the wetter they became, the better year they would have.
“The club is a social club,” said Tomas Gozdalski, current president. “It gives us the opportunity to speak Polish, to meet other Polish people and every once in a while watch a Polish movie or documentary.”
A few times a year they have Polish prepared meals. One of their big meals is the Wigilia, a meatless Christmas Eve dinner, a major tradition in the country.
“There are 12 different dishes and we eat after we see the first star [symbolic of the star of Jesus],” said Anna Janik, member. “If we have kids in the house, we send them outside to look for the first star. When they see it, they come and tell us it’s time to sit down at the table and eat Wigilia.”
Talking to the club it’s obvious a variety of foods are used but the “must haves” are: different kinds of fish, such as salmon, eels and carp (a delicacy in Poland), some form of cabbage — some in perogis (a type of pasta dish using an array of fillings such as potatoes, cabbage, cheese, meats), honey, poppy seed, borscht (red or white) and a specially prepared wafer — the oplatek.
The oplatek is prepared the same as a communion wafer only in different shapes, usually decorated with a Christmas theme. Sharing a piece of the wafer with the person seated next to them, they wish each other a good new year and pass it on until all around the table have joined in this sacred ceremony.
“It must be on the best plate of the house,” said Anna Janik.
“When you share the oplatek, that’s a very intimate moment,” said Margarita. “When you honestly make peace with your family members and friends and wish them the best.”
Straw is put under the table or place mats signifying the straw in the manger. An extra setting and chair are set out symbolizing how Mary and Joseph were looking for a place and there was none. Here, there is always an extra setting.
Participants include Winter Texans and local residents, both young and old.
Derek Janik, young son of Marion and Anna Janik, enjoys coming to the club meetings — learning about his parent’s land. Friends of Polish members join also in order to learn more about their friends.
“I married a German, but I’m Italian,” said Margaret Hecker. “Since I joined the Polish Club I feel and see the allegiance that these people have to Poland. One year they gathered dozens and dozens of clothes to send to Poland to help their people. They have sponsored students from Poland to come and study here in this country.
“As you study history you can see the closeness of the Poles to the bordering countries and how even their foods become alike,” Margaret Hecker said. “I lived next door to a Polish lady and she was making borscht one day. I said, ‘Sophie, that’s a Russian dish.’ She said, ‘It’s a Polish dish too.’”
A non-profit 501c3, the club continues on keeping Poland alive for its members.
“We usually take June, July and August off and begin again in September,” said Marion Janik, member. “Usually we have a Polish dinner during Polish Heritage month in October and for sure have the Wigilia in December — a Polish tradition.”
More traditions are shared, recipes from the different regions of Poland are swapped, friendships made, bonds tightened. But most of all, that sense of finding people who make you feel at home reminds this club and it’s members — Polish and not — what a small world we live in because they’ve come from all over to find each other in the Rio Grande Valley.
For more information on the Polish Club, contact Tomasz Gozdalski at email@example.com.