Thanksgiving Day, celebrated in the US on the fourth Thursday of November is obviously not a Polish-rooted holiday, but it has been eagerly observed by Polonians since way back. My late Uncle Jan Ciosmak, who returned to Poland after spending several years working in a ‚car shop’ in Erie, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, once told me that the most important American holiday was ‚cziken dej’ — that’s how he pronounced it. The word ‚Thanksgiving’ was probably too much of a mouthful for many Polish peasant immigrants of the day, so to make things easier someone started calling it ‚Chicken Day’ instead. (It should be remembered that before World War I chicken was a luxury reserved for special occasions and turkey was only for the better-to-do.)
While we’re on the subject of language, the Polish translation for America’s Thanksgiving, Swięto Dziękczynienia, might also be quite a tongue-twister to many Polish and non-Polish Americans!
Thanksgiving is undoubtedly the most beautiful uniquely American holiday in the calendar, a time set aside to thank God for the many blessings he has bestowed. In terms of its sentimental value to Americans of every background it comes close to the way Polish people feel about Wigilia. For this is a very family-oriented occasion, a holiday when one simply has to be with one’s nearest of kin. Of course, Thanksgiving has always meant the traditional roast turkey with all the trimmings, but many families with Polonian or other-ethnic roots have given the festive meal a little twist of their own.
Those who are ‚just plain American’ eat only turkey and the traditional go-togethers. We Polish Americans likewise have turkey but also include some of our unique dishes. In the author’s family kie³basa z kapust¹ was a Thanksgiving ‚must’ next to the pieczony indyk. Other Polish-American families serve bigos, sometimes as a late-evening pick-me-up, as well as babka, placek, sernik and szarlotka. Italo-Americans regularly include some of their appetite-whetting antipasti and wonderful pasta dishes at the feast.
Other than serving Polish dishes alongside the traditional American-style roast turkey stuffed with over-saged bread stuffing, another way to add an ethnic accent to your Thanksgiving festivities is by roasting your turkey stuffed with a Polish-style (bread/babka-giblet-raisin, bread-meat-dill, rice & mushroom) dressing and/or include some typically Polish autumn desserts like szarlotka (apple cake). 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 beautiful act of charity worth propagating, especially if the younger generation gets involved in the effort. Taking ready-to-eat Thanksgiving dinners to shut-in is another possibility. Any way of expressing gratitude for our abundance and sharing it with those less fortunate is worth considering.
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