8 Things You Need to Know About Polish Americans

iStock/Maksym Kapliuk
iStock/Maksym Kapliuk

October is Polish American Heritage Month, and this one is especially important. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Polish immigrants in America. In honor of those first brave Poles—don't ever call us Polacks; that's a mangling of the Polish word Polak, which means a Polish male person, and is considered an ethnic slur—my family and Polish Americans everywhere, here are eight things you should know about us.

1. We got to the party early, and brought a lot of friends.

In 1608, the first Polish immigrants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, and were quickly recruited by the colony as craftsmen in the colony's glassmaking and woodworking industries. (They also dug the colony's first well.) After a decade in Jamestown, the Poles still did not have the right to vote in the elections of the colonial government, and in 1619, they held the first labor strike in America. By walking off the job, they affected the local industry enough that voting rights were granted to them.

Just before America began to fight to gain its independence, Poland lost its own. In 1772, 1793 and 1795, the Polish"“Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria. The first of three major waves of Polish immigration occurred after the partition when Polish nobles, political dissidents and other Poles fled their occupied nation.

A second wave took place between 1860 and World War I. Although the reconstitution of Poland was parts of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and Poland regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic, a few million Poles had already left for America because industrialization had driven them from their farms.

The third and largest wave lasted from the end of World War I to the end of the Cold War, again mostly made up of political refugees. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the Third Polish Republic, a fourth wave of immigrants, who generally come to earn money and eventually return to Poland, began. Today, there are an estimated 10 million Americans of Polish descent.

2. We're mostly found in clusters in the Northeast

Polish immigrants were considered well-suited for manual labor, and were often recruited for work in coal mines and the steel industry. Because of that, the largest Polish American populations can still be found in states that were industrial centers in the 20th century, like Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan (here's a map of Polish American hot spots).

The largest Polish American population can be found in Chicago, which with 185,000 Polish speakers calls itself the largest Polish city outside of Poland. The cities and towns of Pennsylvania's Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties, including Wilkes-Barre (my home sweet home), Scranton, Hazleton, Pittston and Nanticoke, are also home to large Polish populations because of the area's once-large coal deposits.

3. We made some big steps for religion in this country

When the predominantly Roman Catholic Poles came to America en masse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Catholic Church here had no Polish bishops and very few Polish priests. A group of Polish immigrants in Scranton broke away in 1897 and formed the Polish National Catholic Church. Today, the PNCC has 126 parishes in North America and 60,000 members.

While Poland is largely Roman Catholic, it has had a small Muslim population since the 14th century, when Tatar tribes began settling in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A group of Polish Muslims who emigrated to the U.S. co-founded the first Muslim organization in Brooklyn in 1907 and, in 1926, built a mosque that's still in use today.

4. We've got friends in high places

Polish Americans you might be familiar with include Kristen Bell, Maria Bello, Scarlett Johansson, John Krasinski, Mike Krzyzewski, Jerry Orbach, John Ratzenberger, Gore Verbinski, the Wachowski brothers, the Warner brothers, Pat Benatar, Dick Dale, Liberace, Richie Sambora, Jack White, Pat Sajak, Martha Stewart, Steve Wozniak, Richard Feynman, Gene Krupa and Mike Ditka.

While they may not be household names, other Polish Americans have done some pretty important things. Stephanie Kwolek developed Kevlar. Albert Abraham Michelson was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in the sciences for his work on measuring the speed of light. Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels. Ruth Handler co-founded the Mattel toy company and created the Barbie doll. Leo Gerstenzang invented the Q-tip.

Of course, there are those Polish Americans that we're not so proud of, like Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

5. George Washington loved us

Among the Polish immigrants to America after the partitions was Casimir PuÅ‚aski, a Polish noble and soldier, who was recruited by Benjamin Franklin to help lead the American army. PuÅ‚aski was made a general and had a large role in training the Continental Army. He later created Pulaski's Legion, one of America's first cavalry regiments, and is regarded as "the father of American cavalry."

In 1929, Congress passed a resolution designating October 11 as General Pułaski Memorial Day in observance of his death at the Siege of Savannah in 1779. Numerous states and cities also recognize separate holidays commemorating Pułaski's birth and/or death.

6. There ain't no Christmas like a Polish Christmas

Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner, begins when the first evening star appears. Twelve meatless courses (one for each of the apostles) are served after a white wafer called the oplatek, is broken and shared among the diners while they exchange good wishes (a separate pink wafer is shared with the animals). For the dinner, there should be an even number of people at the table to ensure good health, with one empty chair reserved anyone who happens to stop by. Tasting all twelve courses ensures good luck in the new year. After supper, Christmas carols are sung in Polish, and the celebration culminates with family and friends going to Pasterka, the Midnight Mass.

7. We didn't invent the polka, but we do love it

While often attributed to the Polish, the polka actually originated in Bohemia. The name comes from the Czech word půlka ("little half," in reference to the half-steps in the polka dance), but the spelling is the same as the Czech polka, which means "Polish woman." I can see where the confusion lies, especially since polkas are in heavy rotation at Polish weddings and other celebrations, along with the Chicken Dance (which is also not our creation).

8. Our food is awesome

Do you like kielbasa? How about pierogis? You're welcome.

8 Bizarre Fan Theories About Your Favorite Holiday Movies

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

We all love a heartwarming holiday movie. On a cold winter’s day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch and getting into the Christmas spirit with a holiday movie marathon—no matter how many times you've seen the films in the lineup before.

While the plot lines rarely yield any surprises, multiple viewings of a movie can allow you to start to notice some things going on under the surface. With the rise of Reddit and other social media networks, fan theories have become a popular pastime for many pop culture fiends—and these alternate interpretations can sometimes go to some pretty dark places.

From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Home Alone, here are some bizarre fan theories about the holiday movies you only thought you knew.

1. The Santa Clause proves that the North Pole is full of cannibals.

On the surface, The Santa Clause series is the heartwarming tale of Tim Allen taking on the duties of a fallen Santa in need. But Twitter user Hannah Priest thinks it’s about something else entirely: The North Pole is inhabited by cannibals. Her evidence? The elves’ casual attitude toward death and a “new” Santa just taking over, the hundreds of elves (and Mrs. Clauses) who apparently go missing over the course of the series, and the size of the oven in the kitchen. “The elves are clearly baking women (& possibly children) in their oven, then using the bodies to make ceremonial cocoa, which they then feed to future Santas,” Priest tweeted. But this is one theory that’s best read in full (which you can do here).

2. Santa in The Santa Clause is actually an exiled wizard from Harry Potter.

Another theory about The Santa Clause would have you believe that Santa is an alumnus of Hogwarts. We all know Santa is magical, but the evidence does stack up. How does Santa get up and down chimneys? Floo powder, of course. And why can’t we see him? And how does he get to every house in one night? These jobs are made a little easier with an invisibility cloak and a time turner, of course.

3. Home Alone's Kevin McCallister grew up to be Saw’s Jigsaw.


20th Century Fox

In 2014, Grantland’s Jason Concepcion proposed a brilliant, if dastardly, theory that suggested a connection between holiday classic Home Alone and the terrifying Saw horror franchise. In a nutshell, he believes that Kevin McCallister and Jigsaw are the same person—and he made some pretty solid points.

For one, even at the tender age of eight, Kevin shows a talent for setting up some pretty elaborate traps, and he also has a clear obsession with recorded video. He’s also almost too interested in the rumor about Old Man Marley, his neighbor, who is rumored to be a serial killer. Some of the torture from the Saw movies also end up being eerily similar to the “pranks” Kevin pulls on the Wet Bandits. Concepcion goes even deeper, and you should read all of it here.

4. John Candy’s Home Alone character is the devil.

Kevin McCallister isn’t the only Home Alone character with a purported dark side. There’s a lot of suspicion surrounding John Candy’s character, Gus Polinski (a.k.a. the “Polka King of the Midwest”) as well. One Reddit theory goes like this: at one point in Home Alone, Kevin’s mom says that she would “sell [her] soul to the devil” if could just get back to Chicago to be with her son. The next time we see her, Gus Polinski appears and offers her a ride back to the Windy City. Coincidence? Not everyone thinks so—and this theory goes even deeper. Gus plays the clarinet, which is a woodwind instrument, and woodwinds are considered the instrument of Satan.

5. No, wait: Mia from Love Actually is the devil.

Not to be outdone, yet another popular holiday movie fan theory states that Mia (Heike Makatsch)—Alan Rickman’s wannabe-home wrecker of an assistant from Love Actually—is actually the devil. This one is actually a two-part theory, which posits that Rowan Atkinson is an angel while Mia is the devil. Adding credence to the latter part of this is the fact that the film’s writer/director Richard Curtis actually confirmed the former part.

Atkinson’s character was meant to have a larger role and serve as a sort of guardian angel to several of the film’s characters, but the filmmaker eventually decided it would be too much. But Mia’s devilish behavior is on full display: in addition to her repeated attempts to lure Harry (Rickman) away from Karen (Emma Thompson), she shows up at a company holiday party wearing devil horns.

6. Buddy the Elf is a creep.


Warner Bros.

Buddy, Will Ferrell’s maple syrup-loving character in Elf, is beloved for his childlike demeanor and over-the-top Christmas spirit. But some people believe this supposed naiveté may all be a ruse. And if that is in fact the case, then Buddy’s behavior is … questionable at best. Buddy, under this theory, would be a sociopath who forces his way into a random home through coercion and befriends a young child, all while stalking a random woman (Zooey Deschanel) he met through a job for which he was never actually hired.

7. Rudolph is Donner’s bastard son.

As compelling as it is absurd, one Redditor believes that Rudolph isn’t being told the truth about his parentage. We know, of course, that Rudolph doesn’t look like either his mother or his father. And that the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” And that the father of Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice, seems incensed at the idea of his daughter being seen with a red-nosed reindeer. “The only explanation is that the red-nose is like a scarlet letter A,” the theory goes. “Rudolph is an illegitimate child, a bastard, an unclean birth.” (You can read the full docket of evidence here.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger is psychotic in Jingle All the Way, and Sinbad is a figment of his fractured mind.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely seems stressed out about trying to acquire a Turbo-Man—the hot toy of the holiday season—for his son. But has all that stress led to a psychotic break with reality? One Redditor believes that might be the case, as Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) suspiciously only seems to see Myron (played by Sinbad) in his most stressful moments. It could be a coincidence, but as Arnold’s hijinks escalate, there’s Sinbad egging him on every time.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

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