Magazine Poland

How Polish culture became an essential part of the Chicago lifestyle

A crown waving Polish flags in Chicago

Chicago, United States – Chicago is internationally recognized as a city of immigrants, including through its “sanctuary city” status. From the late 1800’s to the 20th century, Chicago was a major destination for people crossing the Atlantic to call home.

Many immigrants who arrived settled into neighborhoods of their own nationality, which led to many districts in Chicago cultivating their own cultural history and identities. chicago polish

Neighborhoods like Pilsen, Ukrainian Village, and Greektown were all once the home of thousands of self-segregated nationalities from countries such as the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and Greece.

The Polish roots of Chicago

However, the majority of the descendants living in those neighborhoods either did not learn the culture and language of their parents or left these neighborhoods entirely in the mid-1900’s, when cities were increasingly being labeled as crime-ridden and the suburbs were expanding and becoming a more suitable place for families.

This, paired with many other factors, led to these neighborhoods in Chicago to become more “Americanized” throughout the 20th century.

Within that melting-pot of culture and nationalities, Polish immigrants were still one of the most sizable communities in Chicago all the way to the late 20th century. In 1890, there were 27.700 Polish immigrants residing in the city, compared to more than 150.000 in 2000.

Today, it’s estimated that over one million people with Polish heritage live in Chicago and its surroundings.

Because of this significant and long-standing presence of Polish immigration, Chicagoans adopted many cultural traditions brought from Poland. But this integration into Chicagoan culture didn’t happen on its own, as many Polish Americans fought for and actively promoted Polish traditions during nearly a century.

This push from Polish Americans towards raising awareness to honor and celebrate their roots found growing support in the early to mid-1900’s and strongly contributed to maintaining the significance and visibility of Polish cultural and historical traditions in Chicago to that day.

Fat Tuesday and Fat Thursday

Tłusty Wtorek i Tłusty Czwartek – In English, Fat Tuesday and Fat Thursday celebrations were largely shaped by Polish immigrants who settled in Chicago and has been jointly celebrated by Poles and Americans ever since.

Fat Tuesday, traditionally, is the day of celebration and eating fatty and sweet foods before Ash Wednesday, while Fat Thursday refers to the final Thursday before Lent (a period spanning from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter Sunday where one cannot indulge in a number of delicacies) and is mainly spent feasting on foods that can’t be eaten during that time.

While Catholicism and the religious observance of Lent had already been a tradition before, Polish immigrants added the cherry on top and brought the holy grail of all bingeable pastries for the occasion: the pączki.

Pączki quickly became the utmost symbol of Fat Tuesday and Thursday in Chicago and remain one the most popular snacks to feast on during the holidays. Ahead of the rush, Chicago bakeries will prepare in advance and bake thousands of them for the craving masses.

Since pączkis are not as popular outside of those days, it’s an absolute must to pick some up from the bakery when Lent is around the corner. Pączki transcend all religions and cultures, so don’t think that it’s a delight exclusively for those who are celebrating Lent.

And quick tip: to fit in like a local Chicagoan, you must pronounce ‘pączki’ in its Americanized form, something like “poon-ch-key”. Apologies, Polish speakers!

Polish language in Chicago

If you are unnerved by the Chicagoan pronunciation of pączki, have no fear, it’s possible for anyone to learn the correct Polish pronunciation. After English and Spanish, Polish is the third most-widely spoken language at home for Chicagoans.

While not as prominent as the other two, it’s possible to see Polish words and signs on buildings, especially in neighborhoods such as Avondale.

Polish courses are taught in many Polish heritage centers, community colleges as well as private language schools in and around Chicago. There are also many options to teach the Polish language to young children, with numerous Polish language kindergartens, or przedszkole, in Chicago and its surroundings.

Pulaski Day

Anyone who was born and raised in Chicago and its surroundings will know that the first Monday of March is a local annual holiday: Pulaski Day. Kazimierz Pułaski, often referred to in its English form Casimir Pulaski, was a Polish-American soldier who played a great role in the Independence War.

The holiday was first introduced in 1983 after the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Thanks to the commitment and relentless work of the Polish community, who wanted Polish heroes in America to be remembered and celebrated like other minorities, Pulaski is now widely known and regarded as a prominent cultural figure in Chicago.

Pulaski Day is also highly appreciated by students, mostly because, as it turns out, it means an extra day they don’t have to spend at school. However, teachers always make sure to explain the significance and meaning of this holiday to their students.

Although Casimir Pulaski has never lived or done anything specifically for the city of Chicago, he became a celebrated symbol of the Polish community and heritage in the United States as a whole. Pulaski Road, a major 65-kilometer-long road spanning from north to south directly through Chicago and its suburbs, was named after him in 1935.

Pierogi Fest

For all pierogi lovers out there, this is as close to “heaven on earth” as you might get. Every year, Chicago’s southern suburbs hold a weekend-long and dumpling bonanza Pierogi Fest. A short drive away into Chicago’s suburbs, around 300,000 people attend the festival every year to enjoy all they have to offer and eat as many dumplings as possible.

Most importantly, you can spoil yourself with pierogi, piwo, as well as other Polish and Central and Eastern European meals. If you find yourself near Chicago around July 26-28, stopping by the Pierogi Fest is a must!

Taste of Polonia

If you didn’t get enough to eat at Pierogi Fest, you won’t have to wait much longer for more traditional Polish dumplings. Every year since 1979 during the first week of September, the Taste of Polonia festival is held in the northwestern neighborhood of Jefferson Park.

Funded and organized by the Copernicus Foundation, named after the famous Polish astronomer, Taste of Polonia aims to engage with the community by organizing a wide and diversified range of cultural events.

The fest is labelled as the biggest Polish cultural festival in the United States, with tens of thousands of visitors each year.

According to the organizers, the festival finds its roots and inspiration in the goal of “familiarizing festival goers with many aspects of Polish customs, culture, traditions, and language.”

Polish Constitution Day parade in Chicago

The Polish Constitution Day Parade was first held in 1892 in Humboldt Park, Chicago, to celebrate the Polish constitution of 1791 as the first democratic constitution in Europe.

This parade is regarded as the biggest Polish celebration parade abroad, outside of Poland itself, and is an unavoidable gathering for Polish communities and institutions, as well as local businesses which support and promote Polish heritage in Chicago.

The Polish community made instrumental efforts to protect and preserve Polish heritage and culture in Chicago.

By all accounts, it worked wonderfully, as tens of thousands of US citizens, Americans with Polish heritage and Poles come together to take part in the many traditions and celebrations that Chicago has to offer all year long.

For many of us who were raised in and around Chicago, the memories of these celebrations and traditions have become an essential part of our upbringing and will continue, in the years and decades to come, to increase the knowledge and visibility of Polish traditions for future generations.

By Lorna Radtke