Easter In Old Poland
Today’s globalized marketing is designed to extract as much money as possible from people’s wallets and credit cards during a lengthy build-up period, only to swiftly refocus on the next big commercial extravaganza down the line. Some Americans take down their Christmas trees as early as December 26th, as the commercial powers that be urge them to think ahead to New Year’s Eve celebrations, fashions, hairdos, decorations and firework displays.. But already on January 2nd, the hapless shopper starts getting bombarded with Valentine hearts, then come the green shamrocks of St Paddy’s Day (March 17th), followed soon thereafter by those omnipresent, buck-toothed Easter bunnies, and so it goes.
This was not the case in the slower-paced, less commercialized days of Old Poland. There were also long build-ups such as Lent or Advent which did lead to a climax (Easter or Christmas respectively), but that did not bring celebrations to an abrupt end. The Christmas season lasted until Candlemas (February 2nd ) and Eastertide stretched another 50 days until Pentecost (Zielone Świątki).
Following 40 days of penance, fasting and prayer during Wielki Post (The Great Fast or Lent), the long-awaited day, Wielkanoc or Wielka Niedziela (Easter or Great Sunday), finally arrived. Rezurekcja, the Easter sunrise Mass of Resurrection, usually began around 6 a.m. and nearly everybody took part. It began with a Eucharistic procession that encircled the outside of the church three times before the actual Mass got under way. Little girls strewed flower petals before the Blessed Sacrament, altar boys jangled bells, and their censers perfumed the early-morning air with what that other-worldly scent of incense.
Church bells, which had fallen silent on Holy Thursday, now rang out joyously to announce his Resurrection. During the procession explosions could be heard – guns and home-made explosives recalled the rumbling believed the have accompanied the opening of Christ’s tomb. A nearby garrison would usually provide an artillery salute for the occasion. Both during the procession and at mass the faithful sang their hearts out, as most everyone knew by heart at least the first stanza of “Wesoły nam dzień dziś nastał”, “Nie zna śmierci Pan żywota” and other popular Easter hymns.
After Mass, parishioners would greet one another with “Chrystus zmartwychwstał!” (Christ has risen), to which the reply came: “Prawdziwie zmartwychwstał!”’ (Truly He has risen). Another greeting was “Wesołego Alleluja!” (Happy Easter) which is still used today.
The faithful then headed home in eager anticipation of all those delicious Easter treats. In some places young farmers raced home, for it was believed that the first to arrive would be blessed by the most abundant harvest that year. The breakfast began with the sharing of blessed Easter eggs, accompanied by mutual well-wishing. On the table were the foods blessed the previous day by a priest.
In many families the first course was a bowl of steaming Easter soup – a tart, fermented ryemeal soup known as żurek or a similar biały barszcz (white borscht). Hard-cooked eggs, plain or garnished with various toppings, also tasted especially good to people who had not eaten a single egg for the past 40 days. And there would be various meats – sausages. roasts, hams, head cheese (salceson) , black pudding (kaszanka) and jellied pig’s trotters (zimne nogi). Cakes included babas (tall, raised egg cakes, usually studded with raisins and glazed with icing), plain and filled raised egg breads (placki, bułki drożdżowe, chałki), sernik (cheesecake) and the mazurek, a flat Easter cake of which countless varieties existed.
After the festive Święcone (Easter breakfast or brunch), the head of the household would take the palm blessed at church on Palm Sunday, dip it in the freshly blessed Holy Water sprinkle his home, livestock, outbuildings and fields to protect them from misfortune and ensure a good harvest. The balance of the day was usually spent in the immediate family circle, chatting, snacking and possibly going for an afternoon stroll.
The youngsters amused themselves with popular Easter games. Walatka or wybitka required two contestant’s to each their Easter eggs together. The one whose egg remained intact won and got the other player’s egg as his prize. Another contest was the egg roll was known as toczenie pisanek, turlanie jaj or in Śląsk (Silesia) – kulanie jajec. Easter eggs were placed at the top of an inclined plank or even a small hill and released. The one whose egg rolled the farthest was the winner.
The following day was known as Lany Poniedziałek (Drenching Monday), when boys went on the prowl armed with buckets of water and various squirting devices in search of eligible young maidens. The lasses shrieked in protest while being drenched but secretly welcomed such attention. A maiden that remained dry on that day felt neglected and unpopular. This custom has come to be known as śmigus-dyngus.
In Pomorze (Pomerania), Kashub country along the Baltic Sea, boys practiced a “dry dyngus” and instead of drenching the girls thrashed their legs with pussywillows. Other regions also had their own local traditions. In Kraków to this day, Easter Monday means the Emaus parish fair in the city’s Zwierzyniec district. Stalls offer various folk toys, balloons and gadgets as well as sweets and treats including the traditional gingerbread hearts. There are rides for the kiddies, a folk band or two and maybe even an organ-grinder with his pet parrot.
The Racibórz area of Śląsk is known for its Hundred-Horse Procession. Leading the cavalcade is the parish priest in full liturgical garb on horseback. He is flanked by two of the most distinguished parishioners: one with a large cross, the other with a statue of the Risen Christ. The riders trace the parish boundaries, with other parishioners following on foot, and lead the procession to a local wayside shrine where the faithful as well as the surrounding fields are blessed.
But all over Poland, Easter Monday was also the day various house-to-house revelers began making their rounds, some of which would all the way to May. Their garb, routine and texts varied from region to region and village to village, but in general the Easter trick-or-treaters recited comical poems and sang humorous ditties, begging for treats and threatening to play tricks on those who skimped. Such trick-or-treating is far less common than it once was, but can still be encountered, particularly in the mountain areas of southern Poland. In some places they are being consciously revived by clubs and folk groups as local attractions.
By Robert Strybel, Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer