Polish Easter Customs
And Devilish Dyngus
Easter is back again. That traditional holyday that is so rich in Polish heritage is once again gracing our door steps. To this day, eggs are a major item at Easter. They are blessed, they are artificially-painted in many lovely and intricate patterns, and different sections of Poland are known for their individualistic design.
In many of the homes windows are opened wide, and the last remnants of the winter season are cast off. A general housecleaning takes place and the warmth of the oncoming Spring pleasantly fills each home when Easter does arrive. The ending of the period of fast and self denial is greeted with pleasure and relief. To this day, the Poles have faithfully kept the fasting period during the six weeks preceding Easter. In some sections of Poland, especially among the farm people, a soup of soured rye flour or oat — meal with hemp — oil, is the main fasting food and is accompanied by fish dishes.
On Ash Wednesday, willow branches, which are used instead of palms in Poland, are cut and placed into water. If they bud into green branches by Palm Sunday, this was regarded as a good omen. Because of these customs, the willow is regarded with much reverence in Poland. Poets, writers and artists have created many works concerning the willow. As a matter of fact, the weeping willow in Poland is regarded as a symbol of sorrow. The country folk believed that the Holy Virgin weeped under this tree after the death of Christ and that is why the leaves drop toward the ground. The willows wind up being placed behind pictures or mirrors to remain for the whole year as a token of good luck.
The week before Easter is festive and full of activity in preparation for the Easter Holiday. The stores are filled with smoked hams, rosy-white pigs trimmed in green and sausage rings hanging in the shop windows and stacks of eggs awaiting the artist’s brush.
On the Wednesday night before Easter, church services are held. After each psalm is sung a candle is put out as a sign of gloom in sorrow over the torture of Christ. According to old tradition priests still strike the Psalter against the pews, thus making a clanging noise.
On Thursday of Holy Week there is a ceremonial washing of the feet of twelve impoverished old men at the Cathedral in memory of the Last Supper. This ceremony is a reminder of the humility with which Christ washed the feet of his disciples. In olden days Polish kings performed this rite. Today, Bishops and their priests do it.
The evening meal on this day, although one of fasting, has a festive atmosphere in memory of the Lord’s Last Supper. Pike is an indispensable food item because the bones in the head have shapes of all the implements used in crucifying the Lord. The head of the Pike is patiently taken apart and these oddly shaped bones delicately removed. Curiously, the ladder, cross and lance are single, while the nails are in pairs.
The legend is that the fish, which the fishermen disciples caught on Thursday and prepared for supper on this day before the crucifixion, was eaten at that last supper before Christ’s death, and that is why it contains these implements.
It was not permissible to talk or laugh at supper time on the Thursday before Easter, and if any conversation was carried on, it was only about serious and spiritual matters. From Thursday to Saturday mass, no believing and prayerful person would think of playing any sort of instrument.
On either Friday or Saturday of Holy Week everyone goes to visit the various churches in town to view the beautifully and artistically arranged sepulchers bathed in flowers. The tradition is to visit an odd number of churches, at least three, and the usual number is seven. Memories of these visits in early childhood carry their mystic awe into years of adulthood.
According to Polish folklore, on Holy Friday one should bury a small cross in the field in order to secure God’s favor for a wealthy harvest. In southern Poland this custom has been retained with a solemn procession walking through the fields. Another ceremony faithfully kept in practically all Polish villages is the blessing of fires.
The old fire is put out, the flaming candles are taken from the church to start new ones. In localities where the farm people live a long distance from the church a large bonfire is made in the churchyard. The people wait for the priest to bless it, then each person takes a flaming piece of wood from the fire, and hurriedly carries it home.
The resin in the wood keep the fire aglow. Then they kindle the already prepared straw and wood in this kitchen stove, thus starting out the year ahead with a blessed and kindled fire.
The Resurrection marks the culmination of Holy Week. In early days a cannon was fired during this final ceremony at the moment when the priest intoned . . . . “Alleluja.” From this act arose the custom of saying, “Happy Easter.” After the Resurrection Mass at Five a.m. on Sunday morning, everyone was free to eat from the appetizingly arranged table filled with blessed Easter food. Fasting actually ends the day before Easter at Saturday noon. However, according to tradition, festive eating doesn’t begin until Easter morning.
Baskets filled with food – eggs, butter shaped into a lamb, pastry shaped into a lamb with powdered sugar sprinkled over it, ham, sausage, salt, pepper and horseradish — are taken to church on Saturday afternoon to be sprinkled lightly with Holy Water by the priest (Swieconka). In Poland sometimes the priest visits the home himself and blesses the food there. Blessed eggs are sliced and shared at the breakfast table. The members of the family kiss, share their eggs by exchanging pieces and wishing each other good health and luck. In Polish villages, Easter is dedicated to masses and family gatherings and the day is very solemn.
All in all, the Easter Monday and Easter season in general turns out to be a very interesting and celebrated occasion in our Fatherland. Therefore, in closing may I wish all of you a very Happy and Holy Easter Sunday as well as a very enjoyable Easter Monday!
As most of Our Polonia probably knows from reading the above column, the traditional Polish Easter is rich in pageantry. In the affections of the Polish people, Easter is rivaled only by the Christmas Season. For, in the pageantry of Easter are wedded the commemoration of the Lord’s Resurrection and the arrival of Spring.
In America, the culmination of the festive occasion is Easter Sunday. In Poland, however, a great deal of tradition is carried into Easter Monday…..a holiday no less festive than Easter Sunday. On that day a round of visiting begins that does not end until the following Sunday, called Przewodnia, or leading out of the holiday.
Easter Monday is popularly known as dyngus or smigus. On this day the young men in the village throw water at any girl foolhardy enough to venture outside. The wetting ranges from a mere sprinkling to a drenching or even ducking in a stream. In the cities water is frequently replaced by perfume, sprayed on a girl at an unexpected moment. Scholars disagree as to the origin of this unique custom. Some claim it dates back to the 10th century when Poland adopted Christianity and mass christenings in a lake or river were practiced. Others believe it is a reminder of the days when the early Christians gathered in the streets of Jerusalem to discuss the Resurrection and Jews tried to disperse the crowds by throwing water on them.
According to legend…..the god, Wolos, patron and protector of lazy good-for-nothing rascals, takes two bottomless wooden tubs into his hands and spills from emptiness into nothingness. Suddenly a great spring shower forms. From this act arose the ancient custom of showering water upon one another on Easter Monday and Tuesday at early dawn, perhaps as a symbol of Easter rain.
Another Easter Monday custom prevalent in some parts of Poland is walking around with the kurek or cock. Kidnapping a fine live specimen of a roaster or fashioning one out of wood, clay or rags, village boys place him in a brightly colored two-wheel cart and go from home to home singing songs at the end of which they ask for a dyngus or donation. They usually receive an Easter egg or two and a tasty piece of cake.
One of the most interesting of customs takes place just outside of Cracow where there is a tremendous earthen mound erected by the people of that City in honor of the legendary savior of Cracow, Prince Krak. The ceremony takes place on its summit every Easter Monday with little change in all the centuries that it has been practiced. It is considered the greatest Easter attraction in Cracow and is called the Rekawka — derived from the word, reka, meaning hand and referring to the fact that the funeral mound was built by hand. People from all walks of life participate in the curious rite of casting bread, apples, painted eggs, toys, balloons, etc., in the air above the mound. Probably a custom connected with the idea of our reborn nature. It was similarly celebrated by our ancestral Slave.
In some sections of Poland, a custom still preserved is that of village boys and girls going through the villages singing and carrying a small or new sprig, a green branch adorned with flowers, apples, gold and silver braids and bird feathers, signifying their wishes for the coming years agricultural success.
In the rural areas of Poland, myth and myrical went hand in hand during the Easter season. Magical powers were attributed to the blessed food — to the extent that the bones from the meats were thrown into the family water well to keep worms from breeding in the water. Egg shells were hung on the vineyard fruit trees to improve the crop and also scattered in corners throughout the home to keep out vermin and frogs. Even the water in which the eggs were boiled was believed to have magical powers and was poured on the threshold of the cattleshed to ward off witches who would come to steal the milk.
Some of the many customs that have been attached to the Easter season are that Easter eggs are a symbol of young life to be born. The abundance of purple both in the Easter egg coloring and as the covering for statues in church designate a sign of royalty because the color has been deemed suitable to honor Christ, the King. Red, on the other hand, is the color used to symbolize the blood of the Redemption. And the Easter rabbit has won its fame by representing the abundance of life since it can mother many young in a short period of time. We will conclude by not forgetting the beautiful and magnificent lily, the flower of Easter.
All in all, Easter Monday and the Easter season in general turns out to be a very interesting celebrated occasion in our Fatherland. Therefore, in closing may I wish all of you a very Happy and Holy Easter Sunday as well as a very enjoyable Easter Monday!
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . . .