Polish Easter Customs
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!
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .