Traditions of a Polish Easter
by Staś Kmieć
Easter is one of the prominent religious observances in Poland and throughout Polonia abroad. While religious ceremonies follow the rituals of the Christian church, Easter celebrations have embedded the rich heritage of native Polish culture.
Growing up Polish in America during the prime of the Polish church – the center of the community and its culture, was a wonderful experience, rich in tradition. Like many ethnic groups, lives and customs were connected to the church and how a particular ethnicity uniquely intertwined its traditions with religion.
Easter is called Wielkanoc, which means “Great Night,” having only a religious connotation, unlike its English equivalent which originates from Ēostre, the pagan goddess of dawn, spring and fertility. In Polish tradition this is a religious holiday and there is no place for secular fantasies of chocolate and bunnies.
Easter is special with its cherished old customs. From pączki and chruściki on Shrove Tuesday, to the fragrant yeast dough for Easter babka, the aroma that came from the kitchen was magnificent.
But church services, through song and prayer, were at the forefront. Parents instilled the importance of participation and attendance of church worship during Lent: weekly Stations of the Cross and Bitter Lamentations – Gorzkie Żale.
The uniquely Polish ceremony of Gorzkie Żale consists of chanting and texts reflecting on the mystery of Christian redemption and the Passion and death of the Christ. With repetitive motifs, the service consists of evocative hymns focusing on the suffering of Christ, the soul’s lament and the dialogue of Mary with the soul.
Holy week customs date back at least 1000 years. On Holy Thursday in Poland it is the custom to visit seven churches; while in the United States the number is three. The Monstrance holding the sacred host stands prominently on the altar, and the altar boy’s church bells are replaced with the clip-clop nail-hammering sound of wooden kołatki and terkotki.
Good Friday (Wielki Piątek) is a solemn day of prayer and reflection. Some limit themselves to bread and water, and silence during a portion of the day is required. At the conclusion of the mass, the ritual of homage to Christ on the cross is enacted. A fast occurs from midnight until after the Easter basket has been blessed.
A sepulcher is often built in Polish churches and grottos, where a lifelike figure of Christ is displayed lying in the grave. Soldiers, harcerze (boy-scouts) or attendants take turns in guarding the “tomb,” which is elaborately decorated on Easter Sunday, as a remembrance of the Resurrection. In Garfield, N.J., the górale from the Podhalan Society traditionally take watch.
On Holy Saturday (Wielka Sobota) the sternness of Lent is broken. The women of the household prepare the Easter basket and feast. All preparations had to be completed, so that the women would be free from work for the Easter celebration.
Święconka. With the ancient custom of Święconka, the food is blessed with holy water by a priest, who would either come to the house, or samplings of dishes would be taken to church for a communal blessing.
A basket is decorated with green parsley, flowers, and sprigs of pussy willow or boxwood (bukszpan), with a ribbon woven through the handle, and covered with a lace or embroidered doily. The basket traditionally contains: a Paschal lamb — baranek wielkanocny made of butter, cake or sugar and carrying in a cross-balanced position, a small banner sometimes with the letters IHS (representing the lamb of God); hand painted and decorated eggs — pisanki (the symbol of new life); meat (signifying prosperity); horseradish (a bitter herb, signifying the suffering of Christ); salt (a Polish tradition of welcome and hospitality); greenery (the awakening of the earth); and bread/babka (a symbol of communion and the Last Supper). This would ensure a good harvest and sufficient amount of food for coming year.
Pisanki. Although the ancient European art of Pisanki has become very closely associated with Easter, it first came about more than 2000 years ago when people realized the connection between the egg and spring (chickens lay more eggs in spring, when the daylight hours are long, than in fall and winter).
Decorative motifs include: the chicken and rooster (symbols of fertility), grain (good harvest), sun (light and life) and a green bough or bloom.
To produce the colors, natural dyes are used. Onion skins, buckwheat husks, campion, bark of the wild apple, leaves of birch or alder, and the flower of the lilac create yellow. For red cochineal (a female insect), deer horn, sandalwood, or beets are used. Green come from sunflower seeds and wild alder berries. Hollyhock blooms are used for certain shades, as well as various other blooms, leaves and moss. Carrots make orange, fruit of blackthorn for blue and different grasses and nettle for green.
On Saturday evening’s Easter Vigil, a fire is lit outside the church, while parishioners begin the service holding lit-candles in the darkness. The church bells are rung again following 40 days of silence. Out of the solemnity of Lent, the joyous, culturally distinctive Easter songs burst forth. Holy Water is made available to bring home.
Easter morning mass is rich in procession, incense and ritual. Under a canopy the priest, dressed in gold and white robes carries the monstrance. In many churches, young girls sprinkle rose petals along the path, and the church is overflowing.
Following Mass, the Easter breakfast takes place. Before the start of the meal, the head of the house cuts a blessed hard boiled egg into slivered segments, and offers it to each of those present at the breakfast with wishes for a long life of happiness and joy and “Wesołego Alleluja.”
While the breakfast is traditionally a cold collation of already prepared foods, the meal may have a variety of other dishes. Many Polish families make a firm “Easter Cheese,” which is a combination including farmer’s cheese and sour cream. This mixture is placed in a linen bag and tied up to dry.
The traditional biały (white) barszcz – Żur/Żurek is distinctively one of the most common soups. Thinly sliced or cubed kielbasa sausage, ham, hard-boiled eggs, horseradish root, and bread are often added to this soup commonly made with fermented rye meal.
Many Polish churches host a traditional Polish Święconka dinner in the weeks following Easter. Like Opłatek, Christmas dinners, it is a time to celebrate with the extended family of the Polish community. The Syrena Dancers of Milwaukee continue this tradition each year, by holding a Święcone buffet dinner on Palm Sunday at Blessed Sacrament Church Hall.
Wesołego Alleluja i smacznego jajka!