Poland, Easter and Holy Week in

Poland, Easter and Holy Week in

In past times Poles fasted diligently throughout Lent and celebrated Easter with joy and feasting. Although the Roman Catholic Church eliminated much of the Lenten fast in the twentieth century, Poles still celebrate Easter with food and festivity.

Holy Week

In Poland the last week of Lent, Holy Week, is known as Wielki Post or "Great Week." During this week Polish families prepared their homes for Easter. Traditionally women gave their homes a thorough spring cleaning, shopped, baked, and cooked for the Easter feast. They also prepared pisanki, elaborately decorated Easter eggs (for more on pisanki, see Easter Eggs). Men cleaned the yard, farm buildings, and livestock in preparation for Wielkanoc, the great Easter festival (for Polish carnival celebrations, see Paczki Day).

Palm Sunday

Niedziela Kwietna, or Flower Sunday, is an old Polish name for Palm Sunday. This name sprang from the custom of bringing bouquets of flowers, pussy willows, and evergreens to church to be blessed. The flowers and greenery served as a substitute for palm branches, the traditional symbol of the holiday, which do not grow well in Poland and other northern European countries.

Palm Sunday services in Poland's Roman Catholic churches feature processions in which worshipers carry willow branches or sticks decorated with flowers. Weeks before Palm Sunday people cut willow branches, take them home, and place them in pots of water. This causes the branches to bud in time for Palm Sunday. In the past parents encouraged their children to swallow one of the fuzzy little buds which, according to folklore, would prevent sore throats and perhaps even keep the youngsters in good health throughout the year. Another old folk custom advised parents to strike their children on the legs with the pussy willow branches in order to make them good and pure. A related bit of folklore proposed that tapping men on the legs with pussy willows would encourage their crops to grow, while tapping women on the legs could make them fertile.

Inhabitants of the town of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska stage the nation's best-known Passion plays on Palm Sunday. Both local residents and religious pilgrims take part, dressed as Romans, disciples of Jesus, and as Pharisees (Jewish religious officials in biblical times). Thousands of people attend the performance, which is held at a monastery on the side of a hill. The small town also boasts impressive palm processions, featuring artificially constructed palm branches reaching up to thirty feet in length.

Holy Wednesday

Old folk traditions associated with the Wednesday of Holy Week taught Polish youngsters to build straw dummies representing Judas, the disciple who handed Jesus over to the religious authorities (see also Spy Wednesday). They hurled these effigies from church steeples, dragged them through the streets, beat them with stones, and tossed their remains into a pond or lake to "drown" (see also Judas, Burning of). In some places this custom takes place on Maundy Thursday.

Maundy Thursday

Many Poles attend church services on this day. In Roman Catholic churches these services feature footwashing ceremonies. At the close of the service the remains of the consecrated Eucharist are put in a special container which is placed on a beautifully decorated altar, sometimes referred to as a sepulchre. Many parishes vie with each other to see who can create the most memorable display. Devout Poles may uphold the old custom of visiting seven different churches in order to view seven of these altars on the evening of Maundy Thursday (see also Holy Sepulchre).

In past times many Polish families did their Easter baking on Maundy Thursday. According to another old custom people lit fires for the poor to warm themselves by and provided them with food on Maundy Thursday. When church bells stop ringing on the Thursday of Holy Week, Polish parents traditionally told their youngsters that the bells had flown away to Rome.

Good Friday

Solemn church services mourning the death of Jesus take place on Good Friday. These services feature a devotional activity known as the Veneration of the Cross.

On Good Friday many churches display life-sized images of Jesus lying in the tomb. These tableaux often include figures of angels, lit candles, flowers, and the three crosses of Mount Calvary, where Jesus was crucified alongside two thieves (see also Good Thief; for more on crucifixion, see Cross). Devout Poles often consider a visit to these displays an important devotional exercise, especially on Holy Saturday.

Devout Poles may observe a strict fast on Good Friday, consuming neither food nor beverages. Some will eat only simple, cold foods like bread and cold baked potatoes. Some cover the mirrors in their homes with a black veil to remind them that they are in mourning for the death of Jesus Christ (see also Veiling). Good Friday was the day traditionally reserved for the decoration of pisanki, or Easter eggs.

Holy Saturday

On this day Poles prepare baskets of Easter foods which are taken to church later that evening to be blessed (see also Easter Vigil). Each of these foods symbolizes an aspect of the Easter festival. The Easter eggs represent life and rebirth. The Polish sausage (kielbasa) or ham stands for the lifting of the old dietary laws that restricted Jews from eating pork. Horseradish or pepper symbolizes the bitter herbs eaten by Jews during Passover. A lamb, made from cake, butter or plaster, represents Jesus as the sacrificial "lamb of God." Bread reminds Poles of the biblical teaching that Jesus is the "bread of life." Wine signifies the blood of Christ, shed during the Crucifixion. Vinegar recalls the vinegar offered to Jesus as he hung on the cross. Salt, together with bread, denotes hospitality. Before placing these foods in the basket Poles line the basket with a white napkin. They cover the foods with another linen or lace napkin and decorate it with sprigs of boxwood.

In past times Poles extinguished all their home fires on Holy Saturday. They relit them with the candle brought back from the Easter Vigil service (see also Easter Fires). Many Poles still bring back holy water, specially blessed water, from this service. They traditionally used this water to confer blessings on family members, crops, and livestock.

Easter Sunday

On Easter Sunday Poles offer one another the traditional Polish Easter greeting, "A joyful alleluia to you." On Easter Sunday morning Poles celebrate by ringing church bells, silenced since Maundy Thursday. This celebration may also include various kinds of bangs and explosions, understood as symbolic of Jesus'rising from the dead.

Easter Sunday religious services usually feature a procession around the church with the Blessed Sacrament (or Eucharist) carried underneath a canopy. Poles hurry home after Easter morning church services to start their Easter feast. They often begin the banquet by sharing wedges of blessed Easter eggs and exchanging Easter blessings with one another. Many Polish Easter tables feature a centerpiece in the shape of a lamb, made from sugar, cake, or plaster. Indeed, the image of a lamb carrying a banner stamped with a cross is an important Easter symbol in Poland.

Easter Monday

Poles celebrate Easter Monday, or Dyngus Day, with a folk custom that encourages men to drench women with water. Some researchers believe that this custom dates back to pre-Christian times when it was viewed as a means of ensuring purity, fertility, and cleanliness. The word dyngus is of uncertain origin, but one writer believes it may come from a root word meaning "worthy" or "bicker." In the old days young men accomplished their Easter Monday task with pails, or by dragging young women to nearby ponds, streams, or horse troughs and throwing them in. Nowadays some youth merely sprinkle girls with water, but other more boisterous lads have taken to drenching anyone they meet, using watering cans, squirt guns, and any other method they find handy. Easter Monday is so closely associated with these customs that Poles often call the holiday Lany Poniedzialek (Wet Monday) or Swietego Lejka (St. Drencher's Day). The very next day tradition permitted girls free reign to drench the boys with water (for more on this custom, see Easter Monday).

In Poland people once practiced chodzenie on Easter Monday. Young people gathered together in groups and went door to door singing songs and reciting bits of folk poetry. Some attempted to combine this custom with water throwing, threatening to drench householders who did not offer them anything in return for their efforts. Good-humored families usually presented the Easter carolers with a few treats, including Easter eggs, a taste of homemade liquor, small change, a piece of cake, or a bite of sausage. Polish folk tradition permitted chodzenie throughout the Easter season, a fifty-day period beginning on Easter Sunday and ending on Pentecost.

Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Nowakowski, Jacek, and Marlene Perrin. Polish Touches. Iowa City, IA: Penfield Press, 1996.

Web Sites

For more on Lent, Carnival and Easter in Poland, see "Polish Easter Traditions," a web site designed by Dr. Ann Hetzel Gunkel, a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at Columbia College in Chicago: http://acweb. colum.edu/users/agunkel/homepage/easter/easter.html "A Guide to Polish Easter Traditions" by Robert Strybel, posted at the Polish- American Journal web site at: The Polish Genealogical Society's customs and traditions page at: "The Origins of Dyngus," an article by Czeslaw M. Krysa, posted at the Po- lish-American Journal web site at: The Polish News' "Did You Know That . . .; Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Poland: Special Easter Edition" by Robert Strybel at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002