The Curious Transformation of Polish Easter in the US & UK
Poland is well-known for its unique and elaborate traditions surrounding Holy Week and Easter. As Poles left their homeland in the 19th and 20th centuries for the promise of a new life in the West, they carried these traditions with them.
To this day, historically-Polish immigrant communities around the world practice the customs of their ancestors. But how have these traditions changed with the influence of the new country’s culture and the lengthy separation from Poland? To answer this question, Culture.pl interviewed members of Polish immigrant communities in the United States and United Kingdom.
While many countries have a tradition of decorating eggs for Easter, the Poles take the level of artistry to the next level with their pisanki. Eggs are coloured with natural dyes and then have designs either painted on, drawn on with wax, etched on with a needle, or are created out of paper or flower petals. For longer-lasting ornaments, artists decorate wooden eggs instead of real ones.
These days, artificial dye kits can be found in every grocery store as Easter approaches. Bright, pastel-coloured eggs, sometimes with simple geometric patterns are the norm in the English-speaking world. Even so, some Polish descendants still colour their eggs according to methods passed down to them from their grandmothers. Respondents from New York, northern England, and the Great Lakes region of the United States all say that they have coloured eggs with onion skins or beets. Karola Gajda of northern England remembers drizzling molten wax on her Easter eggs with her mother to create more intricate designs. In the same spirit as this, some families draw pictures and patterns on the eggs in crayon that would ‘pop out’ once the eggs were dyed.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week and the last day of celebration before the somber holidays leading up to Easter Sunday. Though palm fronds are readily available in Poland now, Poles used to create their own ‘palms’ in the olden days. This would often entail collecting and weaving together willow branches, pussy willows, various dried grasses and flowers into colourful batons, typically about half a meter long. Different regions of Poland had different decorating styles and in some towns contests are still held for the tallest palm. The palms would be blessed in church on Palm Sunday and then taken home to bring health and happiness to the family.
English and American churches almost exclusively use real fronds today. None of the respondents could recall ever making Easter palms like the ones made in Poland. However, some aspects of this tradition do still exist. After Palm Sunday mass, parishioners would weave the palm fronds into braids, crosses, and roses, sometimes with ribbon for extra decoration. As in Poland, these palms would then be brought home and placed near a holy image to bring health and happiness. Karola Gajda of northern England even recalls: ’my Polish (Catholic) mother asking me to strike her back with a long unplaited palm as she believed that it had healing power!’ Though they are not part of a ‘palm’ itself, pussy willows are still considered an important part of Easter festivities. Sophie Hodorowicz Knab of Buffalo, New York says her family used to go foraging for pussy willows for decoration and to add to the basket for Easter Saturday. Additionally, it is a commonly held belief among older Polish Americans that eating the fuzzy part of a pussy willow will keep you healthy over the coming year.
The Easter lamb is the centerpiece of the Holy Saturday basket and the Easter Sunday feast. For Catholics, the lamb symbolises Jesus Christ and his self-sacrifice. The lamb is usually decorated with the Resurrection Banner, a paper flag with a red cross on a white background that symbolizes Jesus’s victory over death. In Poland, these lambs are often made out of sugar, bread, plastic, or plaster. While our sources from England are unfamiliar with the Easter lamb tradition, it is alive and well in the United States with one main difference: the lambs are made of butter. Butter lambs can be bought in grocery stores across America or from parishes who make and sell them for charity. These days, most people pour liquefied butter into lamb-shaped molds to create their Easter lambs, though some sculpt a block of butter into a lamb by hand. Thomas Zembrzuski of Albany, NY recalls: ‘My mother would sculpt the lamb out of butter and make the lamb have wool by squeezing the butter through cheese cloth.’
Poles have the unique tradition of preparing święconka baskets to be blessed during Easter Saturday services. These baskets would be filled with food for the next day’s feast: bread, ham or sausage, pisanki, cake, as well as the Easter lamb.
Of all the Polish Easter traditions, the święconka basket is the one most fondly kept by the descendants of Polish immigrants today. All of those interviewed gave warm accounts of preparing baskets with their families. Anntonette Zembrzuski Alberti of Albany, New York covers the symbolism of the items in the basket and some of the excitement around the tradition:
My mom would take a big basket and put the butter lamb, Easter ham, kielbasa, placek, rye bread, horse radish, eggs, flowers, pussy willows, a palm and chocolates. Each item has a meaning. For example, the horse radish represented the bitter herbs of Passover and the bitterness of Jesus’ death. The eggs represented the resurrection and new life, the butter lamb represented Jesus, the chocolate represented joy, etc. As my parents assembled the basket they would sometimes explain the meaning of each item. The baskets were also sort of a beauty contest. Everyone made their basket as pretty as possible. My mother always used lace linens. There was also an empty vial in the basket to get some of the new holy water that was made for the year at Holy Saturday services.
When the big day finally arrives and Easter morning services have concluded, it is time for the feast. The spread is enormous, as is expected after 40 days of fasting for Lent. In Poland, the meal is replete with meats and cold dishes, such as biała kiełbasa, ham, eggs prepared in various ways, and so on. These dishes are prepared from the foods that were blessed in the święconka basket the day before. Once the main courses are finished, it is time for a dessert to end all desserts. On Easter, Poles serve several different kinds of cakes: babka, mazurek, sernik. You can learn more about all of these dishes here.
Families of Polish ancestry in America and England enjoy an Easter meal that combines traditional Polish fare with more western dishes. The core dishes of the feast are the same: ham, sausage, eggs. These are often sliced and put on sandwiches with horseradish and fine deli cheeses. Our American respondents reported that they also serve some American cold salads, such as potato, macaroni and fruit salads. Unfortunately, the multi-cake Easter dessert has been abandoned in favor of eating chocolates, jelly beans and other candies found in plastic Easter eggs left by the Easter Bunny. Despite this trend, many Polish families in the United States still eat placek, a cake-like bread often with yellow raisins baked inside it, often enjoyed with a pat of butter from the Easter lamb. Not one respondent mentioned making or eating babka, so perhaps in the United States, placek occupies the same space that babka does in Poland.
Easter Monday brings the raucous and beloved tradition of Śmigus-Dyngus. On this day, which is also appropriately known as Wet Monday, it is customary to douse your family, friends and loved ones with water, and - slightly less fun – to be doused in return. It is a ritual with pre-Christian origins celebrating the spring season and fertility, with boys dousing and smacking girls with pussy willows on Monday and girls getting their chance for revenge the day after. Either due to changing societal norms or perhaps the fatigue of having this wild tradition take place over two days, Śmigus-Dyngus is now confined to one day where everyone may attack anyone (beware of kids with buckets!).
Dyngus Day, as it is called in the United States, is a popular holiday in cities with large Polish-American communities. Buffalo, Cleveland and South Bend, Indiana are all famous for their large Dyngus Day celebrations complete with parades, polka bands, and of course, water fights. But for most of Polish-American population, Dyngus Day is observed on a smaller but no less thrilling scale. The main goal of Dyngus Day is to douse your family members with water when they are not expecting it. Parents who wake up early will use this opportunity to dump a glass of water on their sleeping children. In the evening, when parents are tired and dozing after the day’s activities, the children strike back.
There is some speculation that some of the differences that have arisen between Polish and Polish immigrant Easter customs, such as with the butter lambs and the placek, may actually represent customs that were once practised in Poland but were abandoned in favour of the traditions that are kept today. This may just be hearsay, but it is interesting to imagine that some forgotten Polish traditions may be preserved in other countries today.
All holiday traditions, including Easter traditions, are cherished items that are carried across borders and oceans not in one’s suitcase, but inside one’s soul. For the English and American families of Polish immigrants, they act as heirlooms that represent a connection to ancestors and a homeland left behind and are easily passed down to next generation. The fact that many of the Easter customs practiced in Poland also survive in Polish American and Polish English communities today show the importance this bridge to the past still holds.