A Journey through Polish Easters Past
#language & literature
full-width, A Journey through
Polish Easters Past, A 'kraszanka', or Silesian 'pisanka', created with a special tool, photo: Edwin Remsburg / VW Pics via Getty Images, center, kroszonka_-_gettyimages.jpg
Easter is the oldest and most important holiday in the Christian liturgical calendar, dedicated to the memory of Christ’s resurrection.
The date of the holiday was chosen in 325 AD during the First Council of Nicaea, linking it with the Jewish holiday of Passover: the first Sunday after the full moon, between 22nd March and 25th April. Christianity superseded other pagan spring celebrations, retaining much of their character but changing the symbolic meaning. Here, Culture.pl’s Janusz R. Kowalczyk introduces you to some Polish Easter traditions that have stood the test of time.
A funeral for żurek & herring
Easter Celebrations in Lviv: Tradition & Modernity
standardowy [760 px]
Easter table, Museum in Wdzydze Kiszewskie, photo: Dominik Sadowski / AG
Easter is preceded by the 40 days of Lent, the last seven days of which make up Holy Week. Alongside cleaning the home, a person mortifies the flesh to help clear out the internal state.
The end of Lent was an opportunity for youth to get their revenge upon the much-maligned żurek and herring, which had been present in their kitchens for far too long. Father Jędrzej Kitowicz colourfully summed up the ceremony in his work Opisie Obyczajów za Panowania Augusta III (A Description of Customs Under August III’s Rule):
10 Traditional Dishes of Polish Easter
In the evening of Good Friday or on Saturday morning, a team from small manor homes, using a thin thread to tie the herring onto a long and thick cord, hung this creation onto a willow or other tree – sentencing it for dominating over the meat for six Sundays, starving human stomachs. The żurek was carried out of the kitchen, deemed no longer necessary, creating a trap for some fool. They convinced him to carry it upon his back, or above his head as if for a funeral; someone walked behind him with a spade in order to dig a hole and thus bury the żurek. When they made it from the kitchen to the churchyard, the one carrying the spade struck the pot, and the żurek spilled out onto the carrier, invoking laughter in his assistants.
The herring was usually made out of wood or cardboard. It sometimes happened that a trickster hanging the great pot of żurek up on the tree would spill its contents onto his hapless helper.
During these multi-week church services, the faithful contemplated Christ’s last few days on Earth. They consecrated water and fire and prepared Easter eggs. Even in pre-Christian times, eggs were a symbol of life and reproduction. For Christians, it is a symbol of the Resurrection.
The tradition of painting eggs can be found in Wincenty Kadłubka’s chronicles from the 13th century: ‘Poles have long been jealous and unreliable, playing with their rulers like painted eggs’.
The ruling pig
standardowy [760 px]
Smoked meat for the Easter meal, Museum in Wdzydze Kiszewskie, 2009, photo: Dominik Sadowski / AG
The traditional Polish goods consecrated by the priest on Holy Saturday included cold dishes – mainly meat, boiled eggs and cakes. The most important food was the ham (preferably with the bone still attached), smoked in juniper, alongside a homemade sausage. According to Zygmunt Gloger’s Encyklopedia Staropolska (Old-Polish Encyclopedia), this ‘was from ancient times a Polish delicacy… amongst both nobility and peasants, it held first place on the Easter table’.
According to Gloger, a good cook knew at least 12 ways to prepare sausage, whereas the king’s chef knew at least double that. Next to the meats and sausage, there was one wine-infused dish, described by Adam Mickiewicz, that could hardly be missing from the table:
Polish Food 101 ‒ Bigos
…indescribable with words
Bigos, of stunning colour and marvellous aroma…
Take a handful of chopped pickled cabbage,
That jumps into your lips, like the old adage…
Pick out the best cuts of your meat
Roast them, until the fire’s heat
Squeezes out the juices, until the whole pot crackles
And the air yawns out with the aroma…
Amongst the holiday cakes, there are Easter babkas – also known as ‘babine kołacze’ (old woman’s kalach) – which Gloger described as:
A Sweet Treat Fit for a King: Baba, or Poland’s Gift to the World of Pastry
…a well-known dough of wheat flour, in the shape of a Turkish turban, baked in copper and clay moulds or skillets and paper moulds. The latter has up to two feet of height [approx. 60 cm] and are known as ‘podolskie’. As to the type of cake, these are universally known: baked babkas, petynetowe babkas [made with extra yolks], almond babkas, whole-wheat and tri-colour babkas (made with white, red and dark dough).
Maria Czapska, in Europie w Rodzinie (Europe in the Family), reminisced:
Easter was an abundant affair in every Polish home. Amongst the babkas, crumpets, cakes and mazurkas, various pastries, hams and sausages, the king was, of course, baked pig – sometimes even capercaillie, decorative with its shaggy head, fan-like tail and spread wings.
Śmigus in bed
standardowy [760 px]
'Wesołego Alleluja' (Happy Hallelujah) by Włodzimierz Tetmajer, 1959, Polonia Publishing House, Kraków / East News
The second day of Easter is more concerned with Śmigus-Dyngus, or Wet Monday. Gloger asserts:
Śmigus-Dyngus: Poland's National Water Fight Day
The beginning of this tradition must be ancient, since we see it in Asia as well as amongst Aryan people, such as the Slavs. The Englishman Symes described his 1796 journey to Bengal, and the King of Burma in Pegu said that Buddhism in that area celebrates around 10th April a three-day festival for the end of the year. On the second day of the holiday, the Burmese have a tradition of ‘washing off the sins of the past year’ by splashing each other with water. Even the viceroy isn’t safe from the practice as people pour water by surprise from windows and roofs onto passers-by. In the viceroy’s palace, after the formal ceremony, visitors were left in the hands of 30 court ladies who burst into the room with watering cans and sprinklers and begin mercilessly spraying everyone. ‘We gave them everything,’ Symes said, ‘until the water ran out and everyone was soaked to the bone’. Of course, for Christians, this tradition had to be transformed. In Poland, it was given a German name and tied to Easter. [Karol] Libelt noted that dyngus may be a Polish version of the German ‘dünnguss’, meaning watered-down alcohol and eventually coming to mean a splash of water. The notable linguists [Aleksander] Brückner and [Jan Aleksander] Karłowicz said that the word ‘dyngować’ comes from the German ‘dingen’, meaning to purchase, bargain or appraise. ‘Dingnus, dingnis’ was a bribe or ransom paid during the war to protect against robbery. Young women pay students and boys this ‘dingus’ in the form of ‘małdrzyki’ [flat-cakes with cheese] to not be splashed with water. ‘Śmigus’, on the other hand, comes from ‘schmackostern’, where those who were caught sleeping in bed were smacked with a palm or rod before being splashed with water.
Off to Emaus
standardowy [760 px]
Śmingus-Dyngus in Bukowina Tatrzańska, photo: Adrian Gładecki / Reporter / East News
Documents from Poznań’s synod in 1420 confirm that the original dyngus was an imposed gift, most often of eggs, given under the threat of a ‘bath’. The Dingus Prohobeatur resolution commanded priests: ‘You must forbid that on the second and third day of Easter, men and women harass one another for eggs and other gifts, known locally as “dyngus”, or that they lead each other to water’.
In our country, the game had a gentler form amongst refined company than in the villages, yet Jędrzej Kitowicz didn’t hide that:
Easter in Kashubia
When the campaign became frisky, ladies-in-waiting and courtiers, sires and maidens poured water on each other in any means necessary; hajduks and locals brought them water and the distinguished company, taking it from them, chased and splashed each other from head to toe, so that everyone was soaked as if they’d been in a flood.
The high-spirited game (with its share of dalliances) took place for centuries both in villages and in town. All social circles took part, which Father Kitowicz described with an appropriate amount of detail:
Retro Polish Easter Cards – Image Gallery
It was a universally lawless time in our country, both amongst the rabble as amongst the distinguished classes; on Easter Monday, men poured water onto women, and on Tuesday and the following days, women onto men, making use of this power until Green Week… They splashed each other in various ways. Distinguished admirers, not wanting to provoke their lover’s ire, delicately sprinkled rose or other scented water on their hand, or at most, used a sprinkler or flagon upon their breast. Others put rowdiness ahead of discretion… they dowsed maidens with plain water, using mugs, goblets, large sprinklers, from their face to their legs and back… all over streets in cities and villages the youth lay in ambush, accosting passers-by and on occasion, while aiming for a fellow boy or girl, instead hitting their hapless friend, sometimes even a priest, distinguished elder or grandma.
The Italian Giovanni Paolo Mucanti described his experience of witnessing that Cracovian custom of ‘carrying on this day (Easter Monday, that is) a dowsing rod, onto which were tied catkins – you would hit damsels with them while saying, ‘you seem to be walking quite slowly to Emaus’.
Emaus, a traditional parish fair, has taken place for centuries in Kraków at the Norbertanek Convent in Zwierzyniec. The event, which takes place on Easter Monday, serves as commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection in the biblical town of Emaus.
From excess to loss
12 Little-Known Gems of Kraków
standardowy [760 px]
'Pisanki', painted Easter eggs, photo: Wojciech Wojtkielewicz / Polska / East News
A lack of moderation in drinking and eating (something still common in Poland), especially around Eastertime, was humorously noted by Mikołaj Rej of Nagłowice in the 16th century:
Guilty Pleasures: Regional Fast Foods from Poland
On Easter day, those who do not eat the consecrated eggs, the sausage to protect against snakes, the horseradish to protect against fleas, and the mountain ash to protect against incarceration is a bad Christian… from this excess… only terrible loss will come, then gluttony, and then all sorts of ulcers and accidents, both numerous and harmful.
Jan Aleksander Karłowicz
polish easter traditions
Three hundred year later, Rej’s observation would be echoed in Italy. Ambroży Grabowski, a bookseller and chronicler of 19th-century Kraków, wrote down a memory of his friend, who, as a clergyman, underwent part of his novitiate in Italy. After being fed meagre rations of food, the friend was emboldened to ask his host if he could receive more food for breakfast, and not just one egg. A general air of consternation fell upon the room, since everyone else had satiated their hunger with their portions. His patron, exhibiting a worldly understanding of the foreigner’s needs, turned to the brother who was handing out meals, and advised: ‘Give this Pole another egg. Let him gorge himself until he cracks’.
Sources: ‘Encyklopedia Staropolska’ (Old-Polish Encyclopaedia) by Zygmunt Gloger (photo-offset reprint from 1900-1903, Warsaw 1978); Encyklopedia Tradycji Polskich (Encyclopaedia of Polish Traditions) by Renata Hryń-Kuśmierek and Zuzanna Śliwa (Poznań 2000); Słownik Mitów i Tradycji Kultury (Dictionary of Myths and Cultural Traditions) by Władysław Kopaliński (Warszawa 1987); Święta Polskie: Tradycja i Obyczaj (Polish Holidays: Traditions and Customs) by Barbara Ogrodowska (Warszawa 2000).
Originally written in Polish by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, translated by AZ, Apr 2020