Easter in Kashubia
default, Easter in Kashubia, Two-metre 'pisanka' painted in Kashubian embroidery patterns by women from 'Koło Gospodyń Wiejskich' (Group of Rural Housewives) from Łapino, photo: Ł, center, wielkanoc_kaszebe_delu_290313_019.jpg
Are you sick of rainbow-coloured pisanki, tables covered with a glut of mazurka cakes and buckets of water on Wet Monday? We’re here to suggest you turn instead to Kashubia’s Easter traditions.
Kashubians living in the northern part of Poland (in Pomerelia and the eastern part of Pomerania) successfully weave together pagan traditions with Christian faith. Though their rich culture began commingling with Polish traditions after World War I, there are still certain areas where ancient traditions are maintained. Let’s take a peek inside a Kashubian home to understand what their Easter preparations are like.
Polish Easter Traditions
Niedzela Kwietnô (Palm Sunday)
Tasks include: consecration of the palms, visiting the neighbours. Afterwards: catkins.
To commemorate Christ’s entry to Jerusalem, Christian churches celebrate the consecration of palm branches. Bouquets of freshly cut plants, wrapped in crepe paper or colourful ribbons, are especially popular. After World War II, migrants to Kashubia from the Vilnius Region brought with them colourful handicrafts of woven herbs and flowers. Yet the traditional Kashubian Easter palm is nothing more than a few sprigs of pussy willow covered with catkins, tied together with a string or ribbon.
Kashubians believe that fresh cuttings have a magical power: first of all, they scare away bad fortune and protect against illness. This is why there is an old custom to visit your neighbours and lash them with a palm branch, saying: ‘Wierzba bije, jô nie bije. Za tidzéń wiôldżi dzéń, za nocë trzë i trzë są Jastrë’ (‘The branch is beating, I’m not beating. Next week, there will be a great day, in three and three nights it will be Easter’).
The remaining sprigs of pussy willow are most often placed behind every portrait in the house, as well as in barns, stables and bee hives. The second magical power protects against sore throats and fever. This protection can be guaranteed by swallowing one fluffy catkin. The third power is returning an animal’s vitality. This is why you’re supposed to hit your cattle with a palm as well.
Afterwards, these palms cannot be simply thrown away. It’s best to burn them during a thunderstorm – as far as the smoke reaches, lightning won’t strike – or chop them up and mix them together with your seeds in order to guarantee a good harvest.
On the other days, prepare for Easter.
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Wiôldżi Czwiôrtk (Maundy Thursday)
Tasks include: sowing and planting, preparing eggs.
How do you ensure that flowers bloom for a long time, and that your trees and shrubs present well? Kashubians have a secret method to guarantee this. They believe the Holy Week, and especially Maundy Thursday, is the best time to begin sowing and planting. This same day is also used to begin preparations for the Easter table. A mazurek cake? No chance. The tradition of baking these only made their way into this region at a much later date. However, babka and yeast cake have always had their fair share of admirers here. Most importantly, there can be no shortage of Easter eggs.
Kashubian housewives could do well to join the colour theory conversation. Alder pine cones, elderberries or dried blueberries are used for red dye. Blackthorns – blue dye. Deep purple is achieved through dark hollyhock petals. Vibrant green – from grass, winter crops and the leaves of herbs, especially their queen – according to Hippocrates – the stinging nettle. Birch and alder leaves, the bark of young apple trees, dried flower petals, sugar cane, camomile and larch needles create a whole palette of yellow hues.
Orange comes from pumpkins and carrots. A dash of brown can be stolen from the shells of nuts or fir needles, or best of all, oak and alder bark. Gold? All it takes is mixing yellow and brown dyes together. All sorts of blends are encouraged. Eggs are dipped into the prepared mixture; the final colour is decided not just by the ingredients used, but also the amount of time spent dying, the temperature and the mixture’s thickness. The finished egg can be covered with a thin layer of oil to add shine. Kashubians don’t add any painted or scratched-in decorations, just beautifully rich colours.
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Płaczëbóg (Good Friday)
Tasks include: sweeping rooms, preparing for Wet Monday.
It’s time for the last finishing touches before Easter. Although whitening the walls and cleaning equipment has taken place over the last few days, Friday is the traditional day to sweep the rooms. Józef Łęgowski, known as Nadmorski, noted: ‘There is one more, most likely ancient tradition on Good Friday: before the sun sets, the women sweep their hovels, and, taking off their clothes, they carry out the trash to their neighbours – in this way ridding their home of vermin (lice and fleas) and driving them into their neighbour’s house’.
The day of Jesus’s crucifixion, or Good Friday, is known by the ancient word ‘Płaczëbóg’. To remind the household of Christ’s whipping, the housewife beats the whole family with a prickly branch of gooseberry, shouting out: ‘Płaczëta, dzys je Płaczëboga!’ (‘Good Friday, today is Good Friday!’) The husband received the brunt of the beating, while the children were only hit symbolically. In certain areas (such as near Puck), this beating took place on Thursday; in Greater Poland it is known as Boże rany (God’s Wounds).
In Kashubia, when the churches’ bells stop ringing – a sign of mourning after Christ’s death – you can hear a noisy rattling. Young boys walk through villages, rattling and clattering to signify a time of mourning. Supposedly these noises can be heard through the night to the next day.
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Wiôlgô Sobòta (Holy Saturday)
Tasks include: blessing the fire, putting away żurek, bathing.
Fire is said to be an effective method of fighting evil. In Kashubian homes, all hearths are put out, to be relit on Saturday. The fires should be restarted with smouldering coals of buckhorn or blackthorn brought from campfires which are kindled near forks in the roads. Once the magical cleansing is complete, the remaining coals are used to mark black crosses on every door of the home and the stables, meant to guarantee success. Near Bytów, people used to kindle fires at the cemetery, and the ashes were thrown onto fields to protect against hailstorms.
While Good Friday is a part of Lent, on Holy Saturday, it’s time to say goodbye to this period. And how? It’s important to ceremoniously chase it out of Poland. The symbol of Lent is żurek, and in Kashubia, this sour rye soup is the main dish – alongside salted herring (‘W posce beczka sledzy, a w żniwa beczka piwa’ [‘At Lent, a barrel of herring, and at harvest time, a barrel of beer’]).
In Kartuzy County, there is a tradition of hiding żurek, or taking part in a ceremonial walk through the village with a pot of soup, which is then smashed against the back of one of the participants (at least, that’s how ethnographer Bożena Stelmachowska remembers it). That’s where the saying ‘Nie gadôj o żurze, bo są ju Jastrë’’ (‘Don’t talk of żurek, it’s already Easter’) comes from – in other words, ‘what you’re talking about is no longer pertinent’.
Midnight is the best time for bathing in a lake or river. Water from these sources protects against skin and eye ailments and even contains anti-aging properties. If someone lacks the courage to take a ritual dip in the freezing water, it’s enough to fill up a pot and bring it – in silence – to their house. It can later be used for cosmetic purposes, ensuring beautiful skin. However, one must hurry when collecting the water, as it loses its potency once the sun comes up.
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Tasks include: resurrection, Easter breakfast, evening betrothals (optional).
Before dawn on Sunday, usually between the hours of three and five, Kashubian villages are filled with noise resembling the pounding of drums. The village youth wake the town for the Resurrection mass. In earlier times, it took place an hour after sunrise, and it was a unique time to experience the sun peeking out from the horizon, where you could also witness – if one can believe the accounts of certain Kashubians – a flag with a lamb symbolising Jesus Christ.
Kashubian Easter is known as Jastrë, and linguists have a few theories as to the origins of this name. Some see the connection between the Germanic goddess of light Eostre (Ostara) – also the root of the German Ostern (Easter). Others believe the source is closer to home: from the Slavic Jastrzëbog or the goddess Jastra. The word jaster also means ‘light’, ‘lucent’.
Easter breakfast varies depending on a family’s resources. In the past, wealthier families and minor nobility were the only ones to bless their Easter baskets (which contained eggs, sausage, meat and bread). Poorer families ate only a simple meal. Not every household took part in the tradition of sharing eggs – in Pomerania, this became popular only after the year 1920.
Kashubian tradition dictates creating a lamb figurine out of butter and placing it on the breakfast table. Yet the queen of the breakfast is a plate of scrambled eggs. There are many variations of the meal; for those living near the sea, the eggs are paired with eel. One recipe is as follows:
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Your best bacon should be cut into small squares, thrown onto the frying pan and fried until the fat dissolves. Toss slices of onion onto this, then fry until golden. In a small pot, crack eggs, 2 to 3 per person, and mix into a uniform mass, adding salt to taste. You can also add, in the peasant style, a tablespoon of wheat flour and half a cup of warm milk. Stir everything together, pour onto a hot pan, and mix until you achieve the proper consistency.
In the evening, zmówinë or zrękowinë are organised, where parents agree to the betrothal of a couple. If the engagement had taken place long ago, a boisterous wedding takes place instead.
Tasks include: Śmigus-Dyngus, greeting the rabbit.
In Kashubia, Śmigus-Dyngus, also known as Wet Monday, has nothing to do with water. Boys begin preparing for this day at least a few days in advance. They gather juniper branches and dry them out, so the needles are stiff and prickly. On Easter, they talk to the head of the household so he leaves an open door or window for the boys to enter through in the early morning. Ladies who receive a beating with the juniper branches means they have a certain popularity with the opposite sex. Some, not wanting to fall victim to this tradition, guarantee their safety by letting their pigs out of the sty. But they can always exact their revenge the next day. During the dëgowanie, you can hear this song:
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Dingus, dingus – all done
The crumpets are on the tablecloth.
Mother cuts the slices, father passes them out –
Please pass me some painted eggs.
The word dyngus means ransom, so the only thing that can stop the boys is a gift – usually a painted Easter egg. And how can they be used later? On Easter Monday, a rabbit visits the children with presents (depending on the region, this can also take place on Saturday or Sunday), so you must prepare a nest for him. The painted eggs are gathered in the prepared nest, and parents convince their children that they come from the Easter Bunny.
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, Apr 2019; translated by Alicja Zapalska, Apr 2020
polish easter traditions
Sources: ‘Dawnych Obyczajów Rrok Cały’ by Roman Landowski (Pelplin 2000), ‘Kaszuby i Kociewie’ by Józef Łęgowski (Poznań 1892), ‘Rok Obrzędowy Na Kaszubach’ by Longin Malicki (Gdańsk 1986), ‘Frazeologia Kaszubska a Wierzenia i Zwyczaje Na Tle Porównawczym’ by Jerzy Treder (Wejherowo 1989), kaszubi.pl