While China usually celebrates Spring Festival around February, Polish people ( just like the rest of the world) need to wait for the first full moon of the spring ( after March 21) to officially welcome this beautiful green and flowery season with Easter Sunday (which this year will be on April 16). That’s because Poland follows the Western Roman Catholic Calendar, so the rites and practices are market by Christianity. Yet, the celebration still remain strongly influenced by pagan traditions. It is usual for both modern and conservative families to partake in the celebrations, regardless of what their religious beliefs may be.
The first sign of approaching Easter in Poland is a large number of branches and dried flowers being brought to church. One week before Easter, Palm Sunday (in Polish niedziela palmowa) takes place. According to Catholic tradition, the day marks the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem. Since palm trees are rare in Poland – although there is one known specimen – churchgoers often bring pussy willows or ‘palms’ made of colourful woven dried branches.
The Holy Week preceding Easter involves spring cleaning. In the countryside, people would use the occasion to repaint their barns. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood related to preparations for Easter is the smell of wood polish for the floors of my grandparents’ apartment. Religious fasts are sometimes observed in varying degrees of strictness. Families visit representations of the tomb of Christ, often decorated in a spectacular fashion for the occasion.
On the Saturday before Easter Sunday, Poles paint hard-boiled eggs (called pisanki). Some use store-brought kits which make the coloring and decorating easier, others continue to make dyes the traditional way – with boiled onion skins. Egg painting is encountered in several other Slavic cultures, and is thought to date back to talismanic pagan rituals that are over 5000 years old.
Another Saturday activity is the preparation of Easter baskets. Lined with a white linen or lace napkin and decorated with sprigs of boxwood (bukszpan), the baskets contain a sampling of Easter foods: pisanki, a piece of sausage or ham, salt and pepper, bread, a piece of cake and an Easter Lamb made of sugar or even plastic.
They are brought to church to be blessed. My favorite part was a gathering at the Main Market Square at the Mariacki Church and then going for a spring stroll around the old city.
On the most important day, Easter Sunday, some go to church at 6am for the Resurrection mass – a ceremonial service and procession. Homes come alive with families who gather to eat breakfast. Before the meal, in much the same way as for Christmas with the sharing of the opłatek (Christmas wafer), people share wedges of the blessed Easter eggs from the basket. They exchange wishes and a Wesołego Alleluja (Joyful Hallelujah).
The breakfast is dominated by cold dishes and is a feast for meat lovers: ham, sausage, roast meats, pâté (pasztet), eggs, horseradish relish, bread and in most Polish homes – traditional vegetable salad with mayonnaise. Easter breakfast is so decadent that it has to be considered a day-off from the Spring diet. If you ask me for the smell of Easter – it is horseradish and smoked ham!
What follows is a frenzy of Easter cakes: a tall, round 15-yolk sweet yeast cake with a hole in the middle (babka) that can be compared to the American election cake, a mazurek – cake with a fat layer of icing, decorated with dried fruit, walnuts, almonds, roasted seeds or a cheesecake – sernik.
The last festive day is Easter Monday, known as Śmigus-Dyngus (Wet Monday), on which tradition requires that boys throw water over girls and spank them with willow branches or…whole buckets of water!
These are just general traditions.In addition, every city and/or region has it’s own peculiar Easter celebrations but…I will tell you about these in another post!