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Polish folk traditions around Easter

This past Sunday was Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. In Poland, for Palm Sunday, people make or buy palms made of either dried flowers and plants or live plants (like a branch of birch or boxwood) decorated with ribbons, live, dried or paper flowers. These palms, although now celebrate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, have even earlier (pagan) roots in Polish culture. They used to represent life, fertility and health.

During Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday),  an important activity was (and is) cleaning and preparing the home. It was tradition to decorate the home for Easter with wycinanki (paper cut-outs), pająki (“spiders” – decorations made of straw), and flowers. Any signs of winter had to be eradicated. All waste was burned on a road or in the orchard with the belief that fire destroys what is old and cleanses what is alive.

pająk made of straw and tissue-paper flowers

Also, during Holy Week, pisanki (colored eggs) were prepared.  The simplest method I know of is using onion peels to dye eggs (brownish tan color). My mother-in-law uses this method to this day, and I remember my grandmother used to color eggs this way. Other ways are oak bark (dark brown and black), young rye (green), apple bark (yellows) and various other plants and flowers. Of course, chemical dyes have mostly eradicated the use of natural ones.

The egg in folk tradition is the concentration of life, a symbol of the universe, fertility, the beginning of spring. The symbols and markings made on the egg were supposed to multiply its magical power. There were symbols for the sun (a swastika), growth (branches with leaves), happiness (rakes), etc. This symbolism is no longer used as many traditions have been wiped out by Catholicism or world events. Today’s pisanki are just beautiful to admire. And now more and more often the interpretation of the egg as the symbol of the resurrection is used.

There are several ways to get the look of the pisanki as pictured below. One method is batik (same as for fabric). Patterns are made with wax and each layer gets a color beginning with the lightest – that is how some of the very colorful pisanki are made. Also, the design can be scratched out on the already dyed egg. These are the methods most often used here in Podlasie, there may be other ones in other regions of Poland. (Authentic) Pisanki is a dying art as there are few people who still make them in the traditional ways. Now there are groups of (mostly) women who create wydmuszki and sell so others have these traditional eggs as decoration. Wydmuszki is an empty decorated egg.

pisanki from Podlasie

wydmuszki

On the Saturday before Easter, Polish Catholics prepare the Easter basket and go to church to have it blessed with holy water. It must include eggs, gammon (usually homemade, although nowadays it is often replaced by a store-bought meat product), salt, horseradish and bread. The basket is laid out with white linen and decorated with green live plants. Below is an image of a typical Easter table with a basket.

This tradition of blessing food with water is older than Christianity in Poland. It was connected with the magic of creation, ensuring abundance for the year, and the unbreakable bond between life and death.

On the Monday after Easter is Dyngus (Wet Monday), as on this day (usually young) people pour water on each other. This is another pagan tradition that has been kept up. Dyngus was the pagan god of water. The water was supposed to wash off winter idleness and bring health, and the intensity of pouring the water was supposed to ensure plentitude of water for crops. Water in mythology is generally considered a symbol of fertility, as water falling on the ground brings crops. It also has cleansing properties, especially ritual cleansing (blessing, ablutions, etc.)

In searching about Dyngus on the net, I found this interesting entry on Wikipedia.

There are so many other things I could write about related to Easter (like food) and folk traditions, but I think I’ve provided a fairly decent overview here.

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