Mention Easter and most Americans think of Easter bunnies, egg hunts, and sweets for children. In Poland the spring holiday involves more religious ceremony and significance. From Lent to Wet Monday, ancient church traditions give meaning to the celebrations.
Lent, The Great Fast
Lent, the six weeks of spiritual reflection and fasting prior to Easter Sunday, is widely observed in Poland. Alcohol sales drop. Many Poles give up meats, sweets, and other pleasures during wielki post in accordance with Catholic tradition.
Palm Sunday Traditions in Poland
Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, the last week before Easter. In Christian celebration, Palm Sunday commemorates Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before his death. Poland, a staunchly Catholic nation, observes the day in a unique way.
The palm trees, unable to grow in the cold climate of Poland, were not available in past centuries. So the Poles improvised and created wild flower bouquets, or sheaves of wheat and dried grasses bound into a long wand. This “palm” would then be taken to the church to wave. Later it would return to the home for a decoration during Holy Week. The custom grew into a beloved tradition. Even though palms are now available, Poles still prefer to wave fresh greenery and pussywillows or a wand of brilliantly dyed grasses on Palm Sunday.
Good Friday Polish Customs
At the end of Holy Week comes Good Friday. For the average Pole, the weekend will involve multiple church visits, dozens of boiled eggs to dye for the blessing of the Easter basket, and a period of solemn fasting and silence on Good Friday.
Polish Traditions on Easter Sunday
Easter itself, Wielka Noc, is the most important holiday of the Polish year.
The “Great Night,” a literal translation of the Polish name for Easter, ends with a sunrise mass. Families bundle against the chill spring dawn. Church bells summon young and old onto the streets to join a joyous procession around the church and through the neighborhoods in celebration of Christ’s resurrection. After the mass all return home to eat a traditional Easter breakfast. The huge feast features boiled eggs, a sweet bread called Babka, and many varieties of meat which faithful Poles have not tasted during the six weeks of Lent.
The Polish Easter centers around family time. Traditionally it was the one day of the year when the lady of the house rested from cooking and cleaning. The feast came from the packed Easter basket.
Today Poles still place great importance on sharing this most important holiday with extended family. Each person at the table will share a slice of boiled egg with another, wishing them the health and happiness in the year to come.
Wet Monday, Smigus-Dyngus
A curious folk custom gave the day after Easter its name of “Wet Monday.”
Wet Monday is the last day of Easter celebration in Poland. Young people often used this day to play pranks on each other. Since each parish needed holy water over Easter weekend in order to bless the Easter baskets, huge quantities of scented water remained after the Easter masses. Mischievous boys used to take the water from the churches and splash pretty girls with it on the following day. Of course they often got splashed in return!
Although the prank is no longer as common in the cities, a woman might still get sprinkled if she ventures out on Smigus-Dyngus day in Poland.