Celebrations and Traditions without the Chocolate Bunny
“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” _____Hal Borland
The robin is the bird harbinger of spring in the United States. In Poland, it is the stork that announces the arrival of spring. The stork returns to Eastern Europe in March, after wintering in Africa, to inaugurate the season of rebirth. Stork pairs mate for life and they are revered in Poland. Folklore encourages storks to nest on homes and properties in rural neighborhoods. The mysterious power of stork charm is the gift of fertility and prosperity. It is said that: “The white eagle may be the symbol of Polish nationhood, but it is the white stork that holds the hearts of Poles.” *
Greg and I are in Kraków for another Polish Easter. It is a religious holiday celebrated with hope for a bright, new life, release, and triumph over death. The strong Catholic character of modern Poland has not relinquished a few, enduring pagan traditions. One of the weird customs is the spring equinox celebration known as the Drowning of Marzanna (Topienie Marzanny). Marzanna is an incarnation of the old Slavic goddess of winter, plague, and death. To protect themselves against her icy grasp and encourage the timely arrival of spring, Slavs take part in an old-fashioned witch burning. And then a drowning for good measure. In medieval times, the rite involved making a Marzanna effigy out of straw, which was then wrapped in linen and decorated. At dusk on March 21st, the villagers gather at the riverbank, set the effigy ablaze, toss it into the water, and cheer as the blazing icon floats burning downstream. Today in Poland, children in kindergarten and primary school annually participate in creating a Marzanna doll. In Krakow, the cultural capital of Poland, Marzanna is taken to the banks of the Wisła river, set ablaze and thrown to her watery grave as the children sing songs that welcome spring. Here is the song they sing:
Już wiosenne słonko wzbija się po niebie, W tej wezbranej rzece utopimy ciebie!
As the spring sun rises in a sky of blue, In this swollen river we are drowning you!
Polish Easter is shrouded with special aromas, colours, and customs. Taking part in the celebrations here in Krakow is an illuminating adventure. There is a program of concerts featuring beautiful liturgical music called the Misteria Paschalia.** The events are held in churches and concert halls all over town. The solemnity and beauty of the season is represented in the strains of the simple yet magnificent sacred music. The music resonates for me as I spent many a Lenten season practicing liturgical polyphonic songs for Holy Week under the direction of an authoritarian music instructor. (I’ve included a link to You Tube videos showcasing some of the music. You can find them below in the footnotes. )
The annual Easter fair is held in the Rynek Glówny (the Main Market Square). The large open-air medieval square, located in back of the beautiful Cloth Market (Sukiennice), is decorated with tall, vividly festooned totems representing the palm fronds that are distributed in the churches on Palm Sunday. The vendors in the market sell a variety of the dried botanical arrangements. Generally, they are the representation of the remains of last year’s harvest: sheaves of wheat grass, dried flowers, bustles of dyed-dried plant stalks, and even small rounded straw bee apiaries. In a nod to the culture of the Easter rabbit, some are crowned with a representation of the head of a bunny with a happy face. Begone, Marzanna! Greetings, happy, sweet bunny of Easter!
Also decorating the Easter market venue are the wooden images of white stork families mounted on tall posts in a reproduction of the marvelous nests that storks build atop towers and roofs. You can find storks in many of the symbols of the season. They are even used as window decorations in the shops and depicted in icing on cakes.
Baskets of the ubiquitous Easter egg designed only as it can be in Eastern Europe are on display for sale in the market stalls. Poland has its own unique way of executing Easter egg design called pisanki. Each Eastern European country has a special variation in the way they produce their designs. Usually, the egg is blown out of the shell and then the shell is hand painted. In Poland, the design is scratched onto the egg with a pin or special tool. Here in the market you can buy, for just a few złoty, a more durable wooden egg designed in many colours and motifs. It’s hard to restrain oneself and pick just a few with the tempting myriad of beautiful colors and patterns that cost just a little more than a dollar.
If you want to view the high art of the Polish Easter Egg (pisanki), the Ethnographic Museum on the Plac Wołnica in Kraków has a beautiful exhibit of vintage artistic eggs. The room where the pisanki eggs are exhibited is colorfully rustic with a contemporary flair. The eggs are displayed behind long glass rows with a moving magnifier that slides across the glass front so that you can view the details of an individual egg design. They are exquisite and replete with creative inspiration.
Easter candies in Poland are rather restrained when compared to the chocolate gluttony of Easter candy displays in the States. Generally, there are the traditionally decorated European gingerbreads and baskets of the common wrapped Polish candies like Krówki (which is caramel fudge and my favorite). There are lollipops in various colors and shapes and tin-foiled wrapped chocolate eggs displayed in the stalls. But if you want a good chocolate Easter bunny, you must visit one of the exotic chocolate shops on the square like Słodki Wierzynek or the E. Wedel candy shop where you can find Easter chocolate molded into shapes and sizes evocative of the season. The chocolate quality in Krakow is above par and chocolate treats are well worth a little splurge.
As you stroll the stalls in the Easter market, browsing over handmade jewelry, ceramics, glass, embroidery, wooden folk carvings and the assortment of merchandise offered to ply the tourist trade (plush dragons and magnets are also available), folk music drifts from a stage set in the middle of the bazaar. Here, colorfully costumed groups from different regions of the Małopolska province, gather to sing, stomp, play instruments, and generally direct the festive air. Greg has found that the actors and musicians are very willing photographic subjects. All he has to do is nod the question of “May I?” with his camera in the direction of a colorfully costumed person, and they round up the rest of the group and arrange themselves for a merry photo session.
Easter Monday is for celebration of the Dingus Day tradition. Beware if you are a pedestrian on any sidewalk or path in Poland on the day after Easter. The Smigus Dingus or Wet Monday used to be about chasing and tagging girls with pussywillow branches and sprinkling them with water. It originated in the 10th century before the conversion of Polish tribes to Christianity. To convert the people to the new religion, pagan customs were assimilated with the Catholic rites. Splashing water on girls was one of these customs and so today, Smigus Dingus is still practiced with a lot of hilarity that is not always in line with religious decorum.
Whether you are girl or boy, young or old, close your windows and watch out for open doors even when riding the tram in the city because young people are likely to empty buckets of water into the open tram doors soaking all riders in the vicinity. Pedestrians must be doubly prepared for a water shower in the street. I’ve noticed that bins of plastic super soakers are being sold in preparation for water fun on the streets. Since getting wet can be a drag, hide-and-seek is part of the game. Potential places of ambush are churches, parks, small streets, squares and tram/bus stops or anywhere. I say wear a raincoat, carry an open umbrella, and fight back.
The Saturday before Easter will find me serenely seated in a beautiful church in Krakow to watch people bring in their baskets of Easter food for blessing by the priest. This custom is called “Święczonka” (Shv-en-cyon-ka) and it is a singular event marking the Saturday before Easter in Polish homes. All afternoon, families arrive inside the church with their baskets of varying sizes, decoration, and ingredients. They place them on a specially prepared table near the sanctuary where the priest appears by regular schedule to perform the blessing. The baskets, decorated with green boxwood sprigs, crisp white linens, lace and ribbons, contain small amounts of specific symbolic foods which the family will share at Easter breakfast. Decorated hard-boiled eggs, salt, bread, horseradish, a sweet babka, and a smoked meat like kielbasa or ham can be part of the offering. Sugar lambs are often placed in the basket; the Pascal lamb with his red cross emblazoned on a fabric banner is a symbol of the resurrected Christ. The priest comes out with an ornate container of blessed water and a large holy water sprinkler and blesses the food while the families gather around the table. The food blessed in the church is not eaten until Sunday morning during the traditional Easter breakfast. Every family member must sample every food with joyful wishes exchanged for the new season. This tradition from my childhood in New Jersey is reminiscent of my mother. I remember her restraint in filling our basket to look neat, symbolic, yet abundant. We children proudly brought our basket to the main table for blessing in the dark, cavernous church. This memory is forever entwined with Easter for me and I feel blessed to be able to experience it again in Kraków.
Easter means many different things to folks depending on their culture, religious affiliation, and upbringing. It is a celebration of spring, the full moon, death, life, and the culture of the earth. It is worth exploring all the symbolism, pre-Christian and Christian, and absorbing those that are relevant to a person’s spiritual character. After drowning Marzanna, welcoming the storks, saluting with agrarian fronds, listening to solemn classical liturgies, eating blessed eggs and an abundance of smoked foods, we gather as a global family with hope for safe, sustaining weather so that the season of budding trees and plants, ploughing fields, and nurturing animals will culminate in a harvest at the end of summer garnering enough bounty to bring us through another season of winter dead. Easter reminds us of our own mortality. Gather with friends and family, and celebrate reaching another beginning, another fresh start.
As they say in Poland as Easter greetings: Wesołego Alleluja! Joyful Alleluia! Or with a more epicurean touch: Have a Delicious Egg! Smacznego Jajka!
My husband, Greg Spring is a photographer. These are his beautiful photos (exception is the church interior which is from the Misteria Paschalia website).
For more of Greg Spring’s photos from our travels in Europe, see Assignment 2017 at the following link: http://bit.ly/2oGmtX6
Sacred Music: Misteria Paschalia 2017: Day 2
“Now every field is clothed with grass, and every tree with leaves; now the woods put forth their blossoms, and the year assumes its gay attire.” _Virgil
Wanderlusting Dreams is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2017. Please write to me if you like what you read at firstname.lastname@example.org