“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song” _____________________ Pope John Paul II
The Long Easter in Kraków
In Poland, there are different ways to express the greeting “Happy Easter”. The traditional expression of ‘Happy Holy Day’ is “Wesołych Swiąt” (Ve-sow-ich Sfi-ont) but that’s rather boring when you consider the other options available like “Wesołego Alleluja” (Ve-sow-weh-go Alleluja). That’s “Happy Alleluja” literally. Nonsensical to English speakers but well understood by Slavs. And then there is the one I remember from childhood: “Smacznego Jajeczko” (Sma-che-ne-go Yay-eh-chew-ko). This translates to a wish for a “Delicious Egg”. Or enjoy your egg! The egg represents resurrection. Easter is about the Holy Egg, Batman.
Poland is the place to celebrate Easter. Everyone votes for Christmas as their favorite holiday but here in Poland, Easter is the “IT” holiday. In Polish, this holiday is called “Wielkanoc” which translates to ‘the great night’. Nothing at all to do with the word Easter. The actual word “Easter”, an Anglo-Saxon word, comes from Ēostre, the pagan goddess of dawn, spring and fertility. In Poland, the word “Easter” is lost in favor of a more religious mind-set.
The season starts on Ash Wednesday and proceeds through the Lenten weeks of fasting and self-denial to Palm Sunday, when the drama of Easter begins. In the small Polish community in the U.S. where I was raised, blessed palm fronds were brought home from church on Palm Sunday. In our home, the blessed palm was tucked behind the wall-mounted ceramic plate embossed with a colorful profile of Jesus. Every good Polish Catholic home had a Jesus and Mary plate in the 1950’s. The palm remained there all year, gathering dust until it was removed during the ritual Easter cleaning. These fronds are symbolic of the palms that were said to be laid on the ground before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Today in Poland, the ‘palms’ are not ‘palms’ but long strands of wheat stalk with attached kernels, decorated with dried flowers and fruit, colorful paper, and wheat seed heads. They are very decorative and you can choose your individual color and grain combination at the outside flower stalls or you can create them. These ‘stalks’ are blessed in church. Tall totem-like ‘palm’ creations are mounted outdoors in the markets and village squares as heralds of Palm Sunday. They can be several meters high.
“Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” Psalm 126: 6
Slavic cultures are ancient agrarian societies with roots tied to both pagan and Christian customs. In the agricultural villages, this is roughly the time that the ploughing of fields and the planting of grain seeds is begun. The life culture of the farm connects to the symbolic religious culture of the church calendar with dried stalks, fruit and seeds from the previous harvest becoming a part of the oncoming solemn spring holiday. Deep seated pre-Christian beliefs are embedded here as they are in many other spring festival observances. But on Palm Sunday in Church, it is about Jesus riding into Jerusalem.
The week after Palm Sunday is a solemn time in Polish homes. Spring cleaning should be winding up by Tuesday or Wednesday and the home is spotless by Holy Thursday when everything goes really quiet with the anticipation of some grave event. On the evening of Holy Thursday, the last formal mass of the week is said after which the organ and bells go quiet until Easter Sunday. Singing is a capella Gregorian chant style through the rest of the religious church rites. From my Catholic boarding school days, I remember our daily choir practice which started two weeks before Easter. We were distributed huge heavy old volumes of Gregorian verse and chant which we had to learn to sing – in Latin- without the organ. The sounds were beautiful coming from a group of teenage girls invested in the art of sacred music led by a terror of a music teacher. The solemnity of a capella musical chant is a fond memory of Holy Week.
It was sunny on Holy Thursday this year. After weeks of grey weather that had only occasionally been splashed with a bit of sun, a changed quality of light spoke of full blown spring and Easter. There was also something in the air that had a fragrance of Easter. To a Polish girl it may have been the smells of freshly baking babka (sweet yeast bread/cake) or the smoking of kielbasa along with a waft of hyacinths. We walk to the open market at the Targ Halowy to shop for provisions to hold us over during the 4-day holiday. Most of the stores would be closed from Saturday afternoon through Wednesday morning.
As we head for my favorite butcher shop at 10 am, we find a line outside weaving down the sidewalk. A lot of other people had a similar plan. There was a line at the bakery, a line at the two other favorite butchers and a line at the little store that sells only eggs. Yes, there is a tiny store in this market from which a lady sells about 10 different varieties of eggs all year round. We pondered the luxury of buying fresh eggs of multiple varieties from an expert in her field. We also waxed about the numerous varieties of kielbasa and ham available at the small private delis. Commerce here still illustrates respect for the art of growing and creating food by masters of the craft, the butcher, the baker and the poultry maker. These small enterprises are still very visible in the Polish marketplace in competition with growing supermarket chains.
We finished our shopping but I returned to the market again early Saturday morning just to pick up a couple of nice fresh loaves of dark bread. I was so surprised to see a long queue at the special bread bakery, longer than any line on Thursday. I had become vested in the groove of Polish Easter waiting outside on the sidewalk with local Krakowians for a loaf of freshly baked bread. I had the luxury of choosing from 20 different varieties of rich mixed grain breads in all shapes and sizes. And there was a delicious little glazed babka (sweet yeast bundt) just the right size for me and Greg.
We return home, open the door of the flat and, it smells like Easter inside. Wafting childhood recollections are mixed with the fragrance of kielbasa, ham, horseradish, sweet yeasty breads, raisins and nuts, and the ubiquitous pickled foods like sauerkraut and pickles. Add: flowering spring bulbs in containers, fresh air, clean house, clean windows, clean floors. Mix that together and you have the potpourri of Polish Easter.
Recollections of Holy Saturday are of a peaceful day, a little more upbeat after the terrible, morose, and dark Good Friday. The house was quiet as Holy Week and Lent drew to a close. Jesus had just died the day before. As children on Good Friday, we were fasting and under constant admonition to stop shouting, stop running, stop fighting, and don’t turn on that television. The final ‘Gorżkie Żały’ (means Lamentations) had been sung on Friday. These long lamentations are a regular Polish church devotion of Lent sung every Friday or Sunday evening. It is a series of sad, dirge, music of multiple stanzas. Everyone gathers at church with their songbooks and sings the phrases. I used to go to Gorżkie Żały with my mama as a young person. It is one of my fond memories of her. I loved this particular religious observation as morose as it was. I think I’ll be a Goth in my next life.
Holy Saturday dawns with the knowledge that the worst is past and something unexpected and joyful hangs in the air. As I stepped out into our street early Saturday afternoon, I was struck that here, four blocks away from the nearest church, there were families coming out of their parked cars and walking the street towards the church with beautifully decorated Easter baskets in hand. I recognized they were bringing their baskets of symbolic food to be blessed by the priest. This custom is called “Święczonka” (Shv-en-cyon-ka) and it is the singular event marking Holy Saturday in Polish homes worldwide. All afternoon, families arrive inside the church with their baskets of varying sizes, shapes, decor and ingredients. They place them on a table near the sanctuary where the priest appears on a regular schedule to perform the blessing.
The basket decorations are artful and reflect the personality of the family. Traditionally deep green boxwood sprigs are tucked in the sides and the basket is lined and covered with crisp white linens trimmed with lace. There are no marshmallow peeps or jelly beans in these baskets. They contain small amounts of specific symbolic foods which the family will share at Easter breakfast. There are hard boiled eggs decorated in a traditional Slavic style and character of the family. Then there is salt, bread, horseradish, a small sweet baked thing and some kind of smoked meat like kielbasa. 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. I’ve seen lambs molded out of butter in the baskets although I don’t know how they make it to the church and back. Some people bring a lot of food and some people have tiny baskets.
Inside St. Mary’s, the grand Mariacki basilica, I sit in a niche in the stalls at the front where I have a good view of the blessings, the baskets, the crowds and the prayers. St. Mary’s church, an icon of the medieval market square, has beautiful blue walls and ceilings covered with an abundance of lovely painted and sculpted decorative effects. The ceiling is Gothic, very high, sharply arched and covered with gold stars on a blue background. It was lovely sitting there in the dark wooden choir stalls. About every 20 minutes, the priest comes out with a handsome gold container of blessed water and a large holy water sprinkler and blesses the food while the families gather to wait around the table. The three-part blessing specifically addresses the various contents of the baskets, with special prayers for the meats, eggs, cakes and breads. The baskets are then cleared away and a new crop appears for the next blessing.
The food blessed in the church is not eaten until Sunday morning during the traditional Easter breakfast. Every food must be sampled by every family member and adjoined by joyful wishes for the new season. The blessing of the food is medieval in origin; some say from the 7th century with revisions incorporated in the 12th century. A pre-Christian ritual modified to fit with Christian beliefs. I loved watching the children especially as they proudly carried and set their baskets on the table in church. The family might then visit the body of Jesus, represented by a plaster statue, that lies in a beautifully constructed grotto tomb (every Polish church has their unique grotto-tomb). People visit for short prayer and condolence.
It will be a mighty long weekend. Businesses will be at an almost absolute standstill until Tuesday or Wednesday. As I walked home at just around 3, most shops were already closed, some had never opened that day (on a Saturday!), and many were preparing to shut down for a 3-day hiatus. No “hurry up and shop your Easter sale” promos here as we have in the U.S. for every important holiday.
In the late evening, a church liturgy is held where the new fire, water and oils are blessed. The fire is blessed outside and the new light, in the form of a large Pascal candle, is carried into the dark church. The little light entering the yawning dark church is a symbol of overcoming death. This ceremony goes back farther than just the resurrection of Jesus. This time of year, just after the first full moon of spring, is the time to begin the planting season for the food that is to be produced for the survival of the following year. Death “Winter” is fading and the Light “Spring” begins dominating the grey days. The Earth “Grave” is ploughed and the Seeds are sown in preparation for the resurrection of Life “the crops”, the fruit of the earth that will sustain the body through the coming year. Easter with its poignant, meaningful symbolisms, is my favorite holiday.
The superstitions and rituals of the Eastern European spring celebrations derive from an ancient culture of fertility, resurrection and renewal. The most important symbol of Easter is the egg. Polish Easter eggs are called ‘pisanki‘ and they also originated as a pagan tradition incorporated into Christianity. Ethnologists have theorized that the beliefs of ancient peoples incorporated the Egg as a source from which the world had sprung and developed from chaos to order. Christians use the Easter egg to symbolize the hope gained from the faith in the Resurrection. There are various types of pisanki egg-styles from Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Russia, and each group’s technique and preparation are a little different. The most common and simplest is “drapanki” which is a scratched design. Boil up some brown onions skins in water (saved over a month’s time) until the water is a deep brown, (or use beet water for a reddish color). Then boil your eggs in the brown water. After they’ve cooled, use a straight pin or some very sharp metal object to scratch out your designs on the egg to reveal the design in a lighter shade. It is hard work and intense. That kind of focus could keep some wild unruly kids quiet on Good Friday as long as they don’t use the pins against each other.
Easter Sunday dawns. At the first mass at dawn, the bells are rung for the first time since Thursday night and the organ bursts forth in a majestic refrain: “Wesoły nam Dziś Dzień Nastał” (Loosely this means ‘Joyful that this Day He Rose for Us”). The priest comes out of the sacristy with the full regalia of monstrance, crosses, bells, incense, servers and deacons. The song goes on for many refrains as the priestly group walk in procession around the church 3 times. In some Polish churches I have attended, the entire congregation walked around the outside of the church, weather permitting, which is really nice as the bells and the singing reverberate in the early morning along with the birds and the rising sun. The plaster deceased Jesus has disappeared from his grotto tomb display and only a white sheet remains there with perhaps a Pascal banner. After mass, we all go home to eat our holy egg with the family. We celebrate fervently the new life with which the world is again blessed on the advent of another mystical season of spring in Eastern Europe. Wesołego Alleluja!
From the Polish Blessing over the Easter baskets, the blessing of the eggs: “Christ, our life and our hope, bless the eggs, a symbol of new life, that we will share with family, friends and guests and thus, share with them the joy of your presence among us. Invite us to your eternal feast, the heavenly banquet, where You live and reign forever and ever.”
The tradition of the Pisanki, Polish Easter Egg: http://www.ppld.co.uk/en/polish-traditions/pisanki