Easter observances in Poland begin on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the most reflective and spiritual season for many Poles. In preparation for Easter, people participate in various religious services. Stations of the Cross and the Bitter Lamentation devotions, which trace the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, are regularly attended. Traditionally it is also the time of fasting on certain days and sacrificing something for the duration of Lent.
The time of Lent ends on Holy Saturday. On this day families bring Easter baskets or ”Święconka” to church for blessing. Almost every one in the family participates in preparing the basket, as this tradition is dear to the heart of every Pole. Beautifully decorated with ribbons, greenery, and white linen napkins, the baskets are filled with colored eggs (pisanki), breads, cakes, sausages, ham, salt, pepper, and horseradish. Prominently displayed is also the Easter lamb, usually molded from white cake or sugar. On Easter morning following a Resurrection Mass celebrated in every church in Poland, people return home; the head of the house shares the blessed egg, symbol of life, with his family and friends, which opens a hearty Easter feast.
The Holy Mass on Easter Monday continues the festivities. ”Śmigus-Dyngus”, also known as Wet Monday is a day that cuts a splash throughout the whole country with water drenching or sprinkling a part of a playful holiday. The origin of this custom is unknown. Some say it is a pagan tradition handed down from the earliest settlers in Poland, some claim it reflects Christian rebirth and baptism. It is possible it goes back to the baptism of the first Polish ruler Prince Mieszko I along with his court on Easter Monday in 966 A.D.
Greeting the summer with “SWIETOJANSKE WIANKI”
In Poland, St John’s Night, June 24th celebrates the coming of summer with numerous festivities. These traditions have survived from the ancient times, and are based on the Pagan rituals of the summer solstice. At that time, the predominant themes of the festivities were the elements of darkness and light. Huge bonfires were lit in the fields and along the rivers, ending the darkness of the shortest night of the year. Singing, dancing and other revelries continued until the morning hours. At night’s end, the unmarried girls would toss their “wianki” on the river or stream in hopes of insuring their future.
The word “wianki” refers to a beautiful wild flower wreath with candles attached. The wreaths were believed to have magic powers, bringing an abundance of good luck, and the candles brought additional light to break the darkness of the night.
The arrival of Christianity introduced new elements to the customs, making the festival more folk-like. The observance of the feast of St John the Baptist is now celebrated every year, masking the festival’s Pagan origins.
To this day, Poles come together and celebrate this holiday. In Cracow there are numerous cultural and artistic events that accompany “Noc Swietojanska,” St John’s Night. Thousands of Cracovians gather on the Visula Boulevards in the shadow of Wawel Hill and participate in great spectacles, performances, dancing and of tossing “wianki.” All of the night’s festivities are capped off by a firework display and the arrival of the summer is announced with great joy and fanfare.
Halloween has been celebrated in Poland only since the 90’s. We adopted the American tradition but mostly in form of a costume parties. But in Poland, any reason for a party is welcome and Halloween costume parties are a hit. However you will not find any trick-or-treaters in the evening, zombies or fake gravestones because for us, the religious roots of Halloween are in fact about honoring family members who passed away.
In Poland, November 1st, All Souls’ Day, is one of the national holidays. Special mass services are held to commemorate the deceased. Everyone travels to cemeteries to honor their loved ones, put flowers on the graves, light a candle and say a prayer. Often it means visiting several cemeteries during the day. Many people travel long distances to their hometowns to pray at the graves, regardless of distance. When I was a child, November 1st used to be already a severe winter with tons of snow but in recent years, the weather has moderated.
Poles believe that that on All Souls’ Day, there has to be a candle lit on every grave to honor the deceased’s loving memory. Cemeteries stay open long into the night and nothing compares to this unique spiritual atmoshpere when thousands of candles are glowing in the cemetery illuminating the graves and headstones of our anscestors.
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