Poles through the Tradition of Suffering (Lent) and Resurrection (Easter)

Easter Lent in Polish is called "Wielki Post", which literally means "Great Fast" to distinguish it from the Advent season proceeding Christmas. Easter is called "Wielkanoc", which means "Great Night." So the origin of the Polish word for Easter has only religious connotation unlike its English equivalent which originates from Eostre, a pagan goddess of dawn, spring and fertility.

The emphasis on Easter in Poland is greater than in the USA. Since Poles have one extra holiday - Easter Monday, they have more time to enjoy Easter. Polish Lent and Easter's religious aspects are intertwined tightly with the natural rhythm of late winter and spring, that symbolizes also the transformation from death to life and from suffering to joy. The 40-day season of Lent is celebrated during early spring; it is called "przednówek" in Polish, which means "the last weeks before the new harvest." This was the most difficult time of the year when supplies from last year's harvest were exhausted and no fresh food was available. So the establishment of Lent during this time fits the season with limited food resources and justifies its purpose. The connection between the life of Polish peasant determined by the seasons is described in the excellent epic poem "Chlopi" (Peasants) written by Wladyslaw Reymont and awarded a Nobel Prize in 1924.

Poles seem to be attached to the tradition of Lent, Jesus Christ's suffering and crucifixion rather than to the joyous traditions of resurrection. This is related to our history and its emphasis on the martyrdom of Poland - similar to the suffering of Jesus Christ. Such views became prominent especially during partitions. The church services during Lent have a very rich tradition. Polish Catholics participate in an unusual religious service called "Gorzkie Zale" (gosh-geh-zahl-leh) meaning Bitter Lamentations. The service consists of chanting and texts reflecting on the mystery of Christian redemption, the Passion and death of the Christ. Poles are famous for building beautiful calvaries - Stations of the Cross which are built as the separate chapels. The most famous calvary (Polish: kalwaria) is "Kalwaria Zebrzydowska", and there are many of them all over the Poland. Even the famous Czestochova St. Mary's shrine has its own outdoor calvary.

In Franciscas Basilica in Krakow, the Fraternity of God's Passion holds a special ceremony on Good Friday. Fraternity members wear black costumes with black hoods using cross, skull bones and some other scary symbols.

Poles also brought some uniqueness to the tradition of joyous Easter, such as the Smigus Dyngus (shming-oos-ding-oos) tradition - on Easter Monday, also called Wet Monday, boys try to drench girls with buckets of water, or at least sprinkle them with perfume. The girls have their "Wet Tuesday" to respond the same way. Many folk festivals and fairs take place on Easter Monday and Tuesday if any of you happen to be in Poland on that day beware of groups of immature boys trying to pour water on anything outside of the home...or have your bucket full of water prepared!

Wishing you all blessed Easter,
© Baba Jaga Corner
March 2005

This article was published in the complete paper edition of Polish-American Journal, you may subscribe to it here

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    Below is a link to Polish customs' book written by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, Mary Anne Knab (Illustrator). It is entitled Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore

    Check also a book devoted to Polish folk traditions:

    Song, Dance, and Customs of Peasant Poland, by Sula Benet

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