Grazyna Szczesniak

Although the idea of saints and holy days was
borrowed from ancient tradition, and later from Czech
and German tradition, it has become a national
tradition in Poland. Christianity abolished many
pagan spring rites, but it retained just as many
religious customs and imbued them with its own
symbolic meanings different from the original ones.
These include Easter rituals such as dousing with
water, welcoming spring, and beating each other with
young willow branches, as well as the symbolic
significance of the egg, inseparably connected with
celebrations marking Christ's resurrection.
Already before the Christian era, the egg was
regarded as the symbol of life and reproduction. To
the Christians, it became a symbol of resurrection.
Both in ancient and in modem tradition, it
represented, during the spring solstice, the victory of
spring and the sun over the moon and night.
Christianity adopted the egg as the symbol of an
exceptionally important tradition in this religion - the
resurrection of Christ, who rose from the grave like a
chick hatching from its egg. Already in pagan times,
eggs were adorned with artistic ornaments and
symbolical magic and spring symbols, and
decorated with flowers. The Christians borrowed this
custom, and that is why a multitude of eggs bearing
intricate colours and patterns is to be found on
Easter tables. The liturgical year contains six of the
most important Church holidays, prominent among
which are Christmas and Easter. In between these
two, the holidays celebrated with the greatest
ceremony by the Church are New Year
The 40-day period prior to Easter, the oldest holiday
in the Christian liturgical year and, to many people,
the most important one, dedicated to the memory of
the resurrected Christ, is Lent. Easter plays a
significant role in determining the dates of other
movable church feasts. At the Nicene Council in the
year 325, it was decided that the celebration of Easter
would refer back to the Jewish Passover and would
take place on the first Sunday following the spring full
moon, which occurs after the spring equinox, in other
words after 21 March. At the same time, the date of
the Saviour's crucifixion was symbolically determined
to be the Friday proceeding the above Sunday. Easter
used to last an entire week, but in 1094 the Council
of Constance reduced it to three days, and then in
1775 Pope Pius VI reduced it to two.
The celebration of Easter was preceded by Holy
Week, which began with Palm Sunday, -otherwise
known as Floral Sunday, which harks back to the
traditional rites. The following two days, Monday and
Tuesday have no higher significance in religious
custom. No further

celebrations occurred until Wednesday, when the
mystery plays began. On the morning of Thursday,
known as Holy Thursday, the vestments are changed
on the miraculous icon in the chapel of the Pauline
monastery at Jasna G6ra in Czestochowa. This is
one of the most important sites of the religious cult of
the Poles, and has been venerated as a national
shrine since the 14th century.
Our Lady of Czestochowa is regarded as the Queen
of Poland by the Church and by the faithful, and is the
target of pilgrimages from Poland and abroad.
IUs on Holy Thursday, after prayers, that the monks
change the robe and crown on the icon. This is a day
when, as a sign of humility, Church leaders, wash
the feet of twelve old men, and so did noblemen in
the past. The next day, Good Friday, marks the start of
the vigil at symbolic tombs of Christ, which lasts until
Holy Saturday. Visits are made to "tombs of Christ",
showing the Saviour reposing in illuminated,
flower-bedecked sepulchres inside churches. The
adoration ofthe Good Friday tombs is called "the
visitation of the tombs". Priests deliver Passion
sermons, and on the next day, Holy Saturday,
services, accompanied by processions, are held to
commemorate the Resurrection. The word is derived
from the Latin "resurrectio" . Sometimes the services
are also held on Sunday morning, and, together with
the procession, signal the start of joyous celebration.
The period between Christmas and Easter is full of
religious festivals.
In Poland's past, the celebrations lasted from the
New Year until Epiphany, and all household chores
were abandoned during these days. Right until
Candlemas (2 February), Nativity plays were
performed and cribs displayed, and carol singers
went from house to house.
On 2 February, Candlemas candles were
consecrated in churches, and lighted candles were
carried from house to house. They later served as
amulets to ward off lightning, and were also placed in
the hands of dying people. On the next day, February
3, the day ofSt. Blaise, priests consecrated apples,
wax rings, and candles with holy water. These were
called "blazejki" (from the Polish name for St. Blaise,
"Sw. Blazej"), and, when worn around the neck, were
supposed to prevent sore throats. Two days later,
priests would consecrate the salt of St. Agatha,
bread, and water. It was believed that the salt would
protect one's possessions against fire. Holy water
has played a very important role in Catholicism, for
the priest who says prayers near this water turns it
into one of the sacraments. Hence, the water
becomes a symbol of purification from sin and
serves various liturgical purposes.

On the evening of Shrove Tuesday, revelries take
place, heralding the beginning of the 40 days of Lent,
which culminates in Easter. These revelries are the
culmination of Carnival, which began on New Year's
Eve. Shrove Tuesday is followed by Primal
Wednesday, also known as  
Ash Wednesday, so called because of the custom of
sprinkling consecrated ash on the heads of the
faithful by priests. In the Catholic Church, ash is a
symbol of penance. While performing this action, the
priest says: "Dust thou art, and into dust shalt thou
In Poland, on Ash Wednesday, it used to be the
custom to remind young men and ladies who had
failed to get married during Carnival that they were
still bachelors and spinsters. Symbols of their
unmarried status, so-called blocks, were fastened to
their clothes. These blocks actually consisted of
sticks, chicken feet, puppets, and herrings ... .In
villages, the victims of this custom had to drag
wooden blocks on chains to the village inn, where
they rid themselves ofthis "disgrace" by buying drink.
Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of 40 days of
abstention and religious reflection. On Palm Sunday,
which we have already mentioned, people beat each
other with willow branches and swallowed catkins,
which were supposed to give strength and health.
The faithful, dressed in their best clothes, placed on
cart a wooden figure of Christ riding a donkey, and
then undertook a procession with this cart. In
Cracow, the city councillors led these processions
from the Church of St. Adalbert to the Church of St.
Palm branches and twigs were indispensable
accessories of the events of this day. They
commemorated Christ's triumphal entry into
Jerusalem. After the festivities, they were used to
consecrate agricultural land, and for the rest of the
year, until the next festival, they were used for magic
rites such as conjuring up storms and consecrating
women in childbirth and sick domestic animals. The
original palm branch was replaced by a willow or
raspberry branch, and was decorated with flowers,
ribbons, and leaves. To this very day, the finest palms
are veritable works of art. In Poland, it was believed
that swallowing a willow catkin from a branch
consecrated by a priest would bring health, and a
palm branch placed behind a holy image until the
following year would bring the inhabitants luck.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. On
Wednesday, a straw puppet representing Judas was
thrown from a height or ducked in water. This was a
relic of a pagan ritual for driving out winter. Mystery
plays also commenced at this time. Their subject
was the last moments ofthe life of the Saviour, his
passion and resurrection. One of the most popular
mystery plays in Poland is the "History of the Glorious
Resurrection of Our Lord," the oldest surviving
resurrectional play, written about 1580. It was
composed of various pieces of Polish and foreign
dialogue by Miko1aj of Wilkowiecko, provincial of the
Pauline fathers of Czestochowa. For over 300 years it
was the most popular play in Polish folk theatre, and
today it has undergone a splendid adaptation for
drama. 4/15/01 1:55 AM

The church bells that had resounded from Palm
Sunday onwards fell silent on Holy Thursday. Their
place was taken by rattles and clappers, the sounds
of which go much further back in history than the
sound of bells.
Fires were lit at crossroads so that wayfarers, poor
people, and the deceased could warm themselves.
Meals were also placed at these spots so that these
people could nourish themselves -and together with
them the good spirits ofthe house.
All that is left of the Good Friday mystery plays today
are figures of the Saviour in symbolic tombs, watched
over by angels.
In days of old, processions by hooded flagellants
took place on this day. Shouting and singing
religious hymns about Christ's passion, the
flagellants beat themselves at every station of the
cross until the blood flowed. The Stations of the
Cross represent the fourteen stages of Our Lord's
suffering along the Way of the Cross. These stations,
in the form of painted images or sculptures, were
and are still placed inside churches, in cemeteries,
and in chapels.
Symbolic Calvaries (the name of the rocky hill outside
Jerusalem where, according to the scriptures, Christ
was crucified) are also to be found in Poland in,
among other places, Zebrzyd6w, Paclaw, G6ra
Kalwaria, and Wejherowo.
On Holy Saturday, the Lenten soup was given a
funeral, and the herring, also a basic ingredient of
Lenten fare, was hung on trees.
Inside the churches, priests sprinkled holy water on
cakes, eggs, horseradish, sausages, ham, salt,
pepper, fire, and water, which were later used for
various magic practices. In the opinion of experts on
the subject of the symbolism of festive meals in
Poland, the consecration of eggs refers to the activity
of the hen, which lays the egg first and then hatches
it. Thus, we are twice reborn through Christ.
However, the consecration of horseradish refers to
the bitterness of the passion of Jesus which, on the
day of resurrection, changed into joy and sweetness.
In old Poland, the abovementioned resurrectional
service was an opportunity to identify witches, for
witches were believed to enjoy eating sausage
during sermons, and we must remember that this
was still during Lent. It was also believed fairly widely
that when looking through a monstrance, a priest
could see which of the women attending mass was a
witch, but was not allowed to reveal his information.
It was believed that during an Easter procession, a
female collaborator of Satan was unable to go
around the church three times, but had to  

leave the procession after the second circuit.
After resurrection, gunshots and, where possible,
cannon volleys were fired as an expression of joy.
The food sprinkled by the priests was laid on the
table. No smoke was permitted, therefore no warm
meals were served.
"Smigus-Dyngus " is a very ancient Easter tradition. It
takes place on Easter Monday. This jocular custom of
pouring water on one another stems fTom two
distinct rites. "Dyngus" was the name given to the
gifts (eggs, meat, etc.) which housewives gave to
children going fTom house to house in order to buy
themselves fTee fTom trouble and bring the house
good fortune. On the other hand, "Smigus " was the
term used to describe a stroke ("for good luck") fTom
a willow branch with catkins on Palm Sunday.
"Smigus-Dyngus" has survived as a custom of
drenching other people with water. On this day, girls
make wreaths of flowers and herbs, carry them fTom
house to house, and sing a song called a "gaik".
"Gaik" is the name of the folk custom of welcoming
spring, an old Slav ritual once practised following the
drowning of Marzanna (a doll made of straw and old
rags, a symbol of winter). Girls and children, singing
traditional songs and asking for offerings, went fTom
village to village carrying a green branch or small tree
bedecked in ribbons, flowers, trinkets and bells. A
little doll, "the queen of spring," was sometimes
attached to the top. Another traditional Easter custom
in Poland was "Rekawka", also linked to a Slav
spring festival. The custom required that eggs be
smashed and squashed to the ground. In Cracow,
this also provided the occasion for a folk festival on
the Tuesday following Easter. After mass, the
congregation used to go up the hill named Lasota
(also called Rekawka) and, fTom the summit, throw
down the remnants of the Easter feast to poor people
and students gathered below. Because, according to
legend, the hill was created by the hands of the
citizens of Cracow, the festival is named after it (in
Polish, "reka " means "hand". The name of the hill is
derived fTom this).
Until recently, the fifth day after Easter, called" Dziady
Wiosenne" (April Forefathers), was still observed in
Poland. On this day, feasts were held at the graves of
relatives, and the remnants of great feasts and
festive occasions were symbolically shared with
Immediately after Easter, when the winter snow
melted in the fields, flax began to be planted,
followed soon after by hemp.
On 1 April, the tradition of "Prima Aprilis" (April Fool)
supplemented the spring celebrations. The origin of
this custom is unknown, but it is identified with
ancient tradition. On this day, we play tricks on each
other and present false news in the media, only to
correct it the  

following day, to the amusement of those who were
fooled and those who did not let themselves be
fooled. This custom was considered old already in
16th century Poland, and was attributed to the joy that
accompanies the rejuvenation of nature following
winter, a joy that enables us to forget, if only for a
moment, the inevitability of the passing of our lives,
customs, and traditions. The traditions also include
festive cooking and the symbolism of festive dishes.
The 40 days of Lent make us wait hopefully for Easter
breakfast, and the tradition of consecrating its
ingredients gives the meal a particularly
ceremonious character. Hence, on Sunday morning,
the beautifully laid table is covered with cold meats,
yeast cakes, pound cakes ("baby"), pancakes,
poppy-seed cakes and, in the middle of it all, a lamb
made of sugar, commemorating the resurrected
Christ. A special kind of bread, called "paska ", was
prepared for this day. It was made of wholemeal
flour, partly with the use of yeast and leaven, while
taking into account magic rites. The surface was
spread with fat and decorated with a cross made of
One week before Palm Sunday, housewives stopped
baking bread through fear that the bread they baked
throughout the rest of the year would spoil. Not until
Holy Week did they start baking. In some parts of
Poland, they began to do so on Good Friday,
whereas in other parts the situation was the opposite
- on that day it was not permitted to bake anything at
all. If any housewife violated this ban, the entire
village would be in danger of a long drought, which
could be repelled only by throwing the pots of the
guilty housewife into a pond. In some parts of
Poland, the fatal vessels were thrown into the river on
Christmas day, whilst in other parts it was sufficient
to steal the gate fIom the household where the bread
had been baked, and throw that into the river. On
Good Friday, the same customs applied as in the
case of the death of a member of a household - no
animals could be slaughtered or bread baked, and
mirrors were covered over. The use of combs was
not allowed, so Good Friday was a day of mourning.
In any case, the "paska" had to be ready by Saturday.
Apart fIom the cross of dough, it was decorated in the
manner of wedding cakes, in other words with
flowers and birds. The decorating was best done by
young married women. In fact, this entire tradition
involved women. The master of the house was not
permitted to take part in preparing the "paska ",
otherwise his moustache would go grey and the
dough would fail. On Holy Saturday, the "paska",
together with the decorated eggs, meats, and
horseradish, were taken to be consecrated. Ladies
and housewives vied with each other for the most
attractive "paska ", and carefully guarded the secret of
preparing it. For flavour, they added saffion, ginger,
and laurel leaves. If, during the consecration inside
the church, the men counted 24 overdone loaves of
bread, the weather that year would be very hot.
On Sunday, each member of the household and
animal (except for cats) received a piece of
consecrated bread. When spread with horseradish, it

was supposed to afford protection against throat
diseases and protect animals against all possible
illnesses and complaints. If the "paska" failed to rise
or it split (which was blamed on the proximity of men
during its preparation), this was not only a cause for
shame on the part of the housewife, but it also
foretold ill fortune for the family. The sharing of the
Easter "paska" is reminiscent of the sharing of
Christmas bread, and later the Christmas wafer. This
gesture imbues the entire meal with religious
significance. Regardless of the type of festivity, bread
in Polish tradition has always acted as a mediator
between the world of the living and the world of the
dead. In winter rites, death was present on the same
level as life, whereas in spring rites, life triumphed.
In Lesser Poland, "baby" were baked on Holy
Thursday, which masters of the house then carried to
the cemetery, where they exchanged them for others.
On this day, up to the 18th century, and sometimes
even up to the 19th century, the memory of dead
forefathers was kept alive. In some regions of
Poland, decorated eggs were coated with soil ftom
graves, and consecrated Easter dishes were left on
the graves. In this way, the joy of the holiday feast
was shared with the departed. The custom of
consecrating bread is attributed to Herod's order to
massacre the innocents. The perpetrators tormented
the Virgin Mary to make her reveal the whereabouts of
Jesus, who had hidden in a poor woman's hut. This
woman removed the crust ftom her bread, and in this
crust she hid Jesus. Later, Jesus hid himself among
waste that had been buried by chickens and which
the pigs had trampled underfoot. So at Easter, in
memory of these events, priests consecrate bread,
fat, and eggs. Eggs have not only become an Easter
tradition, but also a symbol of the fickleness of the
Polish character. The 13th century chronicler
Wincenty Kadlubek complained that we in Poland
treat people in authority just like consecrated eggs.
First we decorate them beautifully, and then we
thoughtlessly destroy them, competing against each
other to see whose egg will crack first when it is hit
against another egg.
Historians associate this tradition with Mary, who,
while lamenting at Christ's tomb, was visited by an
angel who foretold His resurrection. She then
returned home and painted all her eggs, which she
gave to the apostles. The apostles then turned them
into birds, and the birds carried the news of the
resurrection around the world.
According to another legend, the painted eggs were
turned into stones with which St. Stephen was
stoned to death. Yet another legend claims that one
poor man who helped the Saviour carry the cross
was an egg-seller, and when he retrieved his egg
basket he found it was full of decorated eggs. Eggs
which are painted in one colour are called "
ma/owanki ", "kraszanki", or "byczki". If patterns are
etched with a pointed instrument on top of the .paint,
the eggs are then called " skrobanki" or "rysowanki"
Those eggs decorated with the use of treated wax
are called "pisanki". Another technique of decorating
egg shells involves the use of lilac or bulrushes
which, when stuck to the  

form a stencil which is then filled with coloured
paper, shiny fabric, or pieces of rag. The colours are
achieved mainly through the use of natural
The most popular way of treating eggs in Poland is to
boil them in water with onion peel, the bark of a wild
apple tree (gives a brown colour), or water contained
in a hollowed-out oak stump. Violet coloured eggs
can be achieved by using the leaves of the dark
mallow, and green eggs can be achieved by using
the buds of the aspen with alum, mistletoe leaves,
and young rye. Just as in the case of "paska", this
activity is performed exclusively by women and girls,
and the patterns depend solely on their inventiveness
and imagination. Cakes were some of the most
important ingredients of the Easter breakfast:
gigantic yeast cakes (called "baby"), as well as
"mazureks", prepared only on this occasion. The
"baby" were either plain vanilla, or steamed,
saffion-flavoured, grated with egg yolk, "elbow-like",
or almond-flavoured, layered "veil-like",
chocolate-flavoured, fluffY, lemon-flavoured,
bread-like, and many other different kinds.
The list of possibilities of housewives making the
"mazurek" cake seems just as endless. The
"Warsaw cookery book," published over 70 year ago,
lists "only" 40 different kinds of" mazurek", ranging
:&om almond flavour all the way to marzipan,
chocolate, raisins, nuts and figs, poppy-seed,
orange, "gypsy-style," crumbly with wine, crumbly with
vodka, apple, French-style, layered, and many others.
The base of the "mazurek" was a crumbly bed of
pastry. On top of this, imaginative decorations were
placed, such as eggs made of icing, willow branches
made of marzipan, chocolate flowers, and other
delicacies. Artistic letters made of cream were
arranged to read "Hallelujah", which is a shout of joy
both in Judaism and in Christianity, and
accompanies holidays ofthe Resurrection of Our
Lord. "Mazurki" were also made of wholemeal bread
and decorated with jelly and hit. These desserts
crowned the festive gatherings at which cold meats
were served, including a traditional item in Polish
kitchens, the so-called white sausage made of
excellent raw pork and seasoned with salt, pepper,
nutmeg, garlic, and marjoram. It was cooked or
roasted, but, of course, it was served cold.
Horseradish was mixed with beetroot, and that is
how the Polish delicacy called "cwikly", traditionally
present on Polish Easter tables, appeared. Sharing a
boiled egg with one's relatives is a national tradition.
A piece of egg with salt and pepper, consecrated by a
priest, is an inseparable accessory in the good
wishes we extend to each other at Easter.
This tradition, referring to a similar one at Christmas,
when we share wafers with each other, is one of the
most characteristic Polish customs. The Polish year
is inseparably linked to the liturgical year, and
although the challenges of civilisation at the end of
the 20th century do not always let us remember this,
we still meet several times a year, not always mindful
of the continuity, not always mindful of the fact that the

tradition we are striving to cultivate was also a
tradition among our forefathers, that it is one of the
features of our cultural identity, that a common
Europe does not necessarily mean the end of this
identity, and that, really, it does not harm anyone if we
share a piece of boiled egg with our relatives on
Easter Sunday.

Translated by George Szenderowicz
The Christmas Eve observance or Wigilia

Wesolych Swiat! Bozego Narodzenia! That is the
way to say "Merry Christmas" in Polish.  Among
Poles, wherever they are, the most beloved and
beautiful of all traditional festivities is that of
Christmas Eve. It is then that the Wigilia, or
Christmas Eve Dinner is served. It is a solemnly
celebrated occasion and arouses deep feelings of
kinship among family members. Many of the
traditions observed are early tribal customs and the
traditions of a rural peasantry interwoven with the
rituals of the Catholic Church.  Catholicism remains
a predominant religion among Poles and continues
to represent a major influence.

Traditionally, for days in advance of the Christmas
Eve festivities Poles prepare the traditional foods
and everyone anxiously awaits the moment when
the first star, known as the Gwiazdka, appears in
the eastern sky. For that is when the feast to
commemorate the birth of the Christ Child begins.

There is always a thin layer of hay under the white
tablecloth in memory of the Godchild in the
manger. Before sitting down at the table, everyone
breaks the traditional wafer, or Oplatek and
exchanges good wishes for health, wealth and
happiness in the New Year. This is such a deeply
moving moment that often tears of love and joy are
evoked from the family members who are breaking
this symbolic bread. The Oplatek is a thin,
unleavened wafer similar to the altar bread in the
Roman Catholic Church. It is stamped with the
figures of the godchild, the blessed Mary, and the
holy angels. The wafer is known as the bread of
love and is often sent by mail to the absent
members of the family.

The dinner itself differs from other evening meals
in that the number of courses is fixed at seven, nine
or eleven. According to myth, in no case must there
be an odd number of people at the table, otherwise
it is said that some of the feasters would not live to
see another Christmas.  A lighted candle in the
windows symbolizes the hope that the Godchild, in
the form of a stranger, may come to share the
Wigilia and an extra place is set at the table for the
unexpected guest. This belief stems from the
ancient Polish adage, "A guest in the home is God
in the home."

The Wigilia is a meatless meal, no doubt the result
of a long-time Church mandate that a strict fast and
abstinence be observed on this day before
Christmas. Although the Church laws have been
revised and permit meat to be eaten on this day, the
traditional meal remains meatless. Items that would
normally be included in a traditional Wigilia menu
include mushroom soup,
boiled potatoes (kartofle), pickled herring (sledzie),
fried fish, pierogi, beans and sauerkraut (groch i
kapusta), a dried fruit compote, babka, platek,
assorted pastries, nuts and candies.  After the meal
the members of the family sing Polish Christmas
Carols called the koledy while the children wait
impatiently around the Christmas tree or choinka
for the gifts to be exchanged.

Aside from the beautiful Wigilia, the Polish people
have a number of other traditions that they practice
throughout the Christmas season.

Polish Christmas Carols or koledy are numerous
and beautiful, especially when sung in Polish
parishes at the Christmas Eve Mass. This Mass is
called the Pasterka, which means the Shepherds
Watch, and there is popular belief in Poland that
while the congregation is praying, peace descends
on the snow-clad, sleeping earth and that during
that holy night, the humble companions of men -
the domestic animals - assume voices. But only the
innocent of heart     may hear them.

Christmas Day itself is spent in rest, prayer, and
visits to various members of the family. In Poland,
from Christmas Day until the twelfth night, boys
trudge from village to village with an illuminated
star and a ranting King Herod among them to sing
carols. Sometimes, they penetrate the towns in
expectation of more generous gifts. In some
districts, the boys carry on puppet shows called
shopky. These are built like a little house with two
towers, open in the front where a small crib is set
and before which marionettes sing their dialogues.
During the Christmas season, the theaters give
special performances. On the feast of the  
Epiphany, the priest and the organist visit the
homes, bless them and write over their doors the     
initials of the three wise men - KMB (Kasper,
Melchior and Balthazar) - in the belief that this
will spare the homes from misfortune.

The Christmas season closes on February 2,
known as Candlemas Day. On that day, people     
carry candles to church and have then blessed for
use in their homes during storms, sickness and

Wesolych Swiat, Bozego Narodzenia i
Szczesliwego Nowego Roku!
Special Days and Special Ways
Polish Traditions, Legends & Lore