Polish & other Eastern European Traditions

Valerie Walawender, M.A.

For Polish-Americans, time is measured not so much by the common calendar as by seasons which follow the liturgical year. Many traditions and practices are rooted in Polish and religious heritage, often carried out in conjunction with Roman Catholic rituals. Folk customs may date back thousands of years. Winter signifies the time for Christmas. Polish-Americans celebrate the Wigilia (Christmas Eve feast), the most joyous occasion of the year. Spring is associated with Easter, traditionally considered to be the most important Christian holiday. Summer is marked by pilgrimages and blessings connected to Mary, Jesus’ mother. Autumn signals associations with remembrance and All Souls Day. Each of these seasons feature a multitude of beliefs, foods, symbols, and special days.

In the Polish-American tradition, the Christmas season begins December 25th and lasts until February 2nd. These forty days are a time of celebration relating to Christ’s birth. Families join together during Advent, four weeks of excited anticipation and preparation before Christmas. Traditional decorations and foods are made. Wheat sheaves, signifying hopes for good fortune, abundance, and memories of deceased loved ones, are gathered from the fields by the family, and bound in ribbon or string to grace their home. Colorful wycinanki (cut paper) are created for walls and furniture decoration. Finally Christmas Eve arrives, the high point of the entire year. When the youngest child sights the first star in the night sky, Wigilia, an ancient ritual meal, may begin. As a reminder of the stable where Christ was born, a thin layer of straw, is strewn on the table. A white table linen, a reminder of Mary’s veil, is laid over the straw. Because it is believed to be good luck for a stranger to arrive on Christmas Eve, for is believed it could be the Christ child in disguise, an extra chair is placed at the table. This attitude is reflected in the old Polish proverb “Gosc w Dom, Bog w Dom” (Guest in the home is God in the Home).

 The traditionally meatless meal includes foods that come from the four corners of the earth:  bread from the fields; grapes from the vineyard; mushrooms (in traditional mushroom soup) from the forest; and fish from the sea. Before the meal begins, the most special ritual takes place, the sharing of the Oplatek, the Christmas wafer. The Oplatek ritual reaches back to 11th century Poland. In this tradition, pieces of the Oplatek are passed from one member of the family to another, starting with the father or oldest member of the household. When a piece of the Oplatek is broken off to be eaten, with this gesture, it is believed that all wrongs and offenses of the previous year are forgiven. Family members and friends exchange good wishes for the coming year. After the Vigel Supper, the evening continues with Kolanda, Polish Christmas carol singing. In Poland a troupe may arrive at the door carrying the Gwiazdka (star) a large star-shaped lantern fashioned from wood and paper. Adults and children participate in Chodzenie Po Kolendzie (walking and carol singing), the Polish Christmas caroling tradition. Greeted with hospitality, the celebrants warm the cold winter night with song and laughter. The celebration concludes with Midnight Mass, or “Pasterka,” Shepherd’s mass. After the New Year’s Eve (Sylwestrowa) festivities, the New Year begins with January 1st

 The period from Christmas to the Epiphany is known as “Gody,” the twelve days of Christmas. The Feast of the Epiphany, known as “Trzech Kroli”  in Poland, is celebrated on January 6th. On this day packets of incense, chalk and (fake) gold are blessed at Mass and taken home. These items represent the gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold, the gifts the Three Kings gave to the Christ child. The chalk is used to write the initials of the Three Kings, Kasper, Melchior, and Balthazar (e.g.: KMB-2011) and over the entrance door in the home, ensuring prosperity for the coming year. The home is sprinkled with holy water by a priest or family memberThe final day of the Christmas season is celebrated on February 2nd with a Candlemas Procession. Candles are blessed in the church for use during sickness, death, and celebrations in the coming year.

Easter is traditionally considered the most significant Church holiday, observing the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Polish folk and religious customs have not changed much through the centuries. The Easter season begins on Ash Wednesday (Popieliec or Sruder Popielcowa), when parishioners receive ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads from a priest, as a reminder that they will return to dust. This day is the beginning of Lent, a time of spiritual reflection and preparation for Easter. Lent called ‘Wielki Post’ (Great Fast) in Polish, is the Litergical season of 40 days preceding the Paschal Mysteries of Easter.

 Polish-American people gather pussywillows to be taken to church for a blessing on Palm Sunday. Because of the cold climate in Poland, pussywillows have been used the “Polish palm on Palm Sunday as a reminder of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Palm weaving is a tradition that has grown with the use of palms in more recent times. Palm Sunday is also known as “Niedziela Palmowa” or “Kwietna Niedziela” Floral Sunday and the following week is known as Holy week “Wielki Tydzien” (Great Week).

 The family partakes prepares for the Easter celebration with a variety of traditional activities. They may dye eggs or even create pisanki, “written eggs” created with wax applied to an egg in symbolic designs with a stylus and then dyed.  

 The three days prior to Easter, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are called the Tridium. Holy Thursday is the day of the “Last Supper” in which Christ consecrated the Host. Because Christ was betrayed and arrested on this day, in some Polish-American churches, a statue of Christ was placed behind bars. In Polish-American churches, on Holy Thrusday, a ceremony in which the priest washes the feet of twelve old, impoverished persons, in remembrance of Jesus’ humility washing the feet of His disciples after the Last Supper,  

 The Lenten devotions on Fridays (including Good Friday) were ‘Droga Krzyowa’ (Way of the Cross) in Polish. On Good Friday, parishioners attend church, and participate in “Adoration of the Crucifix,” and “Ways of the Cross”. On Good Friday, Bitter Lamentations are sung. The Lord’s body, a statue in repose is uncovered, placed in sepulcher, with Blessed Sacrament in Monstranse, placed over the Lord’s Tomb. The faithful keep vigil through the night. Another devotion, Bitter lamentations or ‘Gorzkiezale’  were practiced on Sundays. These consisted of sorrowful songs or bitter laments. One Holy Saturday practice in Polish American churches is to place a statue of Christ in repose, in white linen in a tomb at the side altar. One of the most beloved practices of the Polish-American during the Easter season, is the Swienconka, or ‘Blessed Easter Basket.’ Filled with small portions of traditional foods that will be served at the Easter meal such as hard cooked eggs, smoked meats and sausages, horseradish (chrzan), a traditional round loaf of bread marked with a cross, pisanki, salt,  and sweets such as molded chocolate. Horseradish (chrzan) symbolized bitter herbs and the sour wine Jesus drank while hanging on the cross. Other traditional foods such as kielbasa (Polish sausage) and Babka, a sweet bread (Easter cake, Grandmother cake, in shape of skirt, often made in a bundt pan) are made. One popular custom is to buy or create a “butter lamb.” The butter lamb (baranek wielkanocny) – bears a cross emblazoned flag, the resurrection banner. Representing the Paschal Lamb of Christ, a lamb cake with a resurrection banner may also be included.

The basket, decorated with gay ribbons, flowers, and embroidered linen or lace napkin, also holds such items as a candle and spring greens and is taken to the church to be blessed, and not touched until the Sunday morning after Mass and communion.  Easter Sunday begins with a church procession. Receiving the Eucharist (communion wafer) ends the six weeks of Lent. The family rejoices at a festive Easter Easter breakfast – (Swiecone) where the centerpiece is the Paschal Lamb, made of butter. A lamb cake may also be part of the meal. The day following Easter is known as Dingus Day (Smigus Dyngus) or “Wet Monday. Fathers tickle the ankles of their children with pussywillow branches, or young men tickle the ankles of young ladies. They may also spash them with water.  Public Dingus Day celebrations often include polka dances and lively traditional Polish music.

Another spring tradition known as Boze Cialo to Polish speaking Catholics or as Corpus Christi in Latin, celebrates the “Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ” with a solomn procession that usually goes outdoors after a High Mass on Sunday. In the procession, the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a large host in the monstrance (golden ornate container for the Eucharist), is carried by a bishop or priest under a canopy. Other priests, altar servers, parish societies, children and other faithful accompany the procession. Bells from steeples, fragrance from incense and orchestrated music are part of the public celebration which symbolizes taking Jesus in all directions of the world.

In August there are several feast days that honor the Blessed Mother. In Poland, for centuries many faithful believers make pilgrimages often by foot, walking many miles to various Marion Shrines in Poland. The Feast of the Assumption, celebrated on August 15th is usually a Holy day of obligation. There is a a pilgrimage on the vigil of the Assumption Feast. There are sometimes as many as 30,000 people that take part in the several day walk. The Feast of Our Lady of Jasna Gora (in Polish, Bright Mount, another name for Our Lady’s Shrine in Czestochowa, August 26th. The most popular and largest pilgrimage is to “Our Lady’s Shrine at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, which is indeed the spiritual capital of the Polish nation. The Queenship of Mary is celebrated on August 30th.

2 Responses to Polish & other Eastern European Traditions

  1. Karen Finson says:

    Where could I buy that darling booklet “Artists Around the World”? How many volumes are there? Thanks, Karen from Lakewood

    • admin says:

      Dear Karen, Thank you for your kind words. There are a handful of the booklets left. I would be pleased to supply you with a few. Feel free to call me. I live in Forestville.

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