If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, some of the thoughts and images in this post may seem rather familiar. In truth, many of them I am copying them from a blog post I wrote in 2009, while I was studying in Krakow. It’s strange to think it’s been 5 years since I was there, and yet, my time in Poland remains the best adventure I’ve ever been on, and I’m pretty surprised I haven’t been back. If I could drop everything and move anywhere right now, I’d move back to Poland in a heartbeat. But anyway, that spring in 2009 I found myself in the midst of a Polish Easter, and while I expected the holiday to be a bit lonely with all my friends gone and my family far away–perhaps it was–with no hustle and bustle and preparations to get caught up in, it was the kind of aloneness that just gives way to quiet reflection and simple appreciation. In fact, that holiday spent abroad became one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had. I loved it.
Poland is still a very religious (Catholic) country, and the various days of the liturgical calendar that I tend to overlook are very much remember there. Beginning on this Thursday, Maundy Thursday, all businesses and schools are officially closed. I wasn’t expecting it because I didn’t grow up learning anything about Maundy Thursday, and I was lucky that someone warned me ahead of time to stock up on groceries, because the stores and most of the restaurants were beginning to close early and would remain so through the weekend (if you’re traveling over Easter, no worries, there’s always McDonalds, which shuts for no one). The one big exception was the bustling Easter Market located in the Rynek Glowny, or main square, in the center of Krakow. This square was historically used by merchants who brought their wares there to sell and trade; today it is host to many community events and festivities, such as this Easter market.
The carts are filled with Easter baskets, flowers, eggs, gifts, candy, and other seasonal treats that delight just about everyone who passes by. There were carts of oscypki (smoked cheeses brought up from the Tatras) men roasting sausages on large outdoor grills, and smearing lard from heavy pots onto thick slices of bread, zapiekanki (toasted french bread loaded with sauteed mushrooms, cheese, and ketchup) and polish piwo and mulled wine.
The churches were busy all week and into the weekend. Throughout my time in Poland, I regularly liked to sneak in and observe from a back pew, and over the holidays, the lines of parishers were out the door as everyone came for the Easter blessings, prayers, and confessions. There is no normal schedule of mass during these days, instead the chancel is stripped bare and altar covered with black cloth. Of course, Poland has chocolate bunnies, Easter greeting cards, and even a man in a bunny suit roaming the mall, but the secular celebration really seemed to take a backseat to the church’s holiday. It was refreshing to remember that this is, in fact, a week set apart to remember the death and resurrection of Christ, not the coming of the Easter Bunny, and I was envious of the Poles’ seemingly unadulterated worship compared to the distracted traditions I grew up with.
Thursday and Friday are days of remembering Jesus’ last moments and his suffering, but they are also a time to prepare for the coming celebrations. These are the days that the family gathers together to decorate eggs, to carve lambs out of butter, and to bake the traditional Babka, or Easter bread–a rich loaf studded with raisins and orange zest. On Saturday, the bakba, butter, eggs, kielbasa, salt, and other traditional accoutrements of the Easter table are packed into baskets and carried to the church to be blessed by the priests.
Many congregations also create a “tomb” somewhere in their church, so that people can visit the grave of Jesus and, i guess, pay their respects. There is often an honor guard composed of boy scouts or even the military who stand alongside. Saturday evening is marked by a special church service in Poland, which begins in darkness to demonstrate the emptiness of the world without God. A bonfire is lit in the back of the church to symbolize hope in darkness. As the candles are lit and the lights turned back on, we are reminded of the brilliance of the resurrection. As the service progresses, hymns of thanksgiving and praise are sung. I did not actually go to this service because I thought the language barrier might make my attendance futile, but I do wish I had tried. It sounds like a beautiful, passionate service.
Easter Sunday itself was pretty uneventful for me, as most of the Poles were at home with their families, enjoying the day and eating their Easter meals. I met up with a friend and we hunted for somewhere to eat, without a whole lot of luck, but we did eventually find a restaurant open, catering mostly to tourists and the few odd stragglers such as ourselves. Other than that, it was a quiet day of rest and contemplation.
Easter Monday is also public holiday. According to Wikipedia, it was a holiday in North Carolina as well up until 1988, but that had more to do with an annual baseball game between NC State and Wake Forest University than any religious significance. In Krakow there were a couple festivals going on—in the Zwierzyniec District, a nice walk down the river from where I lived, was the Emaus Festival. The modern-day festival stems from a centuries-old fair that commemorated All Soul’s Day, and although All Souls was later moved to a different date, the celebration continued. I decided to go, and sadly it turned out to be not that exciting. There were a lot of vendors selling cheap kids toys and candy, and some dumpy looking fair rides for babies to get some excitement out of…but not a lot for older people. I did buy a REALLY good ear of corn there,though, and of course some candy.
More famously, the Monday after Easter marks another popular celebration, called Smigus Dyngus. It is, in the words of my roommate, “a very primitive holiday,” and all that happened was that guys walked around with squirt guns and buckets of water and tried to get the girls as wet as they could manage. Apparently, getting water dumped on you means you’ll have good luck in the coming year, but–luck or not– I was still happy I managed to avoid it. My roommate had an entire trashbag of water dumped on her from a window on the street, and another friend got egged by some drunks in a passing car. Traditionally, girls would have their turn to get back at the boys on Easter Tuesday, but unfortunately I didn’t see a lot of that going on. Too bad, those boys deserve it.
Tuesday isn’t technically a holiday, so on this day the Easter Market began to get dismantled and shops started opening again. I still had a day off of school, so I traveled to Podgorze, which is sadly best known as the location of the Jewish ghetto on the opposite side of the river from Krakow. There I found an interesting festival taking place at the base of the Mound of King Krakus, the city’s founder. What the Mound is no one knows, and if you didn’t know better you’d think it was just a rather strange looking hill on the outskirts of the city. It doesn’t seem like much in pictures, but when you see it up close you find it it’s quite monumental and impressive for being an ancient, man-made structure. You can read more HERE if you want.
The festival was to commemorate another centuries-old Krakowian fair, Renkawka, which has been reinvented in modern times as a Renaissance Festival. According to one source, “The fiesta probably has roots in pagan rites in honor of the dead celebrated here in the Dark Ages. Its feature used to be scattering coins and sweets that boys fought over. There were also bonfires and various contests, from fencing to pole climbing.”
There were reenactments, artisans selling crafts, and lots of tasty “medieval-inspired” snacks. It was really worth going, and seeing an Krakowian landmark I would have otherwise probably not ventured out to see…not to mention the fantastic view of Krakow from the top:
And with that, I finish up my little summary of a Polish Easter. I know it’s a long post but I hope it has been interesting and informative, and I hope I got all my facts right! While it’s always a little bit difficult to imagine not being at home with your own family and traditions over a holiday, I think it’s always worth taking an opportunity to discover some other traditions that are out there. That said, however it is you celebrate this season, I hope you all have a joyous and blessed day.