You should know that in Poland we are quite strict about our traditions! It gets especially serious when it comes to food-related events. And Polish Easter, besides the spiritual factor, is mostly that.
Easter is naturally a Christian holiday and commemorates Christ resurrection but it is at the same time inseparably bound with the pagan traditions related to the beginning of spring. Despite Poland (especially bigger cities) becoming more and more secular, most people regardless of their religious beliefs usually take part in church celebrations during this holiday.
So let’s go together with the most important customs and traditions of Polish Easter.
Everything starts on Palm Sunday (Niedziela Palmowa) which marks the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem. Obviously in Poland we lack palm trees so instead of them people use whatever is available there. Or that’s what they would do in the old days. Back then women would tie together willow branches, pussy willows, flowers, dried grasses, tissue paper ornaments to form a colorful baton about a metre long.
In some Polish towns contests are held till the present day for the tallest and most beautiful palm. Those that are subjects to contests are usually too big and too heavy to be carried around.
Today of course people do not make them anymore, they usually buy them in stores. On Palm Sunday you take your palm and bring it to church so it can be blessed - this is supposed to bring health and happiness to your household.
After you have blessed your palm on Palm Sunday you start a week of cleaning. Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Holy Week. And besides the Church services (held every day!) Holy Week is mostly that: cleaning and cooking. Cleaning of the house is a custom related also to the beginning of spring. This is usually the time of great cleaning combined with washing windows and in the countryside even repainting of barns and stables.
When the cleaning and cooking is mostly done comes Holy Saturday - the day when Poles go to churches with święconka, the Easter basket. There are certain things that make Polish Easter basket and it cannot do without them. First and the foremost come the Easter eggs, pisanki. The tradition of Easter eggs predates the Easter itself. Some say it is at least 5000 years old! In pre-Christian times people would treat coloured eggs as talismans and make them at the beginning of spring celebrating the reawakening of the Nature after winter. The egg was (and still is) a symbol of life and fertility but back then it also had the power to protect people's houses from evil spirits and sometimes would be even buried in their foundations. Up until today when the uneaten Easter eggs are past their expiry date many do bury them at the house’s foundation instead of just throwing them to trash.
Hard boiled eggs that make pisanki are decorated in thousands of ways. The word pisanki comes from the verb “pisać” or “to write”. Originally people would “write” ornaments on eggs with wax and then put them into colorant, remove the wax and the colour with ornaments from wax visible would stay. Natural colorants were once used and are still used today: you take onion peel to make your eggs orangy-reddish, rye sprouts to make them green, beetroot juice to make them pink, apple tree bark to make them yellow and so on. Sometimes the eggs are blown - their content is carefully taken out through two small holes made by needle so that only the shell remains. The shell, called wydmuszka, is then decorated.
Today there are hundreds of ways people decorate pisanki. Most of them are deeply rooted in folk traditions and motives.
So what else goes into the classic Polish Easter basket? Next to pisanki there must be kiełbasa, the Polish sausage, sometimes ham, horseradish, salt, pepper, bread, babka (yeast cake) and the figurine of baranek, the Easter Lamb made of bread or sugar. This all lays on white linen or lace napkin and is covered with one as well. We also decorate the basket with springs of boxwood.The basket prepared in this way is taken to the church where it is blessed. After coming back home you do NOT touch it until the next morning!
In the evening of Holy Saturday there is the Resurrection mass and procession that most of Polish Catholics attend, even if they do not go to church on other days, this ceremonial service they will usually attend.
Next morning we eat Easter Sunday festive breakfast. That is the moment when you can finally unload your Easter basket! At the beginning of the meal family members wish each other well and share an egg that was blessed the day before. The Easter Sunday breakfast is a feast for meat lovers mostly! We eat, among other things, ham, classic kiełbasa, white kiełbasa (made of unsmoked pork meat), pate (pasztet), eggs in all kinds of ways, horseradish and żur - uniquely Polish soup made of fermented rye flour, coming with hard boiled eggs and sausage. What comes next is the insanity of Easter cakes. First of all there is babka. It is a tall yeast cake with a hole in the middle, usually made with as many as 15 egg yolks and covered with icing. The name babka means grandmother and it possibly refers to the cake shape - it looks a bit like a flared grandmother’s skirt.
Then we have makowiec - the poppy seed cake and sernik - Polish style cheesecake. But Ester is the time when a very special cake reins supreme - mazurek. Mazurek is a uniquely Polish, very thin cake made with one or two sheets of short pastry, glued together usually by marmalade and covered with icing, chocolate and delicacies. Lavishly ornate with Easter symbols, mazurek has a decorative function as well.
If you are interested in Polish food take a look at our article here in which we describe the most traditional and delicious things you have to try!
What comes the next day is one of the craziest traditions we have in Poland and it is called Śmigus Dyngus or Lany Poniedziałek, the Wet Monday. On this day it is allowed or even required that people throw or spill water at each other. You should be really, really careful when walking around Polish towns on that day - you can get wet! It is serious business, beware! Obviously especially kids and youngsters participate very eagerly in this tradition, boys usually pour water over girls. Especially in smaller towns and villages you can still see boys chasing girls with buckets of water. Besides that they would smack girls with willow branches. Sounds a bit nasty, doesn't it? But to be honest it is just like pulling girls pigtails in school - boys usually chase those girls they like most and it is a way of showing their affection. Folk tradition even says that if a girl won’t get drenched on Wet Monday she will not get married anytime soon. So the most popular girls would be soaked wet a number of times!
Today of course buckets are not the most favourite tools - you can see everything that can contain water. Bottles, guns, balloons, bombs... anything will do. So even even if you do not see anyone in front or behind you it doesn’t mean you are safe! The danger might come from above! There are cases when even fire engines participate in water fighting! Crazy stuff I am telling you! You might of course ask why the hell do we do it…? Well, the tradition again is likely to have pre-Christian origin and is connected with the beginning of spring - water in all cultures, also in Slavic pagan culture, symbolised the power that creates life and with spring comes new life.
What I described here are the nationwide Easter traditions and customs. Many regions and towns in Poland have their own, very unique and peculiar ones. Curious? Take a look at specifically Kraków traditions that we described in this article.
Hope you get intrigued by all these customs and want to see, experience and most of all taste them on the spot. We have your back and are here to help you and show you all the unique Polish ways. Join our tours (especially the food related) to discover more!
I want to end this article with a small lesson of important, Easter-related words you should know how to pronounce. Ready? Steady? Here they go:
Wielkanoc /Vyel-kah-nots/ Easter
Pisanki /Pee-sahn-kee/ Easter eggs
Koszyk wielkanocny /KOH-shyk vyel-KAH-nots-ny/ Easter basket also called święconka /shfyen-TSON-ka/
Kiełbasa /kyew-BA-sa/ Sausage
Jajka /Yai-ka/ Eggs
Chrzan /H-rzhan/ Horseradish
Babka /Bahb-ka/ Yeast cake
Żurek /Zhoo-reck/ White borscht
Baranek /Ba-RA-nek/ Easter Lamb
And the very last:
Wesołych Świąt! /Vess-OH-with Schvee-ohnt!/ Happy Easter!
To you all! 🙂