As you might suspect, Poland has a whole series of customs and traditions surrounding Easter, which range from pious to playful, to downright pagan.
As a deeply Catholic country, Poland takes its Easter (Wielkanoc) celebrations very seriously. In fact, this is arguably the most important holiday of the year for devout Poles, but also an important time to spend with family for all Poles, regardless of their religious views. As such, you can expect bars and restaurants to be largely empty of locals or completely closed from Good Friday to Easter Sunday (March 30 - April 1, 2018); shops are typically closed on Easter Sunday and Monday (April 1-2, 2018), which are official holidays.
Poland’s Easter festivities officially kick off with Palm Sunday (March 25) - so named for the palm branches laid on the ground before Jesus on his entrance into Jerusalem. As the Polish climate isn’t particularly conducive to palm trees, Catholic Poles invented their own ‘palms’ - essentially elaborately handwoven wands made from a variety of dried flowers and plants. Rather than trample them however, Poles take their palms to church on Palm Sunday, in order to have them blessed before they decorate the home for the season.
If you are in Małopolska on Palm Sunday, consider a trip out to the village of Lipnica Murowana, 30km east of Kraków, where an annual palm competition keeps the folk tradition of making these decorations alive and well. Each year some 15,000 people gather in the tiny town to enjoy the festival atmosphere, see palms that reach heights of over 30m, and have their own palms blessed in a morning mass service on Lipnica’s market square. [Another reason to make the trip to Lipnica is the UNESCO-listed St. Leonard’s Church - one of Małopolska’s oldest and most beautiful wooden churches.]
As any true Polish mother will attest, you can’t bring an Easter palm home to a dirty domicile, and the week leading up to Easter Sunday is traditionally a time of spring cleaning in homes across the country. Abiding Catholics attend Church on Thursday to remember the Last Supper, and again on Good Friday to attend stations of the cross – a series of prayers following Jesus Christ’s route to his crucifixion. On Easter Saturday (March 31), Polish families bring baskets of food to church to have these blessed as well. These baskets traditionally contain a piece of sausage, bread, egg, some salt, some horseradish and a symbolic ram made from dough. In addition ‘pisanki’ are included - hard-boiled eggs which have been dyed (traditionally with onion skins) and hand-decorated by the whole family in the lead-up to Easter.
Each component of the Easter basket has a symbolic meaning: the eggs and meat symbolise new life, fertility and health; the salt protects against bad spirits and helps you follow the right path; the bread symbolises the body of Christ and future prosperity in terms of always having food to feed yourself; the horseradish represents strength and physical health; and the cake represents skills and talents needed for the coming year. Rezurekcja (Resurrection) - a traditional mass with procession where parishioners walk through the streets crying ‘Hallelujah!” is then held either Saturday night or Easter morning depending on parish tradition.
On Easter Sunday (April 1) - the most important day of the entire Wielki Tydzień (Great Week) - families gather together in the morning to feast from their Easter baskets. With the dough ram on the table to symbolise Christ’s resurrection, before the meal begins each person takes a small wedge of the blessed egg and exchanges wishes with the other members of the family, before capping it off with a big ‘Hallelujah’ and digging in. The Easter morning spread is usually a smorgasbord of cold dishes, including cold cuts of sausage, ham and pate, potato salad and beets, and pickled herring. While the only hot dishes traditionally served are żurek (Polish rye soup) and white sausages, there are of course plenty of desserts, including mazurek (a decoratively iced dessert pie), makowiec (poppy seed cake) and cheesecake.
Although decidedly bunny-free, things do finally take on a more lighthearted air on Easter Monday(April 2). Known as ‘Śmigus Dyngus,’ the day is dominated by public water fights and everyone is given carte blanche to drench anyone they see with water. As a foreigner, you are not exempt from this practise, so move fast if you see someone armed with a water pistol or bucket and a grin. Although it’s never pleasant to have a jug of water thrown over your head, this is an improvement over the past when young people were beaten with sticks from Palm Sunday trees; apparently either will bring you luck.
Easter Monday is also an official day off, and seemingly every family in town heads to the Emaus fair in Salwator, a traditional which has been going on for centuries. Then, once most people are safely back at work on Tuesday, the pagan pageantry of the Rękawka Festival unfolds around Krakus Mound with swords clashing and fires blazing. Happy Easter!