Holy Week and Easter – part 1.

“What has become a habit let it remain a habit, and this, what was, what we heard from our fathers, or we have seen already by ourselves, pass to those who will come after us; remembering that where the past was, there, also, the future will be…”  Leon Potocki 1854.

Each year we celebrate Easter sometime between March 21 and April 25 on the Sunday that comes just after the first full moon of Spring. This date was fixed during the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Many other holy days in the church’s calendar are determined by this date, for example, the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday) or Palm Sunday.

Easter is the most important holiday for Christians. It comes in spring when, thanks to the sun, day by day the earth become warmer and warmer and each farmer is ready to start work on his land, as our ancestors did. That is one of the reasons why Easter time was so important in peasants’ beliefs. The weather during each day of Holy Week was thought to herald the weather during the whole year: Wednesday indicated what the weather would be like in spring; Maundy Thursday, the weather in summer; Good Friday, the weather during harvest and lift time (potato harvest); while Holy Saturday was the herald of the winter weather.


After the morning Mass called ‘jutrznia’, all church bells fell silent until the Mass of the Resurrection. In place of the sound of the bells, young boys wandered through the villages making noise by using rattles to remind everybody that fasting was still in force and eating meat was forbidden.

On this day farmers went to their fields and were sprinkling land with holy water (blessed the previous year) to ensure a rich crop.

Maundy Thursday: the day of the Last Supper

To commemorate the fact that Jesus Christ washed the feet of the apostles, there was in Poland the custom that bishops and kings did the same for old men. The king who initiated the tradition was Zygmunt III. In the time of Stanisław August, it happened one year that every one of the old men was over 100 years old and one of them was even 125 years old. After this ceremony the old men were led to tables and dignitaries served them to show their humility, as Jesus Christ used to do.

To commemorate the Last Supper, a family supper was eaten in every house. According to old tradition, many Poles did not eat at all after this meal until Sunday breakfast.

Good Friday: the day of preparing Christ’s Grave in the churches

The Graves were guarded by the most respected men.

Guards of Christ’s Grave.
Source: http://www.sekowa.rzeszow.opoka.org.pl/

>Old tradition said that you had to visit the Grave. In towns where were more than one church, you had to visit all of the Graves for a short prayer and leave alms for the poor at each.

grob panski
Christ’s Grave. Source: http://info.wiara.pl

The end of Lent and at the same time the end of stomach’s torments was very close. As a token of that, housewives took out pots with ash and spilled it on the soil. Then they broke the pots to make sure that the fast did not come back. All people were sick of herring and ‘Żur’ (of course, the version that was eaten during fast days without any bit of grease inside). They were happy they could say goodbye to these dishes, so they had a ritual funeral for them. Pots with ‘Żur’ were carried outside the house and poured out. It happened sometimes that it was poured on the door where a nice girl lived. Herrings were also rightly served. In an act of revenge, they were hung up on tree branches or were hammered to the trunks of trees.

People believed that this day had its own magic, so they planted fruit trees on that day to guarantee rich fruits’ harvests. Housewives made butter, which was used all year as a medicine in case of injury (for both people and animals). They also attributed unusual power to eggs laid on this day. Supposedly, they would never go bad and if thrown into flames they had the power to put out the fire. Just before sunrise, the water in rivers and ponds had  therapeutic properties, so they washed themselves and also their cows (for good milk).

>The peasants believed that eggs had the power to chase away jinxes. So eggs were rolled on the back of each cow to make the animal as round as the egg, and especially on horses to make them as fast in running as an egg can roll. One of the most beautiful traditions of this day was (and still is) painting eggs called ‘pisanki‘ (in the plular form or ‘pisanka’ in the singular).  There were many techniques for making ‘pisanki‘. Patterns could be scratched on colored eggs or they were drawn with hot wax and then put into an infusion that colored them. They were also decorated by sticking to them very delicate and light rushes which had been prepared in autumn. Many infusions were used to dye eggs. Each of them gave a different color.  So there were in use: onion skin, bark of young trees like apple, oak or alder, dried flowers of buttercup, also violet, crocus or hollyhock, rye and other grasses, leaves of  myrtle, mistletoe, alder’s cones, bilberries, and maple leaves.

Colorful ‘pisanki’ were a favorite Easter gift. Young girls offered the most beautiful ‘pisanki’ to boys to win their love. Also, if a girl took ‘pisanka’ from a boy and in return gave him her own, it could mean that she reciprocated his affection. ‘Pisanki’ were also the objects of plays. The most popular game was to try to hit one ‘pisanka’ with another one. The winner was the one whose egg was not broken and as a prize he could take all the ‘pisanki‘ of his opponent.

Author: Magdalena Znamirowska, with special thanks to Nancy Maciolek Blake for valuable comments and English proofreading.

Polskie Tradycje Świą…teczne by Hanna Szymanderska, Warszawa 2003

Photo album of pisanki / Easter eggs 

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One comment

  1. Magdalena,

    Thank you for the article on the “pisanki” tradition. When we were young, we used to hit the eggs together on Easter and laugh when someone’s egg cracked. I always thought that it was something my mother and her siblings thought up. There were many children in their poor family and so they were always very resourceful when it came to entertainment. I will pass this Polish tradition on to my family today at Easter dinner.

    Happy Easter!
    Gerri Kirlin

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