“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.
After the cheerful days of carnival (in old Poland it was called “zapusty”) comes Lent, a time of penance and preparation for the most important days for Christians’ Easter. It lasts for 40 days, from Ash Wednesday to the beginning of the Mass of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday (Sundays are not counted). It is not a coincidence that it lasts 40 days. This number refers to the 40 years of long travel through the desert by the Israelis and to the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert preparing for His death and Resurrection.
Lent comes just after carnival – a time of wonderful parties and joy, to which nobody wants to say goodbye. But the last day finally has to come. On this day all the parties were great but lasted only until midnight, when both behavior and diet had to change.
There was an old Polish custom to say goodbye to carnival by preaching a special ‘ash sermon’, during which one of the partygoers, dressed in a shirt in place of a surplice and with a belt around his neck, spun a story full of anecdotes and jokes and filled it up with stupidity and Latin maxims without any sense to cause laughter and admiration.
After this ornate speech at midnight the sound of church bells reverberated everywhere, the music fell silent, bright lights went out and the end of joyful days was announced. Then the hostess disappeared and went to the kitchen to prepare “Podkurek” (a breakfast eaten before the first rooster crowed). When the bells fell silent the hostess brought out a platter with a lid and all stood around her. The host raised the lid and a bird (usually a sparrow) flew out, symbolizing fickleness. The meal eaten afterwards (Podkurek) consisted of herrings, eggs and milk. The same dishes were served in both rich and poor houses. This was the way of saying goodbye to meat and it was supposed to be the diet for the next 40 days. If, after eating, there was some milk left, it was put on a spoon and splashed on the ceiling to read the future by looking at stains (I wonder what hostess would agree to this, or who would try to do it nowadays ;)).
All musical instruments had to be hidden, as well as trinkets and mirrors (if not, they had to be at least covered up with scarves). Women changed clothes by choosing dark and modest ones. All kitchen accessories and especially frying pans were thoroughly cleaned – no remains of fat could be left.
The next morning was Ash Wednesday. The first thing that had to be done was participating in Holy Mass. During this service, the priest sprinkled (and nowadays they still do it) all heads with ashes (made by burning palms from the previous year). Poles were so devout that even when ill they asked to have some ash brought to them and sprinkled on their heads in their beds.
The people did not want to lose the cheerful atmosphere so fast, so among those going to the church were boys “jokers” who tried to pin eggshells, crow’s feet, bones tied up with string or turkeys’ necks to the women’s dresses – all this to amuse the crowd during a very serious Mass. Over the doorsteps of inns, a strainer with ash was hung and everybody entering had a little “ash shower”. The very serious custom of sprinkling ash on heads in church became a contribution to the village’s fun. So youths filled sacks with ash and hit one another with them or dumped a great quantity of ash on the head of someone of the opposite sex. Sometimes a pot full of ash was thrown very close to somebody to make a cloud of ash dust and to dirty this person. The custom of throwing such pots against the door at midnight in the middle of Lent survived in Poland for a very long time. It was a symbol of tightening up the fast. In the old days in Poland the fast was strictly observed, especially in the early days of Christianity. In those times, in the second half of Lent, people did not eat any boiled dish and they ate only bread, dried fruits and smoked fish.
The middle of Lent was also the time of drowning or burning a straw dummy, called “Marzanna” which was a symbol of the death and winter.
This custom is still alive but the date has changed to March 21, the first day of spring. After this symbolic goodbye to winter, people came back to the village with a spruce decorated with colorful ribbons and painted eggshells and with a cheerful song: “Our gaik (the decorated spruce) green is beautifully decorated” (click here: to listen to Gaik zielony melody). They sang and wandered from one house to another and demanded small gifts, usually food.
A big part of Lent always falls in March, the time of sowing. Peasants very much wished to start sowing this month in order to have rich crops. Regardless of bad weather or wet soil all of them went to the field. They started to sow after a special ritual during which they threw seeds four times to the four sides of the world “for God’s glory, as a benevolence for goblins, as an offering for the soil, water, air and all living creatures both good and bad”, then they made the sign of the cross and started to sow.
A very cheerful day in the middle of Lent’s sadness was Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter. On this day all people went to church with palms in their hands. It often happened (and still does) that this day fell in April, so the atmosphere was joyful (as it is in spring), and thanks to the palms in church this day was really colorful and happy. Palms were made, as nowadays, of willow twigs, myrtle, colored blades of grass and dried flowers, but today we make them small and in the old days they could be two or even three meters long. (Photo of palm. Source: wikipedia.org, author: Aneta S.)
Blessed catkins had a lot of symbolic functions: if burned they became a penance ash, left in a corner of a field they protected plants against pests and bad weather, put in a window during a storm they drove away bolts of lightning. They were also put behind crosses and paintings of saints as a guard for the house and a request for God’s blessing. After the Mass people hit each other with palms, wishing them good health, wealth and bumper crops.
Palm Sunday commemorates the day when Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem before His death and Resurrection. To commemorate this day in old Poland (until the 20th century) Catholics imitated the Savior’s entrance into Jerusalem. So one of farmers was dressed as Jesus, seated on a donkey and among shouts of joy and cheerful songs led to the church while people threw willow twigs under his legs. It often happened that farmers would refuse such an honor because of humility, so in place of a man a wooden sculpture of Jesus seated on a donkey was used. Such a figure was pulled by the most respected men in the village.
On this day boys also got even with Judas. They made a dummy Judas of straw, string and old scarecrows. They placed a money bag with thirty pieces of broken glass on his neck as a symbol of the 30 pieces of silver, then threw the dummy out of the church tower and then hit it with sticks. Even one piece of “Judas” could not remain, his leftovers were burned or thrown into water.
Easter was very close. All were busy cleaning in and around their houses. All houses were painted and in those where a girl old enough to get married lived, one of the walls was only splashed with paint as a sign for bachelors.
Before Easter Sunday everything had to be cleaned: body and soul, inside the house and in the farmyard.
Lent started by sprinkling ashes on heads, giving to the poor the remains of carnival parties and putting carnival clothing into closets. During this time people put jam or oil on bread and did not use butter. They ate herring without cream. Coffee was served without sugar. They drank herbal drinks and ate cookies with only a little sugar inside called “everlasting” (because they could be eaten half a year after baking). Lively melodies were forbidden. It even happened that children toys were hidden and only the most toil-worn ones were left. In place of fairy tales the life stories of saints were read. In the 19th century men had to renounce alcohol, cigarettes and even the pleasures of love.
Lent seems to be a sad, gloomy and gray time, but even at that time of year, Polish tradition included many colorful and charming customs.
Author: Magdalena Znamirowska, with special thanks to Nancy Maciolek Blake for valuable comments and English proofreading.
Click here to read the Polish version of the article: https://polishorigins.com/document/lent_pl
Polskie Tradycje Świą teczne by Hanna Szymanderska, Warszawa 2003
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