A Polish Palm Sunday

Polish Palm Sunday
Poles often make their palm branches very ornate and colorful on Palm Sunday.

It’s Palm Sunday, the Christian feast day that commemorates  Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. For Poles, as for many other people, Palm Sunday has long been an important day during the Lenten season, filled with unique practices and traditions.

There was just one problem for Poles trying to celebrate Palm Sunday back in the day…

PALMS DON’T GROW IN POLAND

Instead, Poles would find whatever plants they could in the forests or fields. In the region of Mazovia, willow branches were often used because they were the first plants to bud after winter. Other parts of Poland used pine or juniper branches. In many instances the branches were decorated and colored in a very festive way. The various branches were then taken to church for Palm Sunday Mass, much like is done by many Catholics today.

Check out this video on Polish Palm Sunday preparations

After church, the branches were considered blessed and capable of inviting good fortune into the home. Even though Poles are Catholic, they have long held on to various superstitious beliefs. This was even more true hundreds of years ago.

The branches would be…

  • Tucked into beehives so the bees would make a lot of honey.
  • Slid behind religious pictures in the house to protect the family from danger.
  • Placed in the barn rafters to protect against lightning strikes and promote the farm animals’ health.
  • Slipped under a goose’s nest to safeguard her babies.
  • Buried in the earth to protect the crops.
  • Fastened to the farmer’s plow to encourage a good growing season.

Some people would even eat the bud of the pussy willow branch, believing that it would keep them healthy. Palm Sunday was an opportunity to cleanse oneself and one’s home from anything unclean.

Besides the palm traditions, some parts of Poland had customs that wouldn’t entirely make sense to us today.

One was called puchery and involved schoolboys dressing up in colorful costumes resembling soldiers, shepherds, etc. In a tradition almost mirroring Trick or Treat, the boys would go from door to door singing songs and praising Christ’s Resurrection in exchange for baked treats.

In Krakow, there was a custom called koniarz on Palm Sunday where a boy would cover his face in soot, wear a sheepskin coat and carry a wooden sword and basket. Like puchery, boys partaking in koniarz would recite various verses and songs in exchange for treats.

Overall, Palm Sunday represented, and continues to represent, the last festive day before the solemnity of Holy Week. For Poles, it was also a way to mentally prepare for the coming spring and get into a hopeful state of mind.

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My main source for this post was Polish Customs, Traditions & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab

 

More Strange Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions

Polska Wigilia

Many of you enjoyed my article on the Strangest Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions. When I wrote that, I thought I had heard it all. Well I hadn’t.

So here’s even more Polish Christmas Eve, or Wigilia superstitions that were once very common in different parts of Poland:

Clean Up Your Act

In Polish villages on Christmas Eve, the day would start very early, before dawn. Villagers would run barefoot to the nearest river or stream to bath.

A thorough cleaning foretold good health in the coming year and protection against skin infections and other diseases. In an age without proper medicine, people relied on such beliefs for comfort that they would live to see another Wigilia.

Sunny winterA Sunny Day Keeps the Husbands Away

Of course, Polish women found numerous ways to predict whether or not they would get married in the coming year.

If the weather was gloomy and dark that day, it meant that women would find husbands regardless of age, wealth or beauty. If the weather was beautiful and sunny, then only the most beautiful women in the village would get married in the upcoming year.

Picking colored strands of hay from under the table-cloth during Wigilia was another way girls predicted their marriage fortunes. A green strand meant marriage before Mardi Gras. A yellow strand meant that the girl still had some waiting to do. Finally, a black strand meant eternal spinsterhood.

Kids Beware

Children had to behave extra nicely on Christmas Eve because if they were naughty and got punished, it foretold that they would have a year filled with spankings. Ouch!

It was also customary for mothers preparing the Wigilia supper to smear their children’s faces with dough. This was meant to ensure that the kids would be healthy and full during the upcoming year. Considering that periodic famines gripped the Polish countryside, this superstition was another type of comfort to the family.

Decorating the Wigilia Table

The supper table was arranged and decorated in a very specific way to ensure good fortune during the coming year.

Hay and oats covered the table to ensure a good growing season and plentiful food. On each corner of the four-cornered table was placed a loaf of homemade bread to represent full bellies during each of the four seasons.

To protect the household from evil, an ax or chain was sometimes placed under the table (this had a secondary purpose of protecting the family members from their drunk uncle Franek when he went on one of his political rants).

Preparing for Dinner

Wigilia tableIf a man was the first guest to enter a home on Wigilia, it meant good luck for the upcoming year. A woman meant bad luck. LOL.

Most people are familiar with sharing opłatek right before supper on Christmas Eve. There’s a darker side, however, as anyone who dropped their opłatek was destined to die within a year.

The Common Bowl

I have heard from many Polish Americans that they vaguely remember this practice from their Polish grandmothers. It involved everyone eating each dish out of the same bowl on Christmas Eve and lasted into the twentieth century, representing solidarity and the whole family “being in it together.”

 

 

Many of you wrote about your own experiences with Polish Christmas Eve superstitions in response to my first article. I’ve reprinted some of them here:

Before the meal began, a Holy [blessed] candle was lit, everyone knelt, and the family said prayers. The meal was meatless and began with mushroom borscht, followed by homemade pierogi, mushrooms with gravy, saurkraut with peas (kapusta grokham) and boiled potatoes. At the end of the meal, the Holy candle was blown out and…if the smoke rose straight up everyone would be together next Christmas. Also, if the pink host stuck to the bottom of the potato bowl, there would be good luck in the coming year. -Stacey

After the food, a bell would ring and two figures would enter the room. One was Santa Claus and one was called Bulea (sp?). I always thought she was Santa’s mother, but an older cousin said she was some kind of spirit. She would make sure that we knew our prayers in polish and would give us a treat, usually a potato. But she was a scary figure, dressed in black with a cloth mask and carrying a stick to wield against anyone who displeased her.. My younger brother would hide under the table when he heard the bell. –Christine

If you cooked the wigilia you could not let go of the spoon you started using in the beginning; you had to use it till the end, and you had to serve with it and eat with it. Or at the end of the wigilia all the teenage girls in the family would gather the spoons, go outside and wait and listen to hear a dog bark. If the bark came from the North, your future husband would come from the North. Or after wigilia the teenagers would walk around with a big Gwiazga Betlejemska and they would Kolendować.Anna

We do not eat anything with wings. Such as turkey,chicken etc. Otherwise all your money would fly away in the new year. -Christina

Toss Her In! Why the Poles Drown Marzanna

drowning of Marzanna.
Polish villagers prepare to drown Marzanna.

Poles are so hardcore that they actually kill death…EVERY YEAR! This week marks the beginning of spring and the end of all that nasty, cold, winter weather…hopefully. Traditionally in Poland, this was the time for a Polish custom known as the drowning of Marzanna.

Who’s Marzanna, and why do the Poles want to drown her? You have to go back to ancient Slavic mythology to understand. In some legends, Marzanna is a goddess of death; in others, she is a demon who represents all the suffering of winter. Regardless of whether she is a goddess or a demon, she symbolizes death.

Today, winter is annoying, but we don’t necessarily associate it with death. In old Poland, however, it was a different story. If you hadn’t stored up enough food, got really sick or got snowed in, then you were in big trouble. Many people didn’t survive winters back then, not just in Poland, but everywhere.

So, when spring came, it was an even bigger deal than today. It meant you had survived. You had made it to a new year. Everything was being reborn, and the world was full of hope. Just one thing remained to be done: drown the one who was believed to have brought winter about in the first place—Marzanna (not to be confused with the deadly Rusałka).

Women would make a doll of Marzanna out of straw and rags and put a little dress and head scarf on her. Villagers would then stick the doll on a long pole and march in procession to a lake, river or pond where they would toss it into the water. They would then create a gaik, or a long tree branch decorated with flowers—this would symbolize spring and rebirth and was meant to replace Marzanna.

After drowning the doll and creating the gaik, the villagers would return to the village, but it was a journey filled with superstition. Marzanna was apparently ticked off about getting drowned and would try and “grab” villagers (Didn’t that defeat the purpose of the drowning? Just saying). So, if someone fell on the way home, it was believed they would die in the upcoming year.

This tradition goes back centuries—some believe as far back as the early middle ages. The earliest written mention dates back to the 1400s. It’s a little creepy, but interesting nonetheless. It really symbolizes the earthly cycle of death and rebirth. Each year, winter kills everything and spring brings it back to life. Although Marzanna drowns every year, she’ll always come back, and the cycle goes on and on…forever.

Here’s a modern drowning of Marzanna (Jump to 3:40 to get to the important part if you want;)

Andrzejki: Crazy Polish Love Superstitions for Women

She loves me, she loves me not; she loves me, she loves me not…Even in today’s digital age, superstitions abound when it comes to finding love.

A quick Google search will yield many of them. One says that girls who don’t  shave their legs will more quickly find a mate (disregard this one, ladies). Another superstition  claims that if you swallow a chicken’s heart whole, you can marry anyone you want (no, I have no freaking clue what the connection is).

These myths and superstitions about finding love exist in every culture and are nothing new. Poland certainly has no shortage of them, although many have, thankfully, fallen out of practice.

The last week of November, known as “Andrzejki,” was a big deal in old Poland when young Polish women would do a ton of strange things to find out about their future love lives.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

On November 29, a Polish maiden would place two mirrors in front of her face in a darkened room. In between the mirrors, she would place a candle. The girl would then stare deeply at the lighted candle while counting backwards from 24. While staring, she had to concentrate on seeing her future husband. After reaching zero, she would turn to the darkest corner and supposedly see her future husband in the shadows. Creepy factor: 10.

It reminds me of one of these optical illusions.

Release the Hounds

Hungry-DogA bunch of Polish girls would get together and bake loaf cakes. Each girl would pick a cake and mark it, identifying it as her own. After placing the cakes on a bench, they would release a starving dog. Whichever cake the dog grabbed first, that girl would be the first to marry. Honestly, I feel sorry for the poor dog who had to starve just to boost some chick’s ego.

The Goose Knows Best

angry goose
Polish Matchmaker

Once again, an innocent animal became a fortune-telling tool for a bunch of single Polish chicks. The girls would blindfold a goose. They would then stand in a closed circle, holding hands. After setting the blindfolded animal free, they would wait in earnest to see which girl it would approach first—that girl would be the first to marry. They must have been really desperate to let a goose decide their love lives.

Choose Wisely

An older woman would place three items under three plates on a table: a leaf from the rue plant, a piece of lace, and a special hat called a “czepek.” Three young women would then enter the kitchen and pick a plate:

Picking the plate with the hat underneath meant you would be married soon.

Picking the plate with the lace underneath meant you would become a nun.

Picking the plate with the rue plant underneath meant eternal spinsterhood.

Weird stuff. I know. The guys did stuff like this from time to time too, but nothing as strange as what I described above. But who knows, maybe it worked. So ladies, maybe try one of these crazy superstitions this week. Just please make sure no animals are harmed in the process!