Polish American Lenten Customs
Fr. Basil Janasik O.F.M.
Polish American Lenten customs have thus far received little attention from American writers. The purpose of this essay is to describe these customs, with particular reference to their origin and significance in Poland. As a rule, these customs were at first transplanted without much change, though in time modifications set in to produce variations in usage. A study of these changes may be undertaken in a future article.
In the first centuries after Poland accepted Christianity in the year 966, the Lenten fast was observed so strictly that nothing cooked or warm was eaten from the middle of Lent until Easter Sunday. The people were satisfied with bread, dried fruits and smoked fish. Later, fast was observed on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays of the entire Lenten season and special mortifications were observed during the first and last weeks. Bread only was eaten on the Saturdays in Lent.
The Poles abstained from wine on Fridays but allowed themselves beer once a week. The usual drink was boiled water and, in some sections of Poland, many faithful not only took no food but abstained even from water on Good Friday. Others vowed not to take any food on Holy Saturday and remained true to their vow. Olive oil was used for cooking on non-fast days in the homes of the rich. The poor used a cheaper oil. The Poles still have a saying: "Sir benefactor, good dumplings on oil", as a reminder of those times. It was unthinkable to eat meat and it was considered a concession to use butter.
Popular secular songs gave way to pious Lenten hymns. Women put away their ornaments and gaily colored dresses and substituted common, dark hued garments.
Since fish was the staple fare during Lent, each courtyard, monastery and village bred them in many ponds and pools. The kitchens of nobility had their "stockfish" prepared for Lent from great pike. When a sixteenth century bishop named Erasm Ciolek brought a papal dispensation from Rome to eat meat on Wednesdays, scarcely a subject could be found in his diocese who would avail himself of the privilege. It remained for King Zygmunt August (1520-72) to set a precedent and change the regulations. Out of consideration for the German Protestants dining at the royal table, meat appeared for the first time on a fast day in the palace of Cracow. From that day, meat was consumed even on Palm Sunday. The regulation was relaxed it was said, to express joy that only one week remained before the Saviour would rise from the dead.
In a sense, Lent was observed more severely in Poland than in many other European Catholic countries but where the others paid more attention to the quantity consumed, the Polish people were primarily concerned with quality. A French priest who spent some time in Poland during the life of King Jan Sobieski (1624-96) wrote: "Fasting for the Polish people consists in abstaining from meat and butter, but they eat and drink the entire day."
Barszcz, a sour soup, was cut with olive oil. Bread was smeared with olive oil, sprinkled with poppy seed, sugar or salt and baked over hot coals. Toasted bread with toasted beer constituted a Lenten supper. A beer broth consisting of toasted beer with egg yolk was a Lenten favorite served in large glasses called szklanice. Another favored Lenten dish was mnichy "monks" because it had its origin in monastery kitchens. These were twisted cakes, cut in squares, boiled in scalding water on a little tin sieve and basted on a platter swimming with butter and onions.
The Lenten fast gave rise to a popular custom observed in the Middle Ages and carried over to the present day. An old useless crock is filled with peelings and ashes in the early morning of the Wednesday in mid Lent. Pounding on the door or window of a sleeping neighbor to make sure he is awake, the crock is flung against the door. The city dwellers throw the crock under each others' feet saying: "It is mid-Lent, dear sir (or madam)."
In the evening of Good Friday, or the early hours of Holy Saturday, servants tied a herring with a thread to a long, thick rope suspending it over a path on a tree. The herring was being punished for having reigned over meat-starved appetites during the past six weeks.
Zur, a mess of slightly fermented light oatmeal, was carried out of the kitchen as no longer useful. One of the houseboys was cajoled into carrying the dish of oatmeal on his head, or in a bag on his back. Behind him, another servant carried a shovel for the purpose of digging a grave for the Zur. As they reached the courtyard, the shovel bearer would suddenly whack the container of oatmeal and the entire mess would cascade over the carrier evoking gales of laughter from the "mourners" accompanying the "funeral".
In the early morning of Good Friday, parents placed their children in a circle and proceeded to lash each child with the words: Rany boskie "God's wounds". In some sections of Poland, the custom is observed today and is called placze bóg, "God weeps." Mirrors are covered with a black cloth as a sign of mourning and children are warned not to peek into them lest they see the devil.
Water drawn from streams and ponds before sunset on Good Friday takes on significance. It is believed that people and animals washed in this water will be protected from skin diseases. Farmers sow peas on Good Friday in the belief that what is sown on this day will be free from insects. Old straw is thrown from the barns because the new straw of Good Friday will not be liable to infestation by vermin. And one can assure himself happiness and good fortune if he takes a handful of dirt from a neighbor's property on Good Friday and carries it to his own land.
In the area surrounding Cracow, it is believed that impure spirits and witches have special powers on Good Friday. Since the Lord is dead, they hold meetings with the devils themselves on this day. In years gone by, guns were fired in cemeteries to disrupt the meetings but today altar boys armed with clappers, pots and pans can be seen running through the cemeteries raising a great hue and cry to drive out the evil spirits.
It was believed that an egg laid on Good Friday would never decay and constituted a good remedy against fever. It also was considered a miraculous fire extinguisher if cast into a blaze caused by a bolt of lightning. Others maintained that the eggs laid on Good Friday were to be consumed raw on Easter Sunday if illness was to be prevented during the entire year.
In centuries past, Poland too had its penitential brethren who scourged themselves publicly during Lent but especially on Good Friday. While making the Way of the Cross, a different penitent would flay himself at each station until he drew blood.
At Poland's Shrine of the Black Madonna, a time honored ceremony begins at 4 a. m. on Holy Thursday. The Pauline Fathers in charge of the Shrine meet behind the closed doors of the main church in order to avoid the crowds already streaming onto the grounds. Covered by the darkness of the early hour, the monks hurry to the sacristy. They open a safe and descend stairs to a small cubicle situated behind the top of the altar. All kneel as two priests vested in surplices and stoles, take down the miraculous picture. They place it on a table covered with a cloth and surround the picture with lighted candles. Prayers are begun under the leadership of the prior. The crown and precious garments are removed and taken to the safe from which fresh garments and crown are brought. The picture is thoroughly dusted. Various religious and devotional articles are touched to the sacred image. The crown and clean dresses are sealed in place. The prior recites the Litany of Loreto and two monks replace the picture on the altar.
Meanwhile, at Poland's Shrine of Our Lady of Calvary, tens of thousands of pilgrims are entering the grounds. They will be present for the Passion Play enacted annually on Good Friday by the clerics of the Franciscan monastery and the local peasants. The Play is dramatic and instructive. The scenes correspond with the Gospel in depicting the different stages of the Passion. The chapels with their paintings and sculptures harmoniously arranged, according to the Gospel narrative serve as settings.
"The Way to Calvary" begins with the Chapel of St. Raphael the Archangel, which stands before the great Church of the Crucifixion. Next is the Church of the Cenacle and the bridge leading to the chapel "on the Cedron". There is the "Way of the Agony in the Garden", the "House of Annas", the "House of Caiphas", and 28 "Holy Steps" leading to the "Throne of Pilate". There are also the "Palace of Herod", the "Return to Pilate", the chapels of the "Scourging", "Jesus accepting the Cross" and three chapels commemorating the three falls of the Savior. There are also the chapels of St. Veronica and the "Denudation". All feature appropriate paintings and sculpture executed by famous Polish artists.
The Polish swieconka, blessed food, of Holy Saturday dates back through many centuries. Chroniclers from the reign of King Ladislaus IV describe the swieconka which stood on the royal table. Four skins of huge wild boars, one for each season of the year, were crammed with pork, hams, sausages and a suckling. Twelve deer with golden antlers, for the twelve months of the year, stood in tandem surrounding each boar. The deer were stuffed with meat of rabbits, grouse, bustards and pheasant.
Fifty two enormous cakes, representing the weeks of the year, surrounded the deer. Each was filled with pancakes, sweetmeats, dumplings and "bakalia". On a table were 365 babki, a special sweet bread, for the number of days in a year. Each was adorned with impressive inscriptions and flourishes. Four goblets of liqueur represented the four seasons. Twelve silver buckets of wine, arranged in tandem, represented the twelve months of the year. Fifty-two silver barrels arranged in tandem, representing the weeks of the year, were filled with wine from Cyprus, Spain and Italy. For each day of the year, 365 bottles of Hungarian wine decorated the scene. 8,700 quarts of honey produced in Breza, representing the hours of the year, were for the servants of the castle.
The nobles sought to emulate their king. A large table covered with a snow-white cloth was loaded with stuffed sucklings, hams, smoked tongues and baked lambs. Like a phalanx of soldiers surrounding the quiet dignity of their general, this succulent display surrounded an "Agnus Dei", which stood poised with the banner of the Resurrection. At the extremities of the tableaux stood babki towering above the scene, arousing the admiration of the onlookers by their texture and size. This sweet bread was the pride of every housekeeper. The dough was snowy, light and puffy evoking praise from the men and envy on the part of the women who either did not know the secret of the baking or were too stingy and lacked diligence in the preparation of the dough. At the furthest ends of the table were mosaic-like pancakes, of the most fantastic designs. And everywhere, crowning the culinary heroes and heroines of the day, were pyramids, towers and turrets atop the walls of a fortress.
It is said that there are deep, sunken ravines where the sun seldom penetrates. On the days when it is to appear on the horizon, the villagers hurry forth at daybreak, carrying all manner of dishes overflowing with omelet. Amid songs and the clanging of brass instruments, they joyfully consume the eggs at the appearance of the sun.
As it was then, so today the eating of the blessed egg is of the essence, the principal symbol of the entire celebration. The custom is ancient and not limited to Poland, for reaches back into the pre-Christian era when the forces of nature were worshipped as gods. Worship of the sun was common to all early religious. The egg, symbol of life's initial stages, was offered to the sun-god which with its warmth had introduced life into the egg. As with the breaking and sharing of the wafer on Christmas Eve, so too on Easter morn every member and every guest of every household shares the egg, wishing each in turn a Blessed Easter.
This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. XX. No. 2, July-December 1963, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.