Traces of Slavic Pagan Rites in the Polish Easter Tradition

Easter comes with spring and it is the most significant Christian holiday, also beautifully celebrated in Poland. The very beginning of spring had already been celebrated in Polish territory in the times of paganism and was associated among the former Slavs with the so-called Jare Gody, a several-day Slavic ritual spring festival that was a farewell to winter and a welcome to spring (Sławosław.pl 2019). These celebrations took place around the spring equinox and so began with the calendar spring, that is to say on the twenty-first March (Ibid.).

Goodbye to Marzanna

The first important ritual of the Jare Gody was to burn or drown Morena (Marzanna in Polish), an effigy which has been a symbol of the Slavic goddess of winter of the same name (Sławosław.pl 2019; “Morana (goddess)” 2021).

Marzanna in Poland. Photo by Ratomir Wilkowski, www.RKP.org.pl (2010). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sometimes, for a better effect, even both of these activities were performed: first, Marzanna was set on fire, and then thrown into the water, especially into rivers whose currents are able to take her away from the view of the audience (Sławosław.pl 2019). In the past, this ritual was often accompanied by making noise: crackling, rattling, knocking, singing and playing all kinds of instruments (Ibid.). I am not sure if this custom is still celebrated in Polish schools. In my time, all the children at school participated in the competition to create the best effigy of Marzanna, which we later carried to the river and drowned them all there. I remember that the fun was great, although now children’s entertainment is unfortunately changing … Yet, my seven-year-old nephew still cuts out a small image of Marzanna from coloured paper and glues to her round head curly hair from tissue paper.

Jare Gody and Easter

As Marzanna is associated with winter, Jaryło and Jarowit, who were gods of fertility in the folklore of eastern and southern Slavs, are both associated with spring (Sławosław.pl 2019).

Morena effigy, Slovakia. Photo by T. Kičin, early twentieth century. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Today, the place of pagan deities in Poland is obviously taken by the Risen Christ, who replaced them as a symbol of the New Life. In the pagan times, after the beginning of Jare Gody (the name originates from the names of the gods), people lit fires on the hills to summon as much heat and sun as possible (Ibid.). Willow and hazel twigs were also collected, from which the so-called panicles were made (Ibid.). Those were bunches of branches and flowers clogged on the roofs of new buildings (Ibid.). At that time, the houses were cleaned and incensed, as much as it is today, and traditional Slavic cakes were also baked (Ibid.). It was a time of joy, because then everything was slowly beginning to bloom and revive (Ibid.).

Pussy willow branches are cut and used for the panicles. Photo by Avicennasis (2010). Public domain. Photo source: “Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Christianity celebrates this time in a similar way, but with other religious values; houses are adorned with flowers and blooming twigs to glorify the promise of the Resurrection with the forthcoming of spring and with it, the hope that the dead will be reawakened to eternal life.

Different ways of fasting

In Poland, Easter is also a culinary celebration (Lemnis, Vitry 1979, p. 218). The overture to the Easter feasts has always been the preceding Lent. In old Poland, fasting was followed very strictly, even at the royal court, but those were primarily the poor urban population and peasants who fasted truly, in a real “Catholic” way, both for religious and material reasons (Ibid.:218). So people ate sour rye soup (żur), groats, cabbage, herring, and later also potatoes, all sprinkled only with oil (Ibid.:218). In the Polish region of Masuria, fasting was particularly exemplary, without using either butter or milk (Ibid.:218). At magnate courts and rich monasteries, people fasted in a peculiar way, serving various and deliciously seasoned fish dishes, by no means in fasting amounts, and alcoholic drinks did not seem to interfere with fasting at all (Ibid.:218).

Funeral of herring

On Good Friday, the court and city youth organized a “funeral of sour rye (żur) and herring” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:218). The clay pot with the sour rye soup was smashed, while the herring was hung on a branch as a punishment for the fact it had ruled over meat for six weeks, harassing human stomachs with its weak meal” (Ibid.:218).

Actually nowadays, Polish żur is one of the most frequent served soups during Easter. Still, it is not a fasting dish, as it is usually enriched with halves of boiled eggs and slices of white or ordinary sausage.

The Easter “Blessed

In the mansions of magnates and noble courts, a wonderfully set Easter table was blessed by the parish priest or chaplain, while the poor brought food for the same reason to the church (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:218-219). On Easter Saturday, both in towns and villages, eggs, bread and salt were brought to the church and placed on the festive table after blessing (Ibid.:218).

Food blessing in the nineteenth century, by Michał Elwiro Andriolli (before 1893). Public domain. Photo source: “Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This custom has fortunately remained in Poland to this day, when beautifully decorated baskets filled to the brim with Easter specialties are brought to the church and blessed. As the old Polish tradition dictates, the basket is not complete without beautifully painted eggs (pisanki), a piece of bread and salt.

Modern ceremony in Poland of blessing the food brought to the church in baskets for Easter breakfast. Photo by Błażej Benisz – WSD Ołtarzew, www.wsdsac.pl (2007). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo source: “Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In addition, we put now a little bit of everything in the basket that will later be served on the Easter table: pepper, sausage, ham, horseradish, butter, a lamb made of sugar or flour, with the inscription “Hallelujah”, and for children – chocolate hares.

Pisanki and kraszanki

Easter in Polish folk cuisine was much more modest than that of the nobles, but more closely related to the old customs and rituals (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). Such relics of pagan beliefs include Easter eggs (pisanki or kraszanki in Polish), which are hard-boiled, dyed and artfully decorated; in the past it was usually made by village women (Ibid.:219). Painting eggs, which for the Slavs symbolized energy, joy of life and harvest in the new growing year was an important part of the pagan festival of Jare Gody (Sławosław.pl 2019). The culmination of the celebrations were feasts given on the hills, during which people sang, danced and exchanged Easter eggs as gifts (Ibid.). The practice of dyeing eggs for Easter still persists (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). The old Easter eggs were often true works of folk art; today’s ones usually give way to the old ones in terms of elegance and artistry (Ibid.:219). Yet all do their best to make them colourful and carefully decorated.

Easter eggs (pisanki). Photo by LeCornichon (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Pisanka” (2021). In Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Since the egg is an ancient symbol of life, it has reigned supreme on Easter tables, because Easter is also a feast of nature awakening to life (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). Easter eggs were often dyed red in particular (Ibid.:219). A special dye can be used to obtain a dark red colour, but my mother always dyes the eggs organically by soaking them in onion shells. Such red Easter eggs had, according to ancient Slavic beliefs, magical properties and were said to be effective, especially in matters of love (Ibid.:219).

In the eastern territories of former Poland, it was also customary to give the priest Easter eggs on Good Friday (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). A French cartographer and architect, Guillaume de Beauplan, who stayed in seventeenth-century Poland, described this custom, claiming that the priest collected up to five thousand eggs in two hours (Ibid.:219). He also adds that while thanking the pious donors, he kissed the girls and the younger girls, but he only gave the hand to kiss to the old women (Ibid.:219).

Easter traffic in the kitchen

During the Holy Week, the greatest traffic was in the kitchen, from which the delicious smells of various dishes prepared for Easter came from (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). They aroused the appetites of the fasting household, longing for the Resurrection, which marked the end of the fast and the beginning of the Easter feast (Ibid.:219). Nowadays, we do fasting in Poland only on the Good Friday and Good Saturday, till the Resurrection, or we start celebrating just after the Easter Mass, when finally we sit down to a ceremonial breakfast. As in modern-day Poland, the so-called “Blessed” (“Święcone” in Polish), that is to say the food from the basket, and other delicacies were placed on the spring-decorated table in the dining room (Ibid.:219). Compared to the old Polish appetite, today’s one is much smaller. In old Poland, the Easter breakfast consisted of hams, sausages, brawn fish, fish in jelly, whole baked piglet and Easter cakes: mazurek cakes (Easter pastry), tortes and the famous old Polish “baba” cakes (Ibid.:219-220). Of course, vodka, meads, beer and wine were not forgotten (Ibid.:210).

The Easter Lamb made of butter or sugar towered over everything. It has been a symbol of the Risen Christ (Ibid.:210). The entire table, shimmering with a wide range of colours and tempting with seductive scents, was decorated with green dyes and colourful Easter eggs (Ibid.:220). Of course, the blessed food eaten on Easter was either more modest or stunningly rich, which depended on the wealth of the house (Ibid.:220).

Easter breakfast

Easter breakfast started either quite early, or at noon or even a little later (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:242). In some houses, the more impatient gentlemen “attacked” the festive table already on Good Saturday, but mostly these were just preliminaries to the Sunday “culinary battle” (Ibid.:242). The Easter feast, even the most modest one, began with the sharing of a hard-boiled egg with mutual wishes, as it happened between pagan Slavs (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220; Sławosław.pl 2019). The “Blessed” consisted only of cold dishes, with a huge variety of tastes and aromas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220). People were seated at the table, which, due to the set of dishes, was the prototype of today’s cold buffet (Ibid.:220). Of the hot dishes, only red borscht prepared on beetroot kvass was served, which differed from Christmas borscht in that it was cooked on essential meat broth, often on boiled ham (Ibid.:242). Instead of Christmas Eve dumplings, quarters of hard-boiled eggs or sliced ​​sausage were put into the borscht (Ibid.:242). At the end of the feast, hot bigos (a Polish dish of cabbage, meat and sausages) was served (Ibid.:242).

Formerly, different beliefs were associated with some of the dishes on the Easter table (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:242). According to Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569), a poet and prose writer who lived during the reign of King Zygmunt August, sausage protected against snake biting, horseradish – from fleas, and roasted hazel grouse from … prison.

Easter baba sprinkled with powdered sugar. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Polish Easter pastries also deserve special attention during the celebration: tortes, bundt cakes (“baba” cakes) and Easter pastry (“mazurek” cakes) (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220).

Polish queen from Italy and tortes

Tortes appeared relatively late in Polish cuisine and the fashion for them probably came from Italy, thanks to Polish queen, Bona Sforza d’Aragona (1494 – 1557) who came from the Dutchy of Milan (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220). During the reign of her son, Zygmunt II August (Sigismund II Augustus 1520 – 1572), splendour and luxury prevailed at the royal court in Krakow (Ibid.:222). The queen mother herself, marrying the Polish king, Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund the Old 1467 – 1548), introduced Italian customs to the court (Ibid.:222).

The traditional form of baking baba cakes. Photo by Hubertl (2014). CC BY-SA 3.0. The making of this work was supported by Wikimedia Austria. Photo source; “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

This meeting of two high-level European cultures has proved beneficial in many cases, particularly in the fields of art, architecture, literature and music (Ibid.:223). With time, Italian influences also began to emerge in Polish cuisine (Ibid.:223). Italians were amazed to see how much meat Poles ate every day (Ibid.:223). The Poles, on the other hand, mocked the Italians’ love of vegetables, which they considered exaggerated (Ibid.:223). And although vegetables are often served on Polish tables, the excessive and by no means health-promoting passion for meat dishes has remained with us to this day (Ibid.:223). An example of this is the Easter table with the “Blessed”, both in the past and now (Ibid.:223).

Baba cakes

Among the Easter cakes served to this day, the so-called baba cakes (bundt cakes) and mazurek cakes (Easter pastry) are a peculiarity and pride of Old Polish cuisine and native Polish specialties (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220).

The girl in the national Polish costume, serving Polish baba cake. Postcard sent on April 11, 1936, entitled “Happy Hallelujah”. Publisher: Polonia Kraków. By Adam Setkowicz.Publisher: Polonia Kraków (1936). Public domain. Image source: “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Baking Easter baba cakes was an emotional event and could be called a kind of theatrical mystery (Ibid.:221). The cook, the housewife and other women locked themselves in the kitchen, where men were forbidden to enter their kingdom (Ibid.:221). The whitest wheat flour was sifted through a sieve, hundreds of yolks with sugar were rubbed in pots, saffron was dissolved in vodka, which not only beautifully coloured the dough yellow, but also gave it a spicy aroma Ibid.:221). Then the almonds were ground, the raisins were carefully selected, the scented vanilla was mashed in mortars, and the yeast was made into a leaven (Ibid.:221). The dough placed in the cupcake moulds was covered with linen tablecloths, because the “chilled” baba cake did not grow and was slack-baked (Ibid.:221). So the windows and doors of the kitchen were sealed for fear of drafts (Ibid.:221). Properly grown baba cakes were carefully put into the oven (Ibid.:221). Finally, as they were lifted from the hot cavities of the oven on a wooden shovel, it was not uncommon for the kitchen to hear dramatic shouts and crying; a baba cake which was browned too much or “sat down” was a disgrace (Ibid.:221).

A selection of Mazurek cakes ready for Easter in Poland. Photo by Magic Madzik – Flickr: 100/365: Ready for Easter (2009). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Mazurek (cake)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Simultaneously, successful baba cakes taken out of the oven were placed on fluffy quilts to prevent them from being crushed while cooling down (Ibid.:221). In addition, the conversation was in whispers, as the noise could harm the delicate dough (Ibid.:221). The cooled baba cakes were beautifully and generously glazed (Ibid.:221). The most famous and delicate were the so-called fluffy and muslin babas (Ibid.:221).

Mazurek

On the other hand, the origin of the mazurek has not been sufficiently explained so far (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:221). Perhaps they reveal the influence of sweet Turkish cuisine (Ibid.:221). Mazurek is a low cake, usually on a crispy bottom or on a wafer, covered with a layer of nut, almond, cheese and dried fruit mass, colourfully glazed and beautifully decorated with preserves and dried fruit (Ibid.:221). Good housewives often had several dozen recipes for mazurek cakes (Ibid.:221).

How Poles spend Easter

According to our tradition, we spend the first day of Easter at home with our family and sometimes we invite our closest friends to the “Blessed” breakfast (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264). On the second day of Christmas, that is the Good Monday, we either visit our friends ourselves or host guests (Ibid.:264). Then we serve cold stews or bigos as a starter, and after borscht or żur, usually roast meat, such as turkey in rich sauce (Ibid.:264). The sweet finale are surely Easter cakes: mazurek, baba cakes and tortes (Ibid.:221).

Śmigus-Dyngus

The Good Monday morning is still associated with a long tradition of pouring water over each other, hence usually called “Wet Monday” or, more commonly, “Śmigus-Dyngus” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264).

Soaking a Polish girl on śmigus-dyngus (a postcard). Nationwide Specialty Co., Arlington, Texas — In Buffalo, N.Y., Stanley Novelty Co., 200 S. Ogden St. – Boston Public Library (circa 1930-1945). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Of course, this rite comes from our pagan ancestors (Sławosław.pl 2019). Slavic Śmigus and Dyngus were originally separate rites and cleansing rituals, bringing strength and health (Ibid.). Śmigus relied on lashing each other with blooming twigs, and Dyngus on pouring water over each other (Ibid.). In the evening of that day, the dead were remembered, their graves were visited and they were offered food (Ibid.). The custom of pouring water, that is to say Dyngus, has survived to this day as a real national water fight, especially in the countryside (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264). Yet, it is still called Śmigus-Dyngus. In the Old Poland, particularly unmarried girls were the victims of watering, and boys were their “water” attackers (Ibid.:264). The girls defended themselves vigorously and noisily (Ibid.:264). In reality, however, they were satisfied, because if a girl had not got soaked on that day, she would have been considered deliberately disregarded, which did not bring about a quick marriage, and even threatened with her ending as a spinster (Ibid.:264). In cities, especially nowadays, water can be streamed to anybody, either with buckets, water guns, bottles, or balloons filled with water and thrown from above (Culture.pl 2014). In rare cases, water is sprayed in small sprinklers in the form of colourful eggs or perfumes are used instead of water, confined to rather symbolic sprinkling of a potential “victim” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264).

But just in case, to avoid getting soaked, especially when it is still chilly outside, it is definitely better to stay home on that day, enjoying that time together with your family and friends and to have an opportunity to change your clothes if the fun is full-blown (Culture.pl 2014).

Another opportunity to spend family holidays

As in 2020, Easter of 2021 is still heavily marked by the time of pandemic and so it cannot be fully celebrated, especially by participating in all religious celebrations in the church. People usually take part in them by means of online transmissions. Nevertheless, today, that is to say on Good Saturday, according to the long Polish tradition, people anyway came to the church with their beautifully decorated baskets to bless the food to be served on Easter Sunday as the “Blessed”. Although last year I was spending Easter on my own in Dublin due to the pandemic, this year for the same reasons, I can enjoy it together with my family. After Christmas, 2020, it is the second important family feast I have had an opportunity to celebrate in Poland, and hence write on typical Polish traditions connected with Christian feasts, some of which have originated from pagan Slavic rites, still very present in our modern Polish lives.

Happy Easter and God bless!

Featured image: “The Resurrection” by Ricci, Sebastiano (1659 – 1734). Uploaded by DcoetzeeBot (2012). Public domain {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Image cropped.

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