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Today is 19 February
we celebrate name day of

Arnold, Konrad, Marceli

Sunrise: 6:46
Sunset: 16:55

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Lent, Holy Week and Easter in Poland

Decorative Tomb of Jesus in St Mary church in Krakow 2008

Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian religion and many church ceremonies and customs are linked with Easter. We want to explain some of them to you and how they affect Polish life in a religious and everyday manner. We hope that this will help you understand what is happening when you visit Poland during this period. And if you are a believer and would like to see and understand the differences or similarities between your church and the Polish church we hope that this brief text will be of some help.

Let us begin with the religious aspect of Easter as any tradition or custom without faith and a sacral base would not have the strength to survive in society for so long. Easter is the most important Christian holiday and commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, offering hope of eternal life after death for believers. At the beginning Easter was fixed in calendar and held on the Jewish holiday of Pasha. From 325 AD (The Council at Nicea) Easter was decided to take place on the first Sunday after the Spring full moon - that is between 21 March and 25 April (in 2012 it will be the 8 and 9 April).

The Easter Period starts 40 days prior Easter Sunday on Ash Wednesday. On this day Lent starts and lasts 40 days to remind us the 40 days Christ spent in the desert tempted by the Devil. The time of Lent is for retrospection and to prepare for Easter with understanding and respect. During Lent Christians do not have parties or any other forms of entertainment and on Fridays, the day of the Crucifixion, they fast. Fasting culminates on Good Friday when a stricter fast is practiced - according to the church one full meal can be eaten that day but no meat.

Easter traditional palm

Before Easter we have Holy Week and the triumphal holiday of Palm Sunday. This day symbolizes the welcome from people with palm leaves Christ received when he entered Jerusalem as the Messiah only to be crucified a few days later. This tradition of palms can be found in Poland though the palms do not resemble palm tree leaves at all. They are usually bought at markets or outside churches and are no longer than 30 centimeters. There are regions in Poland where palms are several metres high and special presentations and competitions are organised to choose the highest or the most beautiful palm made by its proud owner. Polish palms are made of wheat stalks, dried flowers, colourful paper, dried fruit, etc. To see this tradition you have to leave the larger cities and visit a small village. The best known competitions are held in the Kurpie region and in Małopolska, in Rabka and Lipnica Murowana.

Palm Sunday reminds us of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem as well the sacrifice He is about to make after which we begin the celebration of Holy Week.

Maundy Thursday - first day of Pasha Triduum, a very important Christian day. Church liturgy reminds us of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples when Jesus established the ritual of the Eucharist (changing bread into his flesh and wine into blood) as well as calling his disciples to the priesthood. On that day in churches special ceremonies such as the blessing of holy oils are conducted. These oils are used during the year in baptisms and other sacraments. Priests also renew their vows on that day. At the end of Holy Mass the statue of Christ is taken by procession to darkened chapel. This symbolizes the last hours of Christ's life spent with disciples in prayer.

Good Friday – the most important Pasha Triduum day, the day of the Crucifixion with strict fasting for believers. It is the most distressing day in the year. There are no masses in churches and the ceremonies in church relate to the Cross as the symbol of death of Christ. The Cross is taken around the church in procession, The Way of the Cross, with 14 stops at each station from the sentencing to the placing of His body in the Tomb. In the evening the body of Christ symbolized by The Host is placed in a specially prepared tomb till Easter Sunday. Most churches are open until the next day and many people gather in silent prayer, sing hymns and meditate even at late night. Many of these tombs are decorated with objects related to the present day political situation and are interesting and sometimes very controversial (they were very controversial in communist times when the church could express more by symbols that officially could be said in public).

After these church ceremonies which are not obligatory on that day most Christians continue fasting very strictly and private life is limited to calm and orderly events.

Good Friday means a lot of work for Polish women in the kitchen as it is one of the last days to prepare the delicacies to be eaten during the Easter days to come.

Easter basket with blessed food

Holy Saturday - the day of study and peacefulness. There are no masses in the churches and the only celebration is the evening liturgy in preparation of the Resurrection on Sunday. During the evening vigil there are small bonfires lit outside churches and candles are lit from them. Priests enter the dark church with this light as a symbol of breaking the chains of death and enlightening the darkness over humankind. During this evening's celebrations baptismal oaths are renewed and the Tomb of Christ is prayed over by special hymns for that occasion.

In the customs and traditions in Poland this day is singular for one event which takes place from morning till afternoon with frequent prayers in churches during the blessing of the food. This is a very popular custom and widely respected. Food, in small amounts, is placed into willow baskets with spring decorations. There must an egg - a symbol of new life, salt to keeps from being spoilt, and bread as a symbol of the everyday bread people pray for. There are many foods which can be taken to be blessed, fruit, bread. Obligatory there is a lamb made from sugar symbolizing the Resurrected Christ. After the food is blessed in church fasting is over though the rest of the day is spent in peace and meditation.

Ceremony of food blessing

Easter Sunday - the day of Resurrection, the most important day for Christians, starts at 6 a.m., with a special Mass commencing with a procession round the church to the accompaniment of all the church bells. Easter Sunday ends this period of Lent and the contemplation of death. This day brings joy for eternal life for believers and the joy of Christ Resurrected. It is a special day with hymns in churches (but not at home as at Christmas). Families gather at the Easter breakfast table (as important as Christmas Eve supper or Christmas dinner) and many journey to visit their relatives from all parts of Poland and lately parts of Europe as our citizens have emigrated in large numbers to other countries in the EU. Before Easter breakfast starts the food that was blessed on Saturday is distributed and eaten, accompanied by special wishes. This is a family day and Poles spend it together with their closest relatives at the table eating many dishes prepared for this day then taking family walks. As Lent was not the proper time for a marriage many weddings take place on this day.

Easter Monday - Polish tradition has two days for Easter. This Monday is popularly known as Wet Monday and has a peculiar tradition. Young people throw water at each other but mostly at girls. Sometimes the water comes in bucketfuls, sometimes symbolic quantities. This takes place at homes as well as in the streets of towns and cities. Girls who remain dry that day will have no luck during the year that follows. This is superstition of course and the custom was known in pagan times as a symbol of purification from the dirt of winter. The Catholic Church uses it as a symbol of the purification of sin with a new cleaner life to come but for most people it's just a bit of fun. There is some abuse and generally the prettier the girl the wetter she becomes - even when the day time temperature is low. Usually by late afternoon this all stops and girls can walk the streets safely and stay dry.

This is also a special Emaus day in Kraków (Zwierzyniec district) with a Church fair and many attractions for children and adults. There are dozens of souvenir booths, playgrounds, special food stalls and music and it's a great place to buy souvenirs and enjoy the beginning of Spring.

Polish Easter is most of all a religious holiday for which believers prepare calmly to enjoy it when it comes with the hope of new life and life after death. These days are an opportunity to meet relatives, a time of forgiveness and a release from the bad things in life. As at Christmas people travel long distances to sit at the table together. Polish Easter also means special aromas, tastes, colours and customs which if we were to write about here would fill the entire The Visitor guide! So we leave you with a recommendation to visit Poland during this time of the year and take part in a Polish Easter.
last update February 2012