Poland is a country deeply rooted in Christian traditions, and many customs and rituals are still very present, much more than in other European countries. Lent traditions are one of such, and many customs and related events happen every year. I share with you here the traditions and customs, that are still practiced, some that are becoming forgotten, and some that are truly loved by all.
Before The Lent Starts
The period between the New Year Holidays and the Lent is dedicated to fun, dances, and food. It is called, no surprise here, the carnival, and all kinds of parties are allowed. Easter is a movable feast and each year it falls on different dates. The carnival itself is sometimes longer, and other times short. Usually, it lasts till mid, to end of Februar. And the carnival is one of the best days in the Polish calendar. It is Fat Thursday, one of the strongest Lent traditions in Poland.
Fat Thursday -The Opening of Big Lent Traditions
Poland has a unique way of marking the end of the pre-Lenten season. A day dedicated to indulging in sweet treats and delectable pastries. It is Tusty Czwartek, oder Fetter Donnerstag, and this annual celebration brings a wave of excitement and indulgence across the country.
This is the first day of the last week before the beginning of the Lent. This tradition started in ancient Rome when a particular Donnerstag was celebrated as the last day of winter. Over time, it was adjusted to fit the Christians’s rituals, and it is today celebrated as the first day of the last week before the Lent.
What Happens On Fat Thursday?
For centuries, this day was accustomed to two rituals, one was the eating of fatty foods, and saying goodbye to winter. The second custom is still alive in Poland, however, it was moved to another date. It is not associated with Lent traditions anymore, Fat Thursday is all about eating donuts and other traditional sweets. The whole nation goes wild and countless numbers of donuts are consumed. There is a saying that calories taken on this day do not count.:)
What Else Apart From Donuts?
Although donuts are the number one sweet of the day, there are other traditional sweets, still made at many homes, that are great in taste. Faworki sometimes referred to as Angel Wings, is one of the cutest desserts you can have. Try them homemade if you get the chance.
The Opening Of The Lent
Lent officially starts on Ash Wednesday. It is an official cut-off day of the carnival, and it is rather a quiet day. It is a day of penance, and abstinence from meat and strict fasting is obligatory, by the rules of the Catholic Church.
The custom of sprinkling ashes on the head during the mass of Ash Wednesday started in the 11th century, and it became an official element and is carried until today.
On Ash Wednesday, worshipers bow their heads during the liturgy, and the priest symbolically sprinkles ashes on them, derived from the blessed palms of the previous Palm Sunday. The priest says the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. This Lent tradition serves to remind us of that life on earth is only temporary, an eternal life is all that matters.
Significance of Fasting
In the Catholic Church, days of penance represent a special time of preparation for the most important holidays. Voluntary sacrifices and fasting aim to strengthen their faith. Every Wednesday and every Friday during the Lent is a strict fasting day.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. For 40 days, the faithful, through prayer and abstaining from certain foods, prepare for the most significant celebrations in the Catholic Church?the Easter Triduum.
One of the Lent traditions, which is connected to the church, but not only, is spring cleaning. In some households, it is a deep cleaning just before Easter, but in others, it becomes a proper renovation with the wall redecorating.
After the long winter, people used to take their bedding and carpets out, open windows and let the fresh spring air inside. The act of thorough cleaning was not only a symbol of the season changing but also an act of preparation for the coming of the risen Jesus.
Gorzkie ?ale is a Catholic liturgical devotion, that is deeply rooted in Polish Lent traditions. It started back in the 17th century in one of Warsaw’s churches, and over the years it spread throughout the country.
The faithful, during this contemplative ritual, commonly kneel or sit in meditation, it takes place six times on Sundays leading to Easter. Gorzkie ?ale continues to be popular in Poland, usually among the elder generation. Ultimately, Gorzkie ?ale holds a significant role in spiritually preparing the faithful for the Easter season, encouraging profound reflection on the mysteries of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.
The Exception Days During Lent
St. Joseph’s Day
The Lent used to be the time of no music organs playing, no dancing, no laughter, and even gatherings were not tolerated. But it was difficult to last so many days in this constant sorrow, and an exception day was implemented.
Not so much today, but back in the day a name day was always celebrated, sometimes even more than a birthday. 19th of March in the Polish calendar is St. Joseph’s Day, and this day is free of any fasting. The celebration of St Jospeh’s Day also removes fasting of Fridays and Wednesdays.
Mid-Lent, Breaking the Fast
Once a very strong custom both in towns and provinces, today well forgotten, was the Mid-Lent. It was a day during which young, usually boys, engaged in various pranks and mischief. Boys would toss a pot filled with ashes, known as “h?adyszka,” into houses, where young girls lived, or paint windows with lard or lime. For unmarried ladies who hadn’t found a husband during the carnival season, boys attached notes saying “Looking for a husband.” This misbehaving was tolerated, as everybody understood, how hard it was for the youth to withdraw from having fun for so long.
As the time comes closer and Easter is nearing, there are more Lent traditions to follow. Palm Sunday is one of them.
Palm Sunday, known as “Niedziela Palmowa” in Polish, is a Christian holiday that marks the beginning of Holy Week and commemorates Jesus Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In Poland, Palm Sunday is celebrated with various traditions and customs.
One of the most distinctive customs is the blessing of palms. People bring stunning palms, often adorned with colorful ribbons and handmade decorations, to church to be blessed by the priest. People later take these palms home and often display them as a symbol of protection and good luck.
There is a palm competition, which is famous across the whole country, it takes place in Lipnica Murowana, near Krakow, where participants create large, reaching 30 meters decorative palms made from different materials. These can be quite elaborate and showcase the creativity and craftsmanship of the participants. It is definitely worth seeing if you are somewhere close.
On Palm Sunday, church services include the reading of the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The congregation may process around the church or through the streets, recreating the biblical scene of people spreading palm branches on the road for Jesus.
Families gather for a meal on Palm Sunday. The celebration of Palm Sunday, although quite cheerfully celebration, sets the tone for the somber and reflective period of Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar.
Holly Weak and Lent Traditions
Holy Week, is called “Wielki Tydzie?” in Polish and is a significant and solemn period in the Christian calendar leading up to Easter Sunday. In Poland, Holy Week is marked by various traditions and religious practices that reflect the importance of this sacred time. Here are some common Holy Week traditions in Poland:
Palm Sunday (Niedziela Palmowa)
As mentioned earlier, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. People attend church services, participate in palm processions, and have their palms blessed. Elaborate palm competitions are held in some regions, showcasing artistic and creative designs.
Spy Wednesday (?roda Wielkiego Tygodnia)
On the Wednesday of Holy Week, known as Spy Wednesday the schools close for Easter break, they will repone in a week.
Holy Thursday (Wielki Czwartek)
Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with his Apostolos. In the evening, there is a Mass of the Lord’s Supper, during which the priest washes the feet of twelve people, symbolizing Jesus washing the feet of his apostles. After the Mass, there is a procession to the “Altar of Repose” where the Blessed Sacrament is kept for adoration.
Good Friday (Wielki Pi?tek)
Good Friday is a day of fasting and penance. The faithful participate in the Stations of the Cross, commemorating the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. In the afternoon or evening, there is a solemn liturgy called the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, during which the crucifix is venerated, and the faithful receive Holy Communion. In most cities, the cross is taken outside the church and people walk along the 12 stations of Passion. It causes traffic to shut down, so consider that when you are planning to move around the car on Big Friday evening.
Holy Saturday (Wielka Sobota)
Holy Saturday is a day of anticipation and preparation for the Easter. The Easter fire is blessed, and the Easter Candle is lit. In Poland there is a tradition of taking a basket with samples of food prepared for the Easter feast to the church. Baskets are always beautifully decorated, and they showcase the culture of egg painting.
The tradition of decorating eggs in Poland can be traced back to the 10th century. It makes it an integral part of Easter celebrations since its inception. Painted eggs have their names, dependingon teh region, and style of decorating. You may find:
- Kraszanki ? eggs colored with natural dyes,
- Nalepianki -Eier, die mit verschiedenen angeklebten Materialien verziert sind
- Wydrapanki – diese Technik besteht darin, Muster auf ein bereits bemaltes Ei zu kratzen
- Pisanki – Eier, die mit geschmolzenen Wachsmustern verziert sind, und dann werden solche Eier in Farbe getaucht, wonach das Wachs abgekratzt wird und ein schönes Muster auf dem Ei zurückbleibt.
In earlier times, before the availability of store-bought dyes, homemakers would rely on natural ingredients to color the eggs:
- Beets were used for obtaining pink pisanki.
- Onion peels were employed to create brown pisanki.
- Carrot or pumpkin peels/juice were utilized for achieving orange pisanki.
- Red cabbage leaves were the choice for blue pisanki.
- Spinach was the go-to option for green pisanki.
- Walnut shells were utilized to produce golden pisanki.
Today, while commercial dyes are readily accessible, these traditional methods can still be seen, but they are not common.
Just like there are contests for the prettiest Blessing Palms, there are also competitions for the most beautiful “kraszanka” or “pisanka” all around Poland.
Easter Sunday is the culmination of Holy Week and is celebrated with joy and feasting. Families gather for a festive Easter breakfast, which includes traditional foods like Polish Easter bread (Babka), eggs, and meats. People exchange wishes of “Weso?ego Alleluja” (Happy Alleluia) or “Weso?ych ?wi?t” (Happy Holidays).
Throughout Lent, Poles still engage in prayer, reflection, and acts of charity as they prepare spiritually for Easter. For some people this is the time of strict diet, or a try with new resolution. Big Lent traditions in Poland have loosen up over the time, but they all contribute to the rich tapestry of the country’s religious and cultural heritage.