St. Stanislaus parishioner Malgorzara Kawalec admits she misses how her entire town in Poland would dress up for Easter.
She hurries to say she understands America’s diversity precludes that happening here, and that’s fine, but still. It’s something she misses, something she can’t recreate in her new life in Portland.
“And there’s no day off on Monday,” she says — to the keen agreement of everyone at the table.
Easter Monday in Poland is a holiday known as Smigus-Dyngus (Wet Monday), a kind of April Fools Day across the country, but with just one prank. Children, teens and even adults ambush one another and douse their targets with buckets of water.
The Sunday crowd at Grandpa’s Cafe, across the street from St. Stanislaus in North Portland, speaks in a mix of Polish and English. They shrug their shoulders and laugh at the memories. “The kids have so much fun,” Marek Stepien says of Smigus-Dyngus.
While on Portland streets, there may be no universal dressing up — or wetting down — for Easter and Easter Monday, the Polish community at St. Stanislaus has brought delicious and deeply faith-filled Polish Easter customs of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to the Easter vigil.
The community ensures their memories from Poland aren’t lost. St. Stanislaus parishioner Alicia Fiszer, for instance, is scheduling the best day to teach parish childnren the intricate art of decorating eggs with colors and melted wax.
Fiszer and her husband, Ted Fiszer, managers of the cafe, hail from different parts of Poland, but they and their guests share similar memories of Easter, from Palm Sunday through Holy Week, Easter and Easter Monday.
“Everything about the Polish Easter traditions are religious — even when it’s not obvious,” says Kawalec.
An example, she says, is the spring cleaning tradition where homes are cleaned inside and out — walls, windows, floors, walkways and grounds. “Because Jesus rises again, and lives,” she says. “It’s like starting a clean new life.”
On Holy Saturday, families took baskets to church. They were filled with the basic staff of life — eggs, sausage or ham, the little figure of a lamb, horseradish or pepper, salt, bread, vinegar and wine — appealingly arranged for the priest to bless.
“Almost everyone takes a basket to church to be blessed,” says Alicia Fiszer. “Even people who only go to church maybe that one time in the year.”
After Easter morning Mass and before the Easter breakfast, everyone in the family gets a bite of the blessed food, to carry them through the year.
Easter, the group remembers, was strictly for family. They had to wait for Smigus-Dyngus to see friends and extended family.
Alicia Fiszer remembers being a flower girl in processions of the dawn Easter Masses, scattering flower petals with the other girls as the priest carried the Blessed Sacrament. A half dozen adults would carry a giant rosary and others carried icons three times around the church. Three times, Ted Fiszer recalls, because the devil couldn’t last three times around. “A folk tradition,” he explains.
In addition to the spring cleaning and going to church on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and on the Easter Vigil, Holy Week also is filled with cooking.
Traditional dishes for the Easter breakfast include zurek, a soup made with sourdough rye flour; fresh (unsmoked) sausage, smoked sausages and other cold cuts; herring in oil and onions or sour cream, parsley and onions; vegetable salads with potatoes, carrots, peas and diced pickles in mayonnaise and mustard; beets, horseradish relish, sauerkraut and fresh cabbage; and eggs, eggs, eggs — a symbol of rebirth even older than Christianity, which came to Poland on Holy Saturday, April 14, 966, when Mieszko I was baptized. (Some historians think the early king’s baptism may have something to do with the tradition of drenching neighbors with buckets of water on Smigus-Dyngus. Countering that, in 1410, a bishop of Poznan instructed his flock “not to pester or plague others in what is universally called Dyngus.” That prohibition evidently was roundly ignored.)
Ted Fiszer jokes about the amount of meat at the expansive Easter breakfast meal after Mass. “It makes up for all the protein they missed during Lent,” he says.
He also remembers a variation on deviled eggs where the hardboiled eggs were cut in half, shell and all, dressed, and then fried in butter. “It was delicious,” he says, “except for the little pieces of egg shell.”
One entire end of the sideboard would be devoted to cakes, including mazurek, a flat cake reputed to have come from Turkey in the 17th century, and the famous babka cake, a yeast cake similar to the Italian panettone. “Babka” means grandmother, and the Fiszers think its name comes from the fact that it’s baked in a fluted babka pan, making a cake shaped like grandmother’s skirt.
The centerpiece of a family’s Easter breakfast table, however, is a white lamb, often made of sugar.
“Because it is all about Jesus,” says Kawalec.