Wielkanoc traditions delight

By Danielle Wright

There's no place like Poland when it comes to celebrating Easter, discovers Danielle Wright

Pisanki - Polish decorated Easter eggs. Photo / Danielle Wright
Pisanki - Polish decorated Easter eggs. Photo / Danielle Wright

"What are your Easter traditions?" asks Marta from the Polish Heritage Museum, after showing us a presentation of some creative and colourful Polish Easter traditions.

"We go to Devonport, where Easter eggs fall from the sky as the Easter bunny flies overhead," I tell her, hoping she doesn't ask too many questions while my children - who haven't yet noticed us throwing the eggs in the air when they're not looking - are listening.

It seems a little lame in comparison to the Easter traditions she has shown us, where whole villages become involved and a mix of fun and thoughtfulness for the season are displayed.

Polish Easter is known as Wielkanoc, or "the great night", and the Catholic Church is a big focus during the period, which is marked by a half-lent day celebrated by young boys making noise in the streets with wooden knockers.

It's cold and dark, so they make a straw doll, Marzanna, who symbolises winter, disease and cold weather.

They parade it, burn it and then throw it in the river.

A tree is decorated with eggshells, ribbons and paper flowers and it's carried around in return for gifts for the children.

Great Easter palms are created out of colourful paper, herbs, dried flowers or grasses.

Competitions are held for the biggest - sometimes up to 30m. Polish men need to help carry them to the church for a blessing.

Later, homes are adorned inside and out with the smaller palms in order to bring prosperity and well-being for the rest of the year.

Another tradition, Pucheroki, involves children creating tall, colourful hats while dressing in sheepskin vests and painting faces black or red.

Then there's Smigus-Dyngus, also known as "Wet Monday", a delightful tradition where boys throw whole buckets of water on girls.

There are also passion plays, creative displays in churches of Jesus' grave, and small baskets of hard-boiled eggs, ham, sausage, horseradish, bread and cake, plus an Easter lamb made of sugar or butter, which are blessed and then feasted on for Easter Sunday breakfast.

We're all impressed by the creativity and number of traditions - it must be a part-time job organising it all - and Marta gets us making Easter palms. They look difficult, but are so easy we can all make them (parents are expected to create alongside their children).

Next, we're given hard-boiled eggs to draw on with crayons; then they are dipped in food colouring to create a basic type of Pisanki, which is a very colourful and ornately decorated Easter egg. Each region of Poland has a different style - from intricate floral patterns to those wrapped in coloured thread.

The children are asked to sprinkle hundreds and thousands on Mazurek, a polish Easter cake, which they're given to take home along with their palms and eggs. It's going to be an interesting "news" day for them on Monday back at school and kindergarten.

On the way out, I ask my 7-year-old son, Henry, if he would like to go to Poland.

"No way," he says. "Too many traditions!"

He does want to visit the museum again and in the car, between mouthfuls of mazurek, he asks when we'll be back to learn how to make the beautiful paper cut-outs, or Wycinanki, he saw covering the walls.

His reaction makes me feel a bit better about my lack of Easter tradition imagination. But, inspired, I decide there's room for at least one more tradition in our home. Henry's choice, of course: Smigus-Dyngus.


Poles ahead

• Easter Traditions of Poland workshops will be run on March 17 from 2-4pm and March 24 from 12-2pm. Bookings essential, $6 a person. Contact the Polish Heritage Trust Museum, 125 Elliot St, Howick, telephone (09) 533 3530, polishheritage.co.nz.

• After the workshop, show the children the museum with its displays about the 733 Polish children who came to New Zealand in 1944, including illustrations from a book by a local Howick pair, to put the Polish immigration story into perspective for children alongside their arts and crafts fun. Upstairs is another room brimming with interesting artefacts and including the colourful dolls, tapestries and Wycinanki paintings.

- NZ Herald

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