Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Polish American Easter -- ahh! :D

Image by patryk1/stock.xchng
Today's post is a little different. I usually talk about my novel-in-progress or something to do with the writing process. Today I want to talk a bit about tradition, although I'll still relate it to my writing because, well, everything in my world comes back to that.

The city I live in took in a huge number of Polish immigrants; my grandparents were among them. Polish Americans love Easter because of their strong Catholic belief. Poles (like a lot of Europeans) also loved their food, so when they established themselves in Buffalo, they built the Broadway Market. It's an old-world-style indoor market, established in 1888.

Current times are tough for the market. The surrounding neighborhoods aren't so nice anymore. The city overall has lost a lot of its population. But true to the heritage of tough Poles, the Market continues to reinvent itself. Fortunately, its Easter traditions are still going strong. I remember going there as a little girl with my mother. One time I briefly got separated from her and just remember looking around at the crowds of really tall people, wondering how in the world I was going to find Mom!

I pretty much took my ancestry for granted. Things tend to seem uninteresting when you grow up with them. When you're a kid, you don't necessarily want to be trotted over to your grandparents' house every few weeks so that all the adults could gather in the kitchen and gab away in Polish.

But Easter was always a different story! There was food, food, food, and Easter candy. Beautiful white lilies around the house. A sense that the weather had really, truly, finally broken or was about to. It really started a day or two before, when the family would gather to color the eggs. --and the table, each other, the floor, and whatever else got in the way of us kids! We always colored too many eggs and it was days before they were all eaten, but we had the time of our lives.

Easter Saturday, the whole neighborhood would turn up at church for the blessing of the baskets. This was also tons of fun: each family brought 1 or 2 baskets stuffed full of each food they were planning to have for Easter dinner. It was just a little bit of each food, but the baskets were stuffed because everybody had that much food. We even put salt and pepper into tiny bits of foil for the basket. Right on top, in a place of honor, was placed the butter lamb, symbol of the Lamb of God and of spring.

The whole church was permeated with the smell of hundreds of Easter baskets. You can imagine it wasn't easy to keep hands out of the baskets! The priest would recite a blessing of the food, then would walk down the aisles and fling holy water on the congregants! It always made us kids giggle to get splashed.

I had fun back then but didn't really think of anything my family did as continuing traditions that kept our common heritage alive. Now that so many members of my immediate and extended family have passed on, life is pretty different when any of the holidays roll around.

Getting involved with the main character of my novel -- a guy who at first thinks of his ethnicity as something that holds him back then learns to appreciate it -- got me thinking about my own heritage. This is the city my family settled in. This is where my roots are. There's a wealth of traditions based on life in Poland and adapted for a new continent. Cultural traditions are what keep communities thriving. They keep us connected to each other in a mosaic: the colors shift a little over time but the overall pattern is still there.

So somebody who doesn't exist helped give me a new and deeper understanding of my life. Kinda weird but neat. God bless the writers, they not only show us mirrors into our souls, they show us how to look into our past. Writing is an age-old tradition itself. Life really is a never-ending circle.

I regret not learning Polish when I had a lot of native speakers all around me. But I can visit the Market, the center of local Polish American life. I'm really looking forward to stopping over next weekend. It's a little different than it used to be, but there will still be lots and lots of food. I think, though, that I'll skip the Market's fifth annual Peep Eating Contest :p


  1. I'm also of Polish American decent. My grandparent moved out of the Polish section of Chicago though when my mother was young, and my mother moved all the way to the Pacific Northwest when she married my father. So I haven't grown up in a Polish community, but my mother still makes a butter lamb every Easter and other traditional dishes. The food lives on. As does the huge family gathering around said food, even if neither my mother nor her siblings learnt any Polish.

    I did learn to make wychinanki though, the layered papercuts.

    1. That's pretty cool, Ardyth. Food is amazing, it not only feeds our bodies but our hearts & souls. I think any sense of "community" starts with food. Thanks for sharing :D :D

  2. My grandmother's family were German but they lived in an area until 1902 that was sometimes Polish, sometimes Ukrainian and sometimes Russian. So, for me, it is very interesting to hear of the other traditions that surrounded the family. Did Polish people ever use some of the Ukrainian methods of decorating Easter eggs?

    1. There are Polish decorated Easter eggs! I believe they're called pisanki and the Ukrainian ones are pysanky. I think the methods for decorating are similar, but have regional differences. A number of European countries have their own take on decorating eggs, you just don't hear about it.

      My family didn't use the traditional methods for decorating so everything I've heard about it I found out only as an adult. But it's wonderful to find out the roots of traditions, isn't it!

      Thanks for coming by. Sounds like you've got some pretty interesting family history.