On Palm Sunday, beginning Holy Week, we bless palms, which appear throughout the holidays in various religious, symbolic and divination contexts, told PAP Dr. Damian Kasprzyk from the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Lodz.
“On Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, we bless the palms, which appear throughout the feast in various contexts and activities of a religious, symbolic and divination nature. As for the forms of palms, they are diverse, but at the same time traditional, so they consist of a willow twig with catkins, possibly with the addition of boxwood or other leaves of an evergreen plant, and tissue paper decorations. As an ethnographer, I am pleased to say that we have not noticed +variations+ in the form of plastic palms anywhere so far” – emphasized Dr. Damian Kasprzyk from the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Lodz.
Ethnographers in all regions of Poland have noted the old custom of the faithful swallowing catkins from Easter palms. To this day, it is observed in many homes after returning from Mass on Palm Sunday.
“Something that is sacrificed has extra power, takes on not only new meanings, but also new functions. Our ancestors swallowed catkins, believing that it protects against sore throats, dental diseases – generally has a positive effect on health. The Easter palm also had protective properties; defended the farmyard like a gromnica. Its branches were stuck into the ceiling beams, which was supposed to protect the house from lightning and ensure happiness for the household members. In farm rooms, dedicated palms were supposed to protect animals from diseases” – explained the ethnologist.
Palm Sunday begins the Holy Week, in which each day has its divination and prophetic meaning. Tradition dictates that you watch the weather closely, starting from Holy Wednesday, and if, for example, it was raining on that day, it was supposed to be rainy all spring. Similarly, atmospheric phenomena on Thursday announced what the weather would be like in summer, on Friday – in autumn, and on Saturday – in winter. Generally: what Holy Week, so the whole year.
“Three factors are important in traditional culture: God, the family – and more broadly, the local community – and the land that is supposed to feed us. Magical, ritual and also religious treatments revolve around these three elements” – noted Dr. Kasprzyk.
Therefore, in agricultural communities, mostly peasants, the extensive church liturgy of this most important Christian holiday was accompanied by a wealth of household and farming customs related to the final banishment of winter and provoking the vegetation activity of plants. It was a time of divination and various magical procedures.
“There is a reason, according to tradition, we are talking about Easter cleaning. The days preceding Sunday, which is the most important of the Holy Week, were always intended for preparation for the +proper+ feast. Remember that Jesus is crucified on Friday. On this day, the bells fall silent – as a sign of silence and waiting. In some regions, instead of bells, you could hear knockers with which the young people wandered from farm to farm, a little ahead of the joy that will take place on Sunday. Friday is the day when all cleaning must be completed, but also the day of cooking eggs, dyeing them and making Easter eggs and kraszanki” – noted the ethnologist.
Holy Saturday from the morning is marked by the blessing of food. As Dr. Kasprzyk reminded, on that day in the morning the churches also organize the ceremony of blessing water and fire. Returning home with consecrated water, the hosts immediately sprinkled it on the house, bypass, household members and farm animals, they also poured it into the well. This treatment was supposed to protect against diseases and spoilage, which is why grain for sowing and potatoes for planting were also sprinkled.
“Water and fire are opposing elements that have a cleansing effect. There was a tradition according to which the consecrated fire was used to light bonfires in front of churches – some embers were taken from them and then used to light a fire in the house – so that it would burn throughout the holidays” – explained the ethnologist.
When it comes to the blessing of food, old accounts speak of baskets full of victuals that were brought to the church or to the manor house or to the square in front of the manor house, where a priest would appear with holy water. Currently, we put symbolic amounts of eggs, sausage, horseradish, bread in the basket, once you had to sacrifice literally everything that landed on the Easter table.
Currently, the symbolism of many traditional Easter customs has been forgotten, and some – along with the outflow of people from the countryside to the cities – have lost their raison d’être. Interestingly, until recently Easter symbolism also included All Souls’ Day motifs resulting not only from considerations about the Passion of Christ, but also from pagan holiday practices dedicated to the dead. The Slavs celebrated this kind of holiday four times a year: during the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes. Hence the old custom of bringing Easter food to the graves of loved ones; perhaps his footsteps are practiced in many families the custom of visiting the graves of loved ones also at Easter.
As for the symbolism of Easter, ethnologists indicate that it is dominated by the praise of life and resurrection, an allegory of victory over death and winter, the rebirth of nature and hope for a summer harvest.
Author: Agnieszka Grzelak-Michalowska