Once, when I was about 11 or 12, I came home from mass one summer morning to find a hobo sitting on our back steps having a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I was so surprised I stopped a few feet in front of him, not knowing what to do or say. This was in the 60's, long after the depression was over, but my neighborhood was riddled with train tracks heading east and west and with spurs leading to the locomotive, radiator, lingerie and canning factories that gave jobs to the men and women in the entire town. But in spite of the changed economy there were those who still rode the rails, homeless and jobless, and they became a real point of interest among us kids. We played at being hobo all the time: marching along the railroad tracks, a long stick with a knotted bundle at the end slung over our shoulders; making chalk marks on the sidewalk and on trees pointing to houses. We didn't know exactly what kind of marks to make to indicate that this house was friendly but someone told us this was what the hoboes did, so that's what we did. We took cans of pork and beans from the cupboard and made "camp" by cooking them over an open fire in the woods and ate the beans sitting around the fire. Nobody told us that we couldn't do any of this stuff and truly, nobody seemed to care what we did during those long summer days as long as we came home for supper and before dark.
There were supposed to be certain locales along the tracks where the hoboes set up their camps. My brothers, who got a lot more freedom than I did, say they saw them there all the time. One of them even asked my brother for an aspirin because he had a toothache but the one time I saw a gang sitting under a tree along the tracks, I ran away in fright. And here was one sitting on our back steps - thick set, gray haired, unkempt, wearing a baggy suit coat and pants. He had on what I later came to know as a pork pie hat. I stared, rooted to the sidewalk, but he was pretty much unflapped by my appearance and kept munching on what looked like a ham sandwich, a few crumbs caught up in his black and gray mustache.
I was so tongue-tied, to this day I don't know whether I even said hello to the man and walked past him up the steps that led into our kitchen. As I came in my mother was going out with the yellow enamel coffeepot in her hand to refill his cup. I watched from the safety of the kitchen window as she poured him another cup and he accepted. There was no dialogue between them. Only after he was gone, the empty cup left on the steps, did my mother tell me that he had knocked on the door. She had understood the words "food" and "give." She had pointed to the steps and he understood that he was to sit.
"Mama, weren't you afraid?" I asked, a result of all the ghoulish hobo stories we kids told each other.
"Nie (no), I wasn't. During the war, everybody was hungry, every day, all day," she tells me, "with people begging for food, doing what they had to do to stay alive, to live through the war." I knew she was talking about herself and the years she spent in Germany as a forced laborer during World War II.
That's the way it was at our house. A person, an incident, a word, sometimes even silence, would ignite memories of growing up in Poland or her memories of the war. It's how I learned history. It's how I learned of what happened to my mother before she was my mother and that she understood people who traveled in cattle cars and had nothing to eat. At one time, she had been one of them.
When we broke up my mother's home, I took that yellow enamel coffee pot. I kept it because at one time she had her hand on that handle and I can put my hand where hers had once been, to connect, to remember that lesson, on that summer day.
Photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Edward Knab June 14, 2006
One time I was watching my mother crush left over pieces of dried bread into breadcrumbs. She'd gather the odd bits into a paper bag until they were completely dried out and when she needed breadcrumbs she'd pull out her wooden bread board and rolling pin. Bread was considered something sacred at our house. It was never wasted and if a piece of bread happened to fall on the floor she taught us to pick it up and kiss it. In apology for being careless with it? In gratitude for its presence in our lives? Perhaps for all of these reasons and my mother was the most fervent in this action.
The action of crushing crusts of dried bread into usable breadcrumbs tended to generate a lot of memories for my mama especially the scarcity of bread, not just during the war, but while growing up as well. Her mother had kept it under lock and key and parceled it out carefully to make sure that what she baked lasted a whole week.
The really hardened pieces of bread that wouldn't give under the rolling were covered with a clean dishcloth and attacked with a hammer. She was really whacking at the bread one day when she told me how, during the occupation of Poland, while she was living and working in Kraków, she wanted to send bread to her sister Hanka who was imprisoned in Auschwitz - not too great a distance from herin terms of miles yet impossible to reach through the barbed wire.
"The loaf of bread had to be completely dried in order not to spoil before it reached her," she tells me, "as well as the piece of sausage. The package could only weigh so many ounces including the wrapping paper, the string and the food. I remember I had to pay in reichmarks which were hard to come by." I can see her now, bringing that hammer down on the bread. I was what? 12? 13 years old? but it was a story I heard often.
Fast forward some fifty years. It's 2006 and I am at Auschwitz, at the archives located on the grounds. I am trying to find information about my Ciocia (aunt) Hanka, my mother's sister, the one who spent almost two years in Auschwitz, the one to whom my mother sent dried bread. We are cordially met by a female archivist who is very kind and very helpful, producing a letter that my aunt wrote to her family while at Auschwitz. The archivist tells me she was among those who were death marched from Auschwitz westward towards Germany to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in the closing weeks of the war. She explains to me what it was to be in a death march in January of 1945: freezing cold with a single blanket for warmth; marching on foot, then packed into cattle cars and again by foot; little or no food, no place to sleep except barns or the open sky; prisoners who can't keep up and/or those attempting to escape are shot on the spot; it's a distance of some 500 miles. It's a miracle she survived, she tells me gently, seeing me fight back tears.
When we take our leave, the archivist sees us to the door and as we emerge outside I catch site of men in full Górale folk dress carrying the Polish flag and banners as if having marched in a parade. I ask the archivist what was going on and she tells me: "Today is the 66th anniversary of the first transport of Polish political prisoners to arrive at Auschwitz from the city of Tarnów in 1940. The first major group of people to be imprisoned at this concentration camp were Poles, not Jews, and survivors and their families have come to commemorate the event." Most of the prisoners brought in that day were from the southern region of Poland, including people who from the mountain region, called górale.
It was June 14, 2006. That we were there on this important day was not planned but I doubt I'll ever forget the day. Through the information I received at the archives I found out that my aunt also arrived at Auschwitz via the Kraków-Tarnów line of transport as a political prisoner three years later in January of 1943. In addition, in the one letter she was allowed to send home to her family in 1944, she writes, " Everything you have sent me, I received, and in good condition..." and I think of my mother hammering at crusts of bread and the value of a loaf of dried bread.
Lately I've been taken with the notion of planting a Midsummer Garden, and call it ogród Kupalnocka, or ogródek Świętojanskie, a garden that celebrates the key herbs and plants that played an important role in the ancient summer solstice celebrations of Poland.
I always find it amazing to read about those long, long ago days, when on the longest day and shortest night of the year, ancient people paid homage to the gods of fire, water and vegetation; how they lit huge bonfires on mountaintops, along the valleys and river banks, and danced around the fires, staying up to greet the rising sun; where young maidens collected plants and herbs while dancing naked in the evening dew and then wove wreathes that were floated on water as homage to their god; and how specific plants collected on this night were felt to have special power for both healing and magical purposes, to do good or to do evil. It was a night celebrated by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Druids, Vikings as well as Germanic and Slavic tribes. The Latvians call it Jāņi ( Jan or John). The Poles call it Noc Świętojanska, the eve of St. John the Baptist, a name given to this night after the advent of Christianity, but the old names of Sobótka( for the fires that burned that night) or Kupalnocka(the night of the ancient god Kupala) persisted for centuries afterward.
At the center of the garden would be elderberry(Sambucus nigra). In Polish it is known as bez czarny or dziki bez czarny, the wild black lilac to differentiate it from the other lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and was also called bez lekarski, i.e., medicinal elderberry, to indicate its healing properties. It's a tall lovely shrub with large white flowers that eventually turn into the small, purple elderberries that is used to make syrup or wine. It was seen as both a holy and demonic tree, both magical and medicinal, untouchable except under certain conditions. Planted near the home it was believed protective of the house and its inhabitants. Wherever it grew, in an established garden or in the wild, it wasn't to be dug out or it branches cut without courting death or other grave consequences. It's roots were not to be disturbed. In those early days when little was known about the causes of illness and it was felt that an illness could be "transferred" to some other object, children who were sick were placed on the ground under the tree while the parents chanted:
"Święty bzie, weź moje bolenie
pod swoje zdrowe korzenie."
Holy elderberry, take my hurt
Into your healthy roots
Gathered on the eve of the summer solstice it had super powers to heal. The juice from the berries was especially beneficial for coughs. It would pull away the inflammation from infected wounds when the leaves were mixed with chalk and applied to the wounds. Salves were made to treat the pain of rheumatism. If one was to gather its branches for medicinal and healing purposes, it had to be done, according to folk belief, in complete silence.
The single most important plant that should be in this garden is mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris). It's Polish name is bylica. My guess is that you've seen this plant growing around roadsides and empty fields and not given it a second look. I always find it growing around abandoned railroad tracks. It grows 3 to 4 feet high, and is not very showy but it was at one time considered one of the oldest and most esteemed of herbs, woven into both witchcraft and healing practices of Poland. Sixteenth century herbals claimed it could break all spells and later herbals in the 20th century documented its continued use to incense against spells and the evil eye. On St. John's Eve branches of mugwort were hung over doors, windows and tucked into eaves against evil souls and witches; girls would run out at dawn to pluck mugwort to throw into the midsummer fires and to wear around the waist in the belief that their backs would not hurt during the harvest or around their head to keep away headaches.
It's also doubtful you'll find the next plant at your local nursery but it's easy enough to recognize growing wild in the fields because of its small yellow flowers. When you crush the flower it bleeds red on your fingertips. The plant was so much part of this night it received the name ziele świętojanskie (herb of St.John) or St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). In Polish it is called dziurawiec, or dzwonki Panny Marii (bells of the Blessed Mother). Hung in the window it protected the house against lightning. A tea made from the buds of this plant assisted in many illnesses of the gastrointestinal tract, the liver as well as the respiratory tract. It's red color was believed to heal internal bleeding and clear the blood.
The herb arnica (Arnica Montana ) or Arnica Górska growing in the hills and mountain tops of Poland is often called by its more ancient folk name of kupalnik, from the ancient god Kupala. It bears a lovely yellow, daisy-like flower. It was one of the herbs that young girls (now with their clothes back on) wove into the wreaths for their hair and around their waist along with mugwort. St. John's Wort, and thyme and danced around the fire, occasionally throwing in a stem or branch from each of the herbs in order to stave off any evil.
There are numerous other herbs plants that could be included in this garden. Wormwood (piołun) also effective against witches; lovage (lubczyk) and adder's tongue (nasięźrzał) for love potions; chamomile (rumianek) to help me sleep at night; mint(mięte) for a soothing tea.
I know it will be too late to have anything substantial for this year's Sobótka but for me, my garden always seems to be about "next year" anyway, i.e., next year I'll plant earlier, next year it's going to look great, next year maybe we won't have as many rabbits, and so on. I doubt very much that I'll be dancing naked in the evening dew as I collect my plants but next year I'll have some herbs and plants to throw into the midsummer fire.
I love the month of May for so many reasons not the least of which is that it brings my name day, the Feast of St. Sofia (Św. Zofia, in Polish), on May 15.
When I woke up on that day my mother would sing out to me " Bo to dzisiaj imieniny!" ( "It's your name day!") In Poland, the most important day of the year for an individual was not their birth day but their name day, their imieniny, the feast day of the saint whose name one received in baptism. I was baptized Zofia. When I started first grade in America, the nuns, perhaps to ease me into peer group acceptance, Anglicized my name and called me Sophie. Sophie it stayed. To my mother and father I was always Zosia, Zosiu or Zośka, the diminutive, affectionate forms of Zofia.
Chances are you may never have heard much of St. Sofia, a martyr of Rome, whose daughters were Faith, Hope and Charity. It's a hugely popular name in Poland but not so much here in the United States. The only Zosia I knew when I was growing up were middle-aged and grandmother types, Polish women who had immigrated to America or were daughters of the earlier wave of Polish immigrants. I didn't know a single Sophie who was roughly my age. I felt a bit of an oddball but what can you do.
In Poland it was, and still is, customary to offer the celebrant on their name day a bouquet of flowers, or a bottle of wine or a food gift but I didn't get any presents. My mother sang me the little ditty, and quoted me a Polish proverb: "Św. Zofia, kłosy rozwija." ("On St. Sophie, the ears of grain open.") At this time of year in Poland, the fields of wheat or oats or rye were unfurling, ripening.
And then she'd announce it was safe to plant the vegetable garden. Year after year, this was her rule. She would wait until after my name day to begin burying the cucumber and beet seeds in the newly tilled ground. How did she know this? Because she was still planting on the old Polish beliefs associated with another proverb: "Pankracy, Serwacy, Bonifacy to grożni na ogrody chłopacy." ("Pancras, Servatius and Boniface, are dangerous for the peasant's garden.") The saints that are celebrated just before mine were Pancras(May 12), Servatius(May 13) and Boniface(May 14). They were known as the winter saints or ice saints who could still send a blast of cold wintery air at a time when everything was blossoming and was still tender growth.
I think of this because today is my name day but also because on the way home from church yesterday, what had started as a cool but sunny morning turned for the worse and with torrential rain and chunks of hail. I guess Bonifacy had to have his say.
Looking back, I realize I did receive gifts from my mother on my Name Day. (1) I hear her voice still, singing to me each name day (2) I have my very own proverb and (3) I'm in possession of a great gardening tip, a yardstick I use to measure when it's time to plant my own garden.
For me, the month of May is the tolling of the church bell, calling, reminding everyone, that May is the month of Mary, come to evening devotion.
May is purple with lilacs and green with the unfurling of the leaves on the chestnut trees.
May is the white of a first holy communion dress, the starched cloth at the communion rail, the lace of a Sodality veil.
May is circles, processing three times around the church, the circlet of flowers, the crown of the Queen of Poland, the swirls of incense.
May is voices, young and the old, some in tune, some not so much, singing hymns that have been sung by generations before us.
May is flowered kerchiefs framing faces with deep grooves and filmy eyes, arthritic fingers moving on black rosary beads. Zdrowaś Maryjo, łaski pełna...Hail Mary, full of grace...
May is chanting the Litany in Polish, a sound that gradually steals the color from the stained glass windows and leaves the gray of dusk; Święta Maryjo, módl się za nami...Holy Mary, pray for us...
May is the coolness of the spring air when we emerge from church, the women glad for the sweaters on their shoulders, as everyone slowly turns towards home, the birds twittering.
Photo: My swięconka basket. It's the same basket I took to church to bless food and water all the years of my growing up.
Holy Saturday was always a quiet day at our house. Early in the morning my mother was back at the stove only this time making red barszcz (red beet soup) and boiling eggs. Sometimes she cooked the eggs in onion skins to give them a beautiful brown color but mostly I remember simple white eggs boiling away while she grates a raw beet to immerse in the broth to give the barszcz it's deep red color. Everything else is done. Fresh curtains hang in the windows: white lace for the living room and cafe curtains with yellow tulips marching across the bottom for the kitchen. Every knickknack has been washed. Every corner dusted. The house is in readiness.
The kitchen smells of sausage every time my mother opens the refrigerator door. There are coils and coils of it, made fresh yesterday, then boiled and baked. The smell of it immediately makes me hungry but no one would dare to take so much as a pinch. We do not eat meat on Holy Saturday. We have to wait.
The living room is filled with the heady scent of a purple hyacinth, a smell that will always, always take me back to the Easters of my childhood. There is a vase of pussy willows on the desk. Sometimes there are daffodils from the garden there, too. There are chocolate bunnies in their cellophane wrappers lined up around the flowers as well as some of those yellow marshmallow chicks. Here and there my mother has propped up the Easter postcards sent by her family from Poland.
My brothers are off somewhere doing whatever it is they do and my Tata is slowly pacing through the house. Not a man who has hobbies, he doesn't know what to do with himself when he's not at work. It is my job to take our basket of food , the święconka basket, to church to be blessed today. My mother still has shoes to shine and church envelopes to fill and just a myriad of small, last minute chores to complete.
A trip to the attic retrieves the basket. It is oval shaped so at the bottom of the basket my mother places an oval platter, one that fits snugly to the bottom. Next comes a coil of both fresh and smoked sausage each; a half loaf of rye bread; the boiled eggs, at least six, one for each member of the family; a stick of butter; salt; a jar of horseradish and a jar filled with water. The water jar is nothing fancy- an old mustard jar, carefully washed and aired out. Tucking in a sprig of pussy willow, my mother covers the basket with the prettiest doily or scarf she has and reminds me to make sure to unscrew the jar with the water when the priest comes by to bless the baskets. When I come home and assure my mother that I had opened the jar, that the water was blessed, she opens the jar and begins going through the house, flinging the blessed water with her fingertips on the walls of each room. I don't remember the words exactly but I do know that it was very short, that she used the words "diabeł" (devil)and "ucziekaj," (be gone); that the devil was to leave, that this was a blessed house. I walk with her from room to room as she sprinkles the holy water on the walls. She always keeps holy water in the house throughout the year, replacing the old bottle with the new one every Holy Saturday.
To this day I'm sorry that I never thought to write the prayer down. The closest equivalent I've been able to find is considered one of the earliest Christian prayers. ( Euchologium Sinaiticum: https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/prayers-of-earliest-christians/
Be off, Satan, from this door and from these four walls. This is no place for you here; there is nothing for you to do here. This is the place for Peter and Paul and the holy Gospel; and this is where I mean to sleep, now that my worship is done, in the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit.
In Polish customs and traditions, a new house or home is blessed by a priest before the occupants take up permanent residence but it was also customary to keep holy water on hand to keep the devil and evil forces away from a home. Any individual could take holy water and sprinkle it on the home, barns, and outbuildings if they felt the need.
This Polish house blessing can be said in its entirety as a litany or shortened by choosing various parts.
Niech nas błogosławi i strzeże wszechmogący i miłosierny + Bóg Ojciec, Syn Boży i Duch Święty.
May the all powerful and merciful Lord God, His Son and the Holy Spirit bless us and protect us.
Panie Jezu Chryste, wszechmogący Królu nieba i ziemi, Synu Dawida, Jezu Nazareński dla nas ukrzyżowany, Synu Boga żywego, zmiłuj się nad tym domem, strzeż jego mieszkańców. Niech twoje Boskie błogosławieństwo towarzyszy im wszędzie, niech Duch Święty oświeca ich myśli i serca i niech moc Jego działa przez nich na każdym miejscu. Wszystko co się w tym domu znajduje, tych którzy do niego wchodzą i z niego wychodzą niech błogosławi i od złego osłania błogosławieństwo Trójcy Przenajświętszej, aby do niego żadne nieszczęście się nie zbliżyło.
Lord Jesus Christ, all powerful King of heaven and earth, Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified for us, son of the living God, have mercy of this house, protect its inhabitants. May your divine blessings accompany them everywhere, may the Holy Spirit enlighten their thoughts and hearts, and may His power work through them everywhere. All that is in this house, those who come in and out of it, be blessed and protected by the blessings of the Blessed Trinity, so that no misfortune comes to them.
Niech święte imię Jezusa z dziewięcioma chórami Aniołów będzie obecne w tym domu, darząc go swoim pokojem.
May the holy name of Jesus and nine choirs of angels reside in this home, granting it their peace.
Niech go okrywa swoim macierzyńskim płaszczem Najświętsza Maryja Panna.
May it be protected by the maternal coat of the most Blessed Virgin Mary.
Niech go strzegą święci Archaniołowie.
May it be protected by the blessed archangels.
Niech święci Apostołowie będą szafarzami jego dostatków.
May the holy Apostles be stewards of its abundance.
Niech utwierdzają i umacniają go święci Ewangeliści.
May it be strengthened and fortified by the saintly Evangelists.
Niech Krzyż Chrystusa będzie dachem tego domu.
May the cross of Jesus Christ be the roof of this house.
Niech trzy gwoździe Chrystusa będą jego zaporą.
May the three nails of Jesus Christ be its firewall
Niech korona Chrystusa będzie jego tarczą.
May the crown of Christ be its shield.
Niech Najświętsza Rana Jego Boskiego Serca będzie schronieniem dla wszystkich jego mieszkańców.
May the wounds of the Sacred Heart be shelter for all of its inhabitants.
Jezu, Maryjo, Józefie święty i wszyscy nasi Patronowie, święci Aniołowie Stróżowie, wybłagajcie u Boga w Trójcy Świętej Jedynego, aby raczył zachować ten dom od piorunów, ognia, gradu, głodu, powodzi, napadów złych ludzi, zgorszenia, niedowiarstwa, herezji, długów i wszelakiego nieszczęścia, grożącego duszy lub ciału jego mieszkańców.
Jesus, Mary and St. Joseph and all our patron saints, the holy guardian angels, pray to God in the One and only Trinity to protect this home from lightening, hail, hunger, floods, attacks by bad people, scandal, atheism, heresy, debt and all misfortune that threaten the soul or bodies of its inhabitants.
Niech nam w tym dopomoże Trójca Przenajświętsza: Bóg Ojciec, Bóg Syn i Bóg Duch Święty. Amen.
May we be helped in this through the Most Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wishing everyone Wesołego Alleluja! A Joyous Easter!
Photo Source: Broadway Fillmore Alive http://broadwayfillmorealive.org/2.0/
Holy Thursday begins the three holiest days of the Catholic Church. In Polish, Holy Thursday is called Wielki Czwartek, or Great Thursday because it was on this day that during the Last Supper, Jesus Christ celebrated the first mass, and instituted the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders. It is also on this day that Jesus gave us the mandatum novum, or the "new commandment" asking us to love one another. The start of St. John's gospel verse 13:34 reads: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you." Later that night, while praying in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and locked up in a jail.
The liturgical service on Holy Thursday is immensely rich, filling the mind, the heart and the senses. Bells are rung for the last time during the Gloria and will not be heard until the Easter Vigil mass on Saturday evening. A wooden clapper called crotalus is used instead. In Polish, they are called kołatki. The organ is silenced and the priest washes of the feet of 12 men chosen to represent the apostles. After the Mass, the priest vests himself in white and carries the sacred hosts to the Altar of Repose, a closed tabernacle at one of the side altars. In Polish this closed tabernacle is called a ciemnica, meaning a dark place, supposedly in memory of Jesus being locked up in jail which in Roman times were usually underground dungeons, without access to light. The altar of repose is also sometimes called the "Holy Sepulchre" referring to the tomb in which the body of Christ was laid after his death on the cross. It is here, at one of the side altars, that the sacred hosts remain "entombed" until the liturgy on Good Friday. The altars are then stripped and left bare. All the crucifixes and statues are covered. All the signs of Christ's presence is temporarily removed. It is in this state of loss and solemnity that the faithful begin one of the most cherished and longstanding traditions of Holy Thursday - that of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday and praying at the altars of repose.
The tradition of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday is an ancient pilgrimage practice, believed to have originated in Rome, where early pilgrims visited the seven major basilicas as a form of penance, asking for atonement for their sins. The churches that were particular sites for visits were Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter, Saint Mary Major, Saint Paul-outside-the-Walls, Saint Lawrence-outside-the-Walls, Saint Sebastian-outside-the-Walls, and Holy Cross-in-Jerusalem. But a pilgrimage can also be simply for religious devotion. The entire spirit of the visits to the altars of repose can be an invitation to silent and prolonged adoration of the wondrous sacraments instituted by Jesus on this day. Or, it can be an acceptance of Christ's request when asked his disciples to keep vigil with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest. "Then Jesus came with them into a country place which is called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples: Sit you here, till I go yonder and pray." Matthew 26:36 Or, it can be to keep Christ company through prayer and contemplation during the dark hours he spent in jail.
Many people begin their visit to the altar of repose in their own church immediately after attending the Holy Thursday liturgy and then begin their visits to other churches that remain open for visitations. Not all communities have seven churches, so the faithful visit as many churches as they have. In Buffalo, between the districts of the East Side and Kaisertown, there are much more than seven churches and the sight of thousands of people walking singly or in groups to their chosen seven churches inspires and uplifts the heart and soul. There are throngs of men, women, and children, entire generations of family members entering various churches; the infirm are wheeled up ramps; buses are emptying out with people returning to the church where they first took Holy Communion; the parking lots are jammed; the police are directing traffic. It is a sight to behold. Inside, the churches are silent except for the shuffling of feet; some of the churches are in almost complete darkness; the smell of incense fills the air; everyone is flocking towards the altar of repose, kneeling...praying...adoring. All have come to keep Christ company on this special and important evening. In the past, churches stayed open and people came in the middle of the night. Altar boys took first vigils, then members of Holy Name Society would take turns throughout the night to make sure there was always someone keeping Jesus company at the altar of repose.
For us, in today's times, visiting an altar of repose could be, like centuries ago, a pilgrimage. But it need not be to a faraway, distant place. It could be a mini-pilgrimage, the journey as close as any nearby church on Holy Thursday.
Painting by J. Ryszkiewicz title "Na Palmowa" ( For Palm Sunday). Google Images.
After the long days of fasting and prayer during Lent, the arrival of Palm Sunday was a joyous occasion for the people of Poland. It meant that Lent would soon be over but more importantly it ushered in the most important celebrations of the Catholic faith.
In Catholic liturgy, Palm Sunday celebrates the day on which Jesus, riding on an ass entered Jerusalem with his disciples. He was met by cheering crowds who threw palm and olive branches before Him. In Poland, one of the names for Palm Sunday was, and still is, Niedziela Wierzbowa, or Willow Sunday. Lacking the palms that were indigenous to Jerusalem the Polish people looked for the first harbinger of spring. Among the first to blossom were the furry catkins of pussy willow. If Palm Sunday fell very early on the calendar, the branches would be cut and brought indoors to be placed in warmth and water to encourage them to blossom in order to have a "palm" to take to church to be blessed on that day, something the Poles had been doing since blessing palms was introduced in the Catholic liturgy in the 11th century. The willow branches became a symbol of spring, of renewal, of Christ's death and Resurrection. It also became embedded in the customs, traditions, and beliefs of the people of Poland as well as in its art and literature.
Writing in the early 1900's, Polish writer Władysław Reymont described the importance of the willow branches on Palm Sunday in a small Polish village in his Noble Prize winning book, Chłopi (The Peasants: Spring):
He (Witek) threw down an entire bunch of still damp branches covered in golden catkins on the chest and Józka began arranging them, tying them with red wool.
"Józia, you'll let me carry the palms?" he asks.
"You know that only women may take them to be blessed," she replies.
"I'll give them back to you in front of the church...only to carry them through the village."
Returning home with the blessed willow branches "...she set about swallowing the buds, for the consecrated palm boughs were believed to be a preservative against sore throats."
The swallowed buds also protected against headaches when the blessed branch was touched three times to the head. The blessed pussy willows would also be used later on Easter Monday when individuals would lightly strike a person to assure against illnesses and to expel the winter doldrums by saying:
Nie ja biję, Wierzba bije, Bądź zdrów do roku i po roku!
I don't strike you, the Willow strikes you. Be healthy all year and beyond the year.
The blessed branches were believed to bring good fortune and prosperity. The end of a branch was inserted in holy water and used to bless the house, farmyard, and barn. They were tucked behind holy pictures and a small piece was nailed above an entry way where it stayed all year long in order to bring God's blessings and protection to the house. It was believed that the blessed palms protected against fire and strikes by lightning. To insure this the pussy willows were also tucked into rafters and during storms a branch was placed next to the burning gromnica, the candle lit during time of thunder and lightning.
During the Easter week activities the palms were struck into the earth to protect the fields from the destruction of crops by hail and placed at the corners/ boundaries of fields in order to assure a good crop. Pieces of the palm branch or the catkins were placed in the nest of geese and ducks, in the eaves of a beehive, plaited into a fishing net or placed under the blade of a plow when it first went out for the first plowing in the spring. The cows were touched with a blessed branch when they went out to pasture for the first time in the spring to protect them against witches who would steal their milk. It was placed in the barn when the first sheaves of wheat and rye were brought in as protection against mice and other insects that could ruin the grain.
Throughout the year the blessed palms were used in all aspects of home life until the approach of Lent when the old palms were burned and the ashes used to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday. And then the cycle began once again when the people of Poland waited once again for the next greening of the willow boughs to be proudly (as Reymont's character seems to suggest) carried through the village and to church to be blessed once again.
Photo: My good friend Diane Woloszyn
I always remember the weather as being cold but sunny. The sun is streaming through the bare tree branches, reaching inside the woods. Here and there in shady areas, there are still small pockets of snow. Birds are chirping among the branches. Our boots crunch over the thin film of ice covering the fallen leaves on the woodland floor. We cross over rivulets of water, the overflow from the small stream running through this section of the woods. My brothers and I know these woods on the outskirts of town. It's one of our favorite places to go when we want to "explore." In the summer, we search around here for blackberries. We also play at " hobo" here, making camp fires, roasting potatoes and eating them hard and blackened right from the fire. I can still feel the crunch.
Today we are here on a mission. We are looking for pussy willows. We know they grow here somewhere along the stream. It's not the first time we have been sent here to bring some home.
As a child I never really understood the depth of how much my mother must miss Poland, the place of her birth and growing up years. I can see now that the longing was right there all the time for me to see: the way she looked out for the mailman every day in the hopes of a letter postmarked POLSKA; the stories she told me of the pine forests of Poland and the mushrooms and blueberries that could be found there; the walks along wooded paths that led from one small village to another; the women heading to the fields singing Kiedy ranne wstają zorze(In the morning when day breaks); the pilgrimage to the monastery in Leżajsk during lilac time; and the pussy willows that grew in abundance along the banks of the River San. She was still there, still missed it all.
We were just kids caught up in an adventure when she sent us out looking for pussy willows each year. We just didn't know how important it was for her to experience part of her old life in something as simple as a pussy willow branch, to see and feel the softness of a catkin. But we could tell she was pleased when we walked into the kitchen with armfuls of them. She immediately dropped what she was doing and took them from us and looked at them with happiness. For her it meant Poland and springtime and Holy Week tradition when pussy willow branches were taken to church to be blessed on Palm Sunday, something the people of Poland had been doing since the blessing of palms was introduced into the Catholic liturgy in the 11th century. Unable to bring the palms indigenous to Jerusalem, the Poles brought branches of the first plant to green up, to bud after the long days of winter. The blessed palms were brought home and tucked behind holy pictures believing that it would protect the home against lightening, fire and bad people. A few sprigs tied together and dipped in holy water was used to sprinkle a blessing on a new home or on a couple about to be married. It signified centuries of faith and tradition, something bred into the marrow of her bones. We couldn't give her the Poland that she once knew but we could bring her a pussy willow branch.
So for me, the celebration of the Easter season has to contain a pussy willow branch. It connects me with my mother, with the walkabouts in the woods with my brothers those many years ago, and with the faith and the traditions of my Polish ancestors. I haven't outgrown the love of going out looking for them. Then there was the day Diane and Steve Woloszyn invited me to Uncle Ziggy's farm. It was sunny but cold. There were still patches of snow on the ground. The birds were twittering in the trees and I thought to myself "Uncle Ziggy must have wanted a little part of Poland with him, too, when he planted these pussy willows."
As Holy Saturday approaches many Polish Americans are looking for a butter lamb to include in their święconka, the basket of food taken to church to be blessed on Holy Saturday. You can find them ready-made in grocery stores in communities that have a large Polish American population. You can buy a wooden mold on-line in the shape of a lamb and press one out yourself. But you can make also make one yourself with a simple quarter pound of butter.
Making a butter lamb is a great way to involve kids in the ancient tradition of preparing the święconka basket. My niece still recalls how much fun it was to handcraft her own butter lamb to take to church to be blessed.
1. Allow a quarter of butter to soften almost to room temperature but still having a hardness to it.
2. Place on small dessert size plate that will fit in the basket you will be using to bless the food. Using a small paring knife with a sharp tip, cut off a quarter piece and place on top of the remaining piece as shown in step 1 of the illustration. This will form the rough shape for the lamb.
3. With the sharp tip of the knife begin shaping the neck of the lamb by scooping out where the two pieces meet. Place the scoopings against the bottom piece of butter along the front, sides and the back end or the top. This will begin filling out the body while giving shape to the neck.
4. Round out the edges of the head using the knife and continue to place the scrapings on top of the smaller piece to give a round shape to the head.
5. To make the ears, load the tip of your paring knife with a little bit of the butter taken from somewhere on the would-be lamb and shape it along the tip of the knife being careful not to cut yourself (or the kids!). Then place the knife, with the tip pointing downward against the side of the head and draw the knife upwards.
6. Use whole cloves or peppercorns for eyes.
7. By this time the butter will be sufficiently soft. Using a toothpick, make a circular forward motion in the butter along the sides and back of the lamb as well as the back and sides of the head. This will give the lamb a fleecy look.
8. Using the tip of the toothpick, imbed a very small piece of parsley where the mouth would be. This gives the appearance that the lamb is partaking of some spring greenery.
9. Place a thin piece of red ribbon around the neck and cross over at the base of the throat. It will stay in place by virtue of sticking to the butter.
10. Make the red banner out of construction paper or ribbon that is one and a half inches wide. Make a white cross on the banner with white paper or thin white ribbon. The cross can also be bought at craft stores. Glue the banner to a white cocktail straw, a bamboo stick, or whatever is on hand that would be suitable.
11. Tuck some greenery around the lamb(curly parsley, alfalfa sprouts, carrot tops, boxwood, etc to give the impression of a lamb on a newly greened meadow. Tuck in some real or artificial violets, small eggs, etc. Let the kids decide!
12. Stick toothpicks in various places of the butter lamb and cover with some type of clear wrap and place in refrigerator to harden again until it's time to place in the basket to take to church.
(From: The Polish Country Kitchen Cookbook by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab)
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.