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.