Mr. Curtis’ Polish Easter
I don’t know about your house, but Easter at the Curtis place when I was younger – heck, even now that I’m older, has pretty much the same thing every year. We have our family traditions, and there’s nothing in the world that will change the way we do Easter. It’s the one holiday that our family the “Polish” way.
Christmas was a blend of my dad’s family traditions and what my mom’s family did when she was a kid.
Thanksgiving was the same, only on Turkey Day aunts and uncles got involved making it more of a mish-mosh of traditions.
Fourth of July is all-American.
Halloween was done just like everyone else.
Easter, though, Easter was different. Easter was done the way my Nana – my mom’s mom – wanted it done. The way she did it when my mom was little, the way her mom did it, the way her grandma did it. I always thought we did Easter the Polish way.
You see, my grandma was born in Warsaw in 1914, just as WWI was really getting going. Her parents were my great-grandma (we called her Busia – which my grandma swore is just Polish for “old lady”) and great-grandpa (he was called Dziadzia, I had to look up that spelling, because I never saw his name written down and it always sounded to me like my mom and Nana were saying Jah-jee).
In 1913, Busia and Jah-jee wanted out of Poland. I never found out exactly why they were leaving, but a quick look at the history book tells us that bad stuff was brewing in Central Europe 100 years ago. They got as far as London, booking passage on an ocean liner (probably like a smaller version of the Titanic, which sailed towards America a year later), but when the officials found out that Busia was pregnant (with my grandma) they sent her back. She went all the way back to Warsaw, but her husband didn’t go with her. He continued on to America – where he found a job and started his life in the South-Side of Chicago. Why Chicago? Well, did you know Chicago has more Polish speaking people than any city in the world except Warsaw? He had relatives here to help him get started in his new life while his wife and soon-to-be-born daughter were on the other side of the world.
Meanwhile, Busia went back to her village near Warsaw and my grandma was born that February. Busia escaped Poland a second time, finding her way to Copenhagen, Denmark, where she caught a boat to London – all with the baby in tow. Little did my Busia know, there was another law – one that didn’t allow babies under six months on the boats from England to America. This was in the middle of summer, and my grandma was just a little over five months old at the time. Not wanting to be turned away and sent back to Poland again, Busia quickly changed my grandma’s birthday on her documents from February 7th, 1914 to January 7th, 1914, making her just old enough to be allowed on the boat. For the rest of her life, my grandma celebrated her birthday in January.
When Busia and my grandma (Sophie) finally arrived in Chicago, they were surrounded by friends and family from Poland. They whole neighborhood was made up of Polish speaking people. The shops were all Polish, selling Polish bread at the baker, Polish meats at the butcher, Polish everything.
My mom, born more than 30 years later, grew up surrounded by these people that were so proud of their Polish heritage. Two and a half decades later, I was born into that. However, my dad wasn’t Polish, so the Curtis family traditions and those Polish traditions melded together. Except Easter. Easter always belonged to Nana.
Every spring we’d have to take a trip in the car, an hour there and an hour back, to go to the old neighborhood to get just the right Polish ham – no other ham would do. You even had to buy your noodles, your cabbage, your horseradish, your ridiculously salty butter shaped like a peaceful little lamb (my sister and I always fought over who got to chop the lamb’s head off and spread it on our bread – yup, you guessed it, just the right bread from the Polish bakery. And dessert was always just the right cookies – kolaczkis - from the old neighborhood. No other cookies would do. The biggest deal of all was the Polish sausage. We’d get just the right Polish sausage from one particular Polish butcher – you couldn’t buy the sausage anywhere else. One year my mom took a chance and bought different sausage from a different butcher. My Nana wouldn’t eat it. She swore it wasn’t Polish sausage, it was Lithuanian sausage – another year she swore the sausage was Bohemian and wouldn’t eat that either. From then on, my mom never took the risk and always bought the sausage at the right place.
I grew up thinking I had a traditional Polish Easter every year, and while my Easter was Polish-ish, it wasn’t quite the traditional cultural feast I thought it was. Just like my mom and dad’s family traditions merged together, my Nana’s Szobczak family traditions had to share the Easter table with my grandpa’s Idzekowski ways of doing things. Somehow that gave us ham, sausage, the weird salty lamb butter, noodles with cabbage, and just the right horseradish.
However, preparing for this trip to Poland, I’ve been looking at some cultural traditions, and it looks like we were getting it all wrong.
Do you know what a willow catkin is? I didn’t either. It’s this fuzzy little plant nugget that’s somewhere between a seed, a flower, and a coughed up hairball. Well, Polish tradition says that you’re supposed to take a branch of those willow catkins (also called pussy willows) to a priest, have them bless them, and eat one of those fuzzy little things on Easter. Doing that is supposed to give you good health for the remainder of the year. Maybe the fuzz nugget acts like some sort of scrub brush for your innards and makes you all cleaned out on the inside or something.
Then, there’s a special kind of bread called Paska. Before baking, the bread dough is covered in fat and decorated with a cross made of bread dough. It’s also decorated with birds and flowers, but I couldn’t find for sure it you’re supposed to stick a cardinal and a daffodil into your loaf of bread or if you just sort of carve birdish and flowery decorations into the dough. Either way, this is women’s work, and that isn’t me being sexist – it really is, because if the man of the house helps with the Paska, his mustache will go gray and the bread dough will fail.
I thought this one had to be an internet joke, but I keep finding it in different places, so it must be true. Smingus Dyngus is an Easter Monday tradition in which family members dump water over one another’s heads. Apparently this has something to do with a dude named Dingen, an ancient god of fertility and nature. The water throwing is thought to cleanse you.
We’ll miss Easter week in Poland this spring, but the celebration at the Curtis house this year might just include some willow catkins, a bird in our loaf of bread, and dumping water on grandma. I think my family will like it, as long as we get just the right pussy willow, from just the right store in the old neighborhood and my sister still gets to chop the head off the lamb butter.