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Mr. Curtis’ Polish Easter

September 17, 2013

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.

47 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Doody permalink
    September 17, 2013 3:07 pm

    Both of my parents are polish, so parts of this sounds very familiar. I also remember the blessing of baskets and Easter food.

  2. Ms. Tadey permalink
    September 17, 2013 6:31 pm

    The entire city of South Bend, Indiana celebrates Dyngus Day every year with lots of water lobbing and tom foolery.

  3. Brandon Driscoll permalink
    September 17, 2013 8:17 pm

    Where can i get a butter shaped lamb.

    • September 17, 2013 8:41 pm

      You have to go to just the right grocery store in just the right Polish neighborhood in Chicago.

    • Joseph Kokoszka permalink
      September 18, 2013 10:48 am

      Shop and save on Archer and central in chicago. Also Cecelia on Archer and Keeler

      • September 18, 2013 10:56 am

        Our special butcher shop/grocery store is in Calumet City, but I bet every Polish-American family has their own favorite places.

  4. Megan Wilson permalink
    September 17, 2013 8:52 pm

    I’ve always had a lot of polish food on Easter with my family because my Grandma is 100% polish, and we have never went one Easter with out my grandma’s polish sausage.

    • September 17, 2013 9:02 pm

      Did your grandma ever freak out about it being Bohemian sausage? Mine did.

  5. Lily Valdez permalink
    September 17, 2013 9:00 pm

    My grandmother is the exact same way about following the polish traditions of Easter. But I was looking up polish Easter traditions and I found the food that you eat for Easter is blessed with holy water by a priest, who would either come to the house, or samplings of dishes would be taken to church for a communal blessing.

    • September 17, 2013 9:02 pm

      I guess if you’re going to eat a bunch of unhealthy food, it’s better if it’s been blessed, right?

  6. Megan Wilson permalink
    September 17, 2013 9:19 pm

    Nope not really as long as she had her sausage she was all good!

  7. Jacob Westerhoff permalink
    September 17, 2013 10:06 pm

    That sounds like a lot of work just to get the right ham, horseradish, cabbage, noodles, and lamb shaped butter, but i but it was all worth it

    • September 18, 2013 5:53 am

      It was, Jake. Especially the sausage. Easter is one of my favorite holidays just because of that sausage, and my Nana was right, no other sausage is quite right.

  8. Kamil Czaplinski permalink
    September 18, 2013 3:57 pm

    This is all correct, however there are many different regions in Poland and each celebrates everything just a little bit differently. My parents always fight over when to eat the blessed food because they did it differently in my Dad’s family and differently in my Mom’s family.

    • September 19, 2013 1:11 pm

      Thanks for pointing that out, Kamil. Poland’s a big country, so I’m sure there are tons of different traditions for every holiday depending on where you live in Poland. Just like here at home. My dad’s from Minnesota, my mom is from Chicago, and my wife is from Georgia. We end up with a strange mish-mosh of traditions at the holidays.

  9. Tim Doody permalink
    September 18, 2013 5:42 pm

    Both grandparents of mine are 100% Polish and they are nana and papa to me. We always have the butter lamb which they also get from Chicago even though my mom swears it is also at jewel.

    • September 19, 2013 1:10 pm

      Isn’t the butter lamb way saltier than normal butter? I can never eat that stuff.

  10. Jordan Springer permalink
    September 18, 2013 8:39 pm

    Wow, that was really interesting. Now I feel very unsophisticated, my family just does the hide-plastic-eggs-filled-with-candy-and-quarters thing. We don’t really do anything very cultural for Easter.

    • September 19, 2013 1:07 pm

      Then you should adopt some foreign customs. I suggest you get your whole family to eat the fuzzy catkin thing.

  11. Hunter Lisula permalink
    September 19, 2013 7:22 am

    That was really interesting those polish traditions seem really weird and odd but also really cool. I wonder how the catkin fuz nuggets would taste like. And do the polish people paint Easter eggs like we do in America. I have always called my grandma bobcia but now I’m going to start calling her busia now that I know it means old lady. This Easter since my gramdma is polish I’m going to ask her if we could try some of these polish traditions. They sound very interesting and I would like to try these traditions next Easter.

    • September 19, 2013 12:59 pm

      I don’t think you should ask your grandma about the traditions, just dump the water on her head and yell Smyngus Dyngus really loud. She’ll like it. I promise.

  12. lpetersen14 permalink
    September 19, 2013 8:19 pm

    I’ve never really thought about how my family celebrates holidays. I’m pretty sure it’s just American but you can never know. My grandparents have Dutch or Dainish blood but I’m not sure how they did Easter. It makes me want to look into it.

    • September 19, 2013 8:36 pm

      America is a pretty weird place when you think about it. We have this blend of every other culture’s traditions. One of the cool thing about traveling is seeing those customs and becoming more aware of what our ancestors did.

  13. Braden Kobus permalink
    September 19, 2013 9:04 pm

    Wow your grandma was really strict about her traditions on Easter

  14. Brianna Sherwin permalink
    September 20, 2013 9:31 pm

    My family just does the ‘get an Easter basket filled with candy’ stuff. When I was younger we would do egg hunts in the house. We don’t even have a fancy dinner. We might grab a special dessert, though.

    • September 20, 2013 9:39 pm

      Maybe this year you guys should make some of the bird/flower bread instead.

  15. Matt Schofield permalink
    September 20, 2013 10:46 pm

    I haven’t really thought of how other cultures celebrate holidays. This surely beats my family’s “tradition”. I wish my family was Polish! My moms parents are German but their traditions didn’t carry. Although I do like the idea of dumping water on my grandmas head :).

    • September 21, 2013 9:35 am

      It would be interesting to find out what kinds of Easter traditions they have in Germany.

  16. Skylar Duensing permalink
    September 21, 2013 2:19 am

    I love almost all of those foods. The only foods I haven’t tried yet are the willow catkin, lamb shaped butter, and the Paska bread. I’ll have to get some this Easter and try it out. Usually in my house we cook lots of breakfast foods like eggs and bacon. I’ll tell my parents to try some Polish Easter traditions this year.

    • September 21, 2013 9:36 am

      Let me know how the willow catkin is. I recommend ketchup with it – it looks pretty dry.

  17. gianna kriechbaum permalink
    September 21, 2013 8:44 am

    My family does the Easter egg hunt stuff but sometimes its really weird. now that im older im the only one who can get the dangerous and the ones too high for the kids. My Tia’s put little slips of paper with prizes or food on them. Later you trade them in for said food and prizes. But my Tia Julia always puts money in some of them. No idea why slhe does it but hey, who am i kill a tradition with money in easter eggs.

    • September 21, 2013 9:36 am

      I actually didn’t read anything about Easter eggs in Poland. Someone should find out if they do hunts there.

  18. Nolan loughran permalink
    September 21, 2013 12:13 pm

    I wonder what the seed taste like will you try to eat the seed

  19. September 23, 2013 3:17 pm

    The story was awesome and my favorite part was about the fuzz nuggets. Thanks for sharing this with everyone mr Curtis. 🙂

  20. Ashley Marcano permalink
    September 23, 2013 3:23 pm

    My great grandma was 100% polish and when she was alive every year we went to church on Easter and we would all have a willow catkin! Also at the church they would give us little pieces of bread but I’m not sure if it was paska!

  21. Ashley Marcano permalink
    September 24, 2013 3:54 pm

    It’s not so good haha!

  22. Issy Malic permalink
    October 1, 2013 4:13 pm

    Why does the butter have to be shaped like a lamb?

    • October 1, 2013 5:26 pm

      The lamb as a symbol goes back thousands of years. Way back in the day, a lot of pagan religions would sacrifice lambs to their gods. Christians believe that Jesus gave himself up, allowed himself to be crucified, for all of mankind – a pretty big sacrifice – so the lamb has become a symbol of Jesus. Easter is a celebration of Jesus returning from the great beyond, so Easter decorations are full of lambs. The big question is where do the bunnies and eggs come from?

  23. McKenna tkaczuk permalink
    October 4, 2013 5:04 pm

    This is very interesting! I never knew Poland had a different tradition like this! I should try some of these things

    • October 5, 2013 9:34 am

      McKenna, I recommend the Smyngus Dingus thingus – dump some water on Jayden to celebrate Easter this year.

  24. Margit permalink
    April 21, 2014 7:21 am

    I just came across your post while researching the english word for Weidenkätzchen (willow catkin) and thought I’d add that here in Germany we decorate our homes with them for Easter, but we don’t eat them. They go in a vase and you trim them with colourful eggs. Really enjoyed reading about you polish traditions!

  25. Betsy Wagner permalink
    April 29, 2014 8:33 pm

    Picked this item up on a search referring to willow catkins. I was thinking of my 4th grade teacher, Sister Amata from the Felician order of nuns, who was Polish. She used to make us sing this song about pussy willows. Fuzzy pussy willow, pretty little things, growing in the sunshine of a merry spring! That was it. I can imagine her thinking of each of us eating one of those hairball catkins and getting it stuck in our throats just to shut us up. There were 44 of us in her classroom. 44! Enjoyed the shared heritage.

    My Grandmother could no longer purchase the butter lamb already made. Being resourceful, she bought a plastic mold for making chocolate and softened the butter and then popped it out the mold when it got cold again. When I moved I was shocked to find out no other church blessed Easter baskets. It’s a lovely tradition.

  26. Malvina permalink
    August 28, 2014 7:14 am

    There is an old polish legend saying that as long as people will paint eggs for easter, devil will stay in hell and won’t come to earth. You might think all of those traditions are originating from catholic church, but in fact the story reaches much before that. All the traditions come from Slavic tribes that lived on the area of Eastern Europe, Poland and Russia mostly. After making Poland a country in 996 (christianizing it and accepting Pope) those traditions were so deeply rooted in people’s minds that had to become a part of christian church. You cannot find those customs anywhere else in the world, even in Catholic countries. Now with eggs the story is this: every symbol, every colour and shape means something. Drawing some symbols had a magical power; as mentioned willow cutkins were meant to bring health, beauty and fertility, but there is so many more symbols! Egg itself symbolises life, birth, long life and vitality. Plant: rebirth, immortality. Chicken feet: fertility and harvest. Ear of grain: good harvest, lot of food. Apple tree: knowledge, ability, skills. Pine tree: progress, strength, confidence. Wheat: home, hearth, family. These are just few. Colours: 1 yellow. Light, wisdom, purity, happiness, love. 2 orange. Strenght, endurance, grandeur. 3 red. Magic, love, happiness. 4 green. Freshness, hope, fertility. 5 black. Death, fear, eternity (black and white eggs were painted for dead, passage eggs). 6 white. Birth, rebirth, purity, innocence. 7 brown. Abundace. 8 violet. Faith, loyality, patience. 9 blue. Sky, air.
    I hope this helps and will bring you some ideas of what to paint on your Easter eggs 🙂

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