Easter is upon us! Between the many traditions around the world, none is nearly as colorful and happy as the Palm Sunday in Poland! And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Palm Sunday is the day that starts the Holy Week in Poland – the seven days long celebrations before Easter. It commemorates the day that Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, and was welcomed with the crowd shouting happily “Hosanna!” and waving palm leaves. But because palms are hardly anywhere to be found in Poland, they had to be substituted with something, and that’s how the Easter palms came to being.
Usually not taller than half a meter (1,6 feet), although the record-scoring ones tower as high as 36 meters (118 feet), Easter Palms are made of pussywillow branches (called “kotki”, which means “kitties” as they are fluffy like their fur), ribbons, dried or paper flowers and various other plants like grass or boxwood. Some regional customs include a golden cross or a flower bouquet at the top, and an ethnographic museum in Kraków has over 200 different Easter palms in its collection. The palms can’t include any metal elements (they’re composed around a wooden stick or a thicker branch in the center) and every palm that is not small enough to be meant for holding in one’s hand is required to be able to stand by itself – it is most important for those who wish to enter one of the many competitions for the most beautiful palm that are organised in Poland!
These palms are then taken to the churches to be blessed, and then carried around the city in big processions to be shown off. The procession also sometimes includes Jezusek Palmowy (“Palm Jesus”), a wooden figurine of Jesus on the donkey, placed on a wheeled cart and dragged around with the procession to re-enact the welcoming of Jesus in Jerusalem. This tradition dates even as far back as the Middle Ages, and although the Roman Catholic Church prohibited it around 18 century, it is still celebrated in many smaller Polish cities, like Tokarnia or Szydłowiec, and even in some German villages.
Later after the procession, some people use the palms to sprinkle holy water around their houses, some stick then somewhere in the fields to ensure good harvest. Some older folks say that swallowing one of the buds from the pussywillows branch will ensure health all year. Usually, they are kept beside the main holy painting or crucifix in the house to protect from misfortune, and should they survive until next Easter, they’re burned and the ash is used on the Ash Wednesday.
But the blessing of the Easter palm is not always the start of the Palm Sunday celebrations. Although this tradition is just as small and almost forgotten as the Palm Jesus, it is a major element of the history of Polish Easter celebrations, and therefore people want to embrace it. It has a special place in the hearts of people near Cracow. Pucheroki (from “pueri”, which is Latin for “boy”) means that young boys visit houses in their neighbourhood early in the morning. They’re dressed in a very peculiar way: they wear sheepskin coats inside out, tied with rovings, and extremely tall caps made out of colorful paper on their heads. Their faces are blackened with soot and they carry a basket and a wooden mallet with a long, decorated with paper and fabric hilt. As they enter each household, they sing songs and speeches that are a mix of Lent songs, rhymes and comedic dialogues – similarly to carrollers. They’re ought to receive snacks, like eggs, and other little gifts or small amounts of money for their efforts, and they gather them in the baskets they carry. Just like with the palms, there are competitions for Pucheroki, that choose not only the best dressed ones or the one with the tallest cap, but the ones to perform the best, too.
As you can see, the most beautiful celebrations and the most colorful and happy ones happen in the small, secluded villages – where the traditions are still alive, and where the people remember to share joy of Easter with others. Maybe you should try to snatch a piece of that merriment for yourself, and visit the lovely Polish countryside?