Archive for the ‘Traditions’ Category

This time of year, we celebrate a number of holidays close together. It’s a good thing, because once the sun returns to Poland, people love to get outside, and I’m pretty sure the mental concentration of workers, students and pupils plummets. I know mine does!

This year (2013), May 1, 2, 3 and 30 are all holidays. Since the 1st through 3rd are Wednesday through Friday, many people take off Monday and Tuesday as well, in essence getting a 9-day vacation. May 30, Corpus Christi, always falls on a Thursday, so most people take the Friday after off, as well.

May 1 (May Day) has significant pagan origins. However, since 1889, it has served as the International Worker’s Day, commemorating the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, when police shot and killed 4 demonstrators. Of course, it has been closely associated with socialist, communist and anarchist groups, undoubtedly as a result of it’s origins. According to Wikipedia, over 80 countries celebrate May 1 as Labor Day, and in Poland it became a national holiday in 1950 – under communism. I find it interesting that after the fall of communism, May 1 was not abolished, in spite of its status as the premiere communist holiday. I would attribute this to two reasons: 1. No one wants to give up a holiday, whatever the reason it was established. 2. It was a labor union (Solidarity) that brought about the downfall of communism. It probably makes more sense to celebrate that victory of organized labor than it does to commemorate the Chicago tragedy.

May 2 is Flag Day in Poland, commemorated since 2004. It isn’t officially a day free from work, but nearly all schools, and many companies, make the day a holiday. It was instituted really just to have a holiday between May 1 and May 3, although it does commemorate a couple of significant events related to the Polish flag. May 2, 1945, Polish soldiers who entered Berlin planted a Polish flag on top of the Reichstag and the Victory Column, as a sign of defeating the Third Reich. Under communism, after the big communist May Day celebrations, Poles would take the flag down on May 2, in a symbolic protest against the fact that the Communist authorities abolished the May 3 holiday.

May 3 is – in my opinion – the proudest holiday in the Polish calendar. It commemorates the establishment of the Polish Constitution in 1791. This constitution, second in the world, was a monument of democratic ideals. Considering the Polish context, surrounded by the Russian and Austrian empires, and the Prussian kingdom, the Polish constitution was far braver than either the American or French, written in the same period. In effect, the constitution was valid for only 14 months, before some of the nobles, along with the Prussians, betrayed the Poles, and the Russians conquered the Polish kingdom. Then, in 1795, Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia and Austria and ceased to exist for 120 years.

The Polish constitution has some similarities with the French and American constitutions, but retained a monarchy, modeled after the English. It gave voting rights to most of the population, limited the king’s power, gave more structure to the legislative and judicial branches. It also removed voting rights from a number of nobles who had gained them by decree of the king. In addition, it guaranteed tolerance and freedom of all religions. Later, during the war against the Russians, Prussians and Austrians, the Polish leader – and American Revolutionary War hero – Tadeusz Kosciuszko, declared his own “Emancipation Proclamation” granting voting rights and land to peasants who fought against the occupying forces.

The May 3 holiday was first instituted in 1791, banned in 1795 by the Russians, Prussians and Austrian, and reinstated in 1919, when Poland regained its sovereignty after World War I. It was again abolished by the Nazis in 1939, and spontaneously celebrated in 1945. The Soviet occupiers banned it again in 1951, and it was reestablished in 1990, after the fall of communism. It has served as a symbol of Polish unity, patriotism and democracy – hence its abolition by each successive occupier of Poland.

Now, although there are patriotic events on all three days, for most people it means 3 days to spend with family, outside, picnicking, enjoying the spring sun. Unfortunately, this year, someone forgot to tell the sun to cooperate!!

"Christianization of Poland on April 14, 966" by Jan Matejko

“Christianization of Poland on April 14, 966” by Jan Matejko

My wife and I moved to Poland in the spring of 1999 to help the evangelical church with church planting and leadership development. Of course, at first we focused on learning Polish, and trying to understand Polish culture and worldview. My second year in Poland, I audited theology classes at the Catholic University of Lublin, in an attempt to better understand the Polish worldview.

For the past fourteen years, therefore, we have been involved in participant observation, and yet sometimes our observations did not seem to match what we expected to see from Roman Catholics. Of course, some of our dissonance was as a result of our mistaken preconceptions about Catholicism, and yet much of it was because of a real difference between what the Church officially teaches, and the functional worldview of most Poles. Hence, I looked forward to this ethnographic project, as an attempt to better understand that functional worldview, and hopefully to gain some insight into better ways to communicate the good news of the Gospel, and especially to understand the epistemology of the average Pole.

I currently pastor a Baptist church in Lublin, Poland, and lead the WorldVenture Poland team, but I did not want to build an ethnography of evangelical Poles. I discussed the project with other evangelical pastors in our area, and with our team, and one of my team members, Bruce, in Lubin, was also interested in doing the ethnographic questionnaire among his English students. So, he met with 4 men, ages 18-38, and sent me the results of his conversations. I met with 6 people, 4 women and 2 men, ages 23-51. After preparing an English questionnaire for Bruce, I met with my friend, Radek, to correct my Polish questionnaire. As a result of our meeting, we redacted the questionnaire from 33 questions to 25, but Bruce continued to use the original. All of the participants in the research are Roman Catholic, although a few would not consider themselves faithful to or in agreement with the Church’s teaching.

I have already shared this project with my teammates and with workers from other organizations here in Poland. Hopefully, our ongoing conversation and research into the Polish worldview and our Christian witness can help us better proclaim the Good News.

  1. History and Demographics

Poland was founded in 966 A.D. when King Mieszko I was baptized into the Western Latin rite. This decision meant that Poland remained Roman Catholic when some of its southern and eastern neighbors went with the Eastern (Orthodox) Church. Being Roman Catholic also meant a focus toward Rome and the West, rather than toward Constantinople and the East. As a result, religious, cultural and political ties integrated Poland with its Western neighbors, Austria and the German states, as well as with Lithuania when it also chose Catholicism. The Union of Lublin, in 1569, created the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, a nation-state which for nearly two hundred years was among Europe’s largest countries.

Poland considered itself a bulwark against the Baltic pagans, the Orthodox Russians, and later, the Moslems from the east and south. The role of King Jan III Sobieski in the Battle of Vienna (1683) to turn back the Ottomans was crucial to stopping the Moslem advance into Europe. Poland was a relatively tolerant society, with large numbers of Jews, Orthodox, pagans and even Moslem Tatars holding positions of prominence. The Reformation also saw many converts to Protestantism, especially Calvinism. However, wars with Protestant Sweden, most notably “the Deluge” (1655-60), led to a marked change in Polish tolerance, including the banishment of the Arian Brothers (a sect similar to the Bohemian Brethren), and the death penalty for conversion from Catholicism.

The valiant defense of the monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa during the Swedish Deluge, and the legends surrounding the icon of the Black Madonna, housed in the monastery, greatly assisted in the process of counter-Reformation in Poland. Still today, nearly every high school student in Poland makes a walking pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa. Although Poland continued to be relatively tolerant – in comparison with most other European countries – the religious beliefs of its citizens were tied to their ethnicity. Russians – Orthodox, Germans – Protestant, Jews, Moslem Tatars – and Poles were Catholic, with very few exceptions.

The Divisions of Poland among the Great Powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria in the late 1700’s, its rebirth in 1918, and World War II, led to a Poland that is today much less diverse, both ethnically and religiously. Poland is 97% ethnically Polish,[1] and is 89% Roman Catholic, 9 % non-religious, 1% Orthodox, and 0.5% Jehovah’s Witness. Lutherans are 0.22%, and Evangelicals are about 0.14% of the population.[2] The Lutheran and Orthodox adherents usually have a German or Russian ethnic background, respectively, so the common expression “to be Polish is to be Catholic” usually rings true.

  1. Social Structures

Family remains very important in Polish society. As I conducted my survey, nearly every respondent mentioned their father or, more often, their mother, as an authority figure. Those who had lost a parent believed that their dead parent still took interest in their lives, and in a couple of cases, believed that the dead loved one had intervened to rescue them from some calamity. A mass migration began in 2005, when 5% of the population moved to Western European countries in search of work, and this has begun to lead to a more mobile society, but families still remain in close proximity. Every year, the holiday that sees the most travel is not Christmas, or Easter, but rather All Saints’ Day, when families return to their home areas, and visit the graves of their loved ones. As one of my friends described it, “in this way we can include our whole family, alive and dead, in All Saints’ Day.”

The cultural diagnosis report of 2009 states that respondents listed “successful marriage” as the top (56%) condition for happiness. This also indicates the high value that Poles place on family. Once interesting trend, however, is that “friends” has doubled in importance for happiness since 1992[3]. This helps explain why one of my interviewees, when asked about ancestors influencing us, said that other loved ones who have died, not just those related to him, still influence his life today, and that he asks them for advice. Family is very important, but there is a growing trend toward looking for the most important relationships outside of family.

Easter Palm from dried flowers

Easter Palm from dried flowers

The Easter celebrations in Poland really begin with Palm Sunday, when most Poles will take a “palm,” like the one on the right, to church to be blessed. These palms are usually made from cut, dried flowers, and are very pretty. You can buy some mass-produced ones now in the larger stores, but the best are made by little old ladies, who then claim a corner of a sidewalk downtown, or in front of a store, and sell them in the week before Palm Sunday. For the amount of work they put into them, they are amazingly inexpensive.

The palms are a Catholic custom, and I don’t know any evangelical churches that incorporate the custom into Palm Sunday worship. I would love to, but our Baptist Church has an allergic reaction to anything that looks Catholic!

Monday through Wednesday, there are regular masses in Catholic Churches – which of course is true of every day of the year – but more people do attend these daily masses than at other times of the year.

Maundy Thursday is especially important for Catholic priests – and we have a LOT in Lublin. There is a special Mass (Mass of the Chrism) just for priests in the Cathedral, where priests renew their vows and celebrate the Eucharist. Holy oils are also blessed during this Mass. Later, in all Catholic churches, there is a Mass that includes the symbol of foot-washing. Some very committed Catholics will fast from Thursday evening until Easter breakfast.

On Good Friday, people will begin preparing for Easter breakfast, especially painting Easter eggs.

A basket of painted Easter eggs

A basket of painted Easter eggs

Old Polish pagan beliefs said that eggs chased away bad luck. I would be curious to know if this is the root of the custom of painting Easter eggs in other countries as well. Many people, especially those with kids still home, will paint their own. Although just like the palms you can buy some mass-produced ones, the best ones are sold by the same little old ladies, who seem to have not moved from their sidewalk.

The faithful will prepare a grave for Christ at church, and many will take part in the Stations of the Cross processions. Each area of the city will have its own procession, with the most important one beginning at the Cathedral, and making its way through the Old Town. This procession is an “ecumenical” procession, involving representatives of other churches, including Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, and sometimes Pentecostal. It is based on the “Scriptural” Way of the Cross. After the Way of the Cross, a figure of Jesus will be laid in the grave, to await Easter Resurrection.

Some men will be chosen to guard the grave through Saturday, and during the day Saturday, many people will come visit the grave. When they visit, they will also bring Easter baskets to church to be blessed. These baskets are highly symbolic, with each element having some meaning connected to the death and Resurrection of Christ. However, basically, they are a wicker basket lined with a white cloth, containing some bread, kielbasa and ham, an egg, vinegar, salt and horseradish. In addition, there will be a little lamb, sometimes made of wood or plastic, but best if it’s made of bread or sugar. These baskets are blessed by a priest, and everything is ready for the Easter breakfast.

Easter Sunday begins with the Resurrection Mass at 6:00 am – another one of those great ideas that hasn’t caught on at our Baptist Church :). Easter then is a family day, and after Mass, begins with everyone sharing with one other some of the blessed eggs. Easter breakfast includes a malt soup – sometimes in a bread bowl, hard-boiled eggs, white kielbasa, cold cuts, horseradish, and a special cake called a Babka. (which is slang for little old lady – go figure).

Easter Monday has its own special tradition – old, pagan, and one of the greatest traditions in the world – but that’s for the next post.

Easter Monday in Poland

Even Poles laugh at the their own bureaucracy – probably the citizens of most countries do. European bureaucracies, especially post-communist ones, seem to be in a class all their own, however. I have been pleasantly surprised this year just how nice all the government workers have become. But – some other things haven’t changed. Yet.

We picked up our car from the shipping company on Friday, and we have the rest of the week to make it to the local customs office to clear our personal items and begin the process of getting back the money we paid to cover customs and taxes. Wouldn’t you know it, though, the shipping company didn’t give me one necessary document – so I have to wait. Holiday this week, Independence Day, so it’s a short week. Hopefully the paper comes in time so we won’t pay a fine.

Meanwhile, we have been in the process of getting our temporary residence cards. We entered Poland August 14, so we have until November 13 on our tourist visas. I turned in all our paperwork about 2 weeks ahead of the deadline – in other words, in plenty of time. The very polite young woman in the immigration office, however, wrote down the wrong date on the outside of our files. On Monday I went in and asked about our papers, and she was suprised to see me. She thought we still had another 2 weeks. So all of a sudden she had to get busy with our case. When she reviewed it, she realized that one of our documents needed to be rewritten. I got it done, brought it in, but then once again – it wasn’t quite right. Did I mention there’s a holiday this week? If we don’t have the decision by Friday, we have to leave the European Union to get our passports stamped. No big deal – IF WE HAD A CAR!

Since the car won’t be cleared by customs by Friday (customs clearance is likely to take another month), we may have to take a train, or fly, to Ukraine. Not outrageously expensive, but it means a train trip in the middle of the night, with a return in the middle of the night as well. Sigh.

My buddy here says files in government offices need to “ripen.” He laughs when I dream about the possibility of getting something settled in a few hours, or days. When I told him how I always saw people dashing from one office to another in the same building, he said that’s because carrying papers back and forth gives them (the papers) more importance. He said I really wouldn’t want my case to be settled so soon. Then it would look as if they really hadn’t given it the time and effort required for such a weighty matter.

Okay. Whatever. Just please – the cases weigh enough already now. Could we have our residence cards and customs clearance soon?

Follow-up: I got a call from the immigration office about noon today (wrote the above last night). We got approval for 2 years here, so we don’t have to leave the country. I still have two more visits to the office, so I think the final total will be 10 trips to the immigration office. Again, my buddy helped me understand – by waiting this long, having me come in so many times, and calling me 5-6 times, the lady in charge of our case demonstrated how important she was. He says it’s a good lesson for me – to understand that I’m not alone in this world, that I’m dependent on someone else, that bureaucrats are important people, too. Of course, he’s laughing so hard as he tells me these things – I’m tempted to kidnap him and send him to Arizona – see how he likes dealing with immigration!

All Saints’ Day

Posted: November 1, 2010 in All Saints', Traditions

All Saints’ Day in Poland. One of those holidays that leave me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s a lot better than Halloween. Although I’m not a halloween hater, and think that for most people halloween means nothing more than candy and costumes, we all know halloween’s excesses and pagan roots. All Saint’s Day, with its emphasis on family and remembrance, is definitely more beautiful. As one of my Polish friends told me, “On All Saints’ Day the whole family is together. Those still living, and those who have gone on before.” What do you say to that? Statistically, Poles are more likely to travel home to their families on All Saints’ than they are for Christmas or Mother’s Day. Anyone who has ever walked through a Polish cemetery after dark on November 1, especially on a cold evening, will never forget the candles, the people, the not-too-loud sound of glass breaking, as the hot candles and cold air weaken the glass candleholders. That last bit may not sound as beautiful as it is – you’ll have to trust me on that one, I guess 🙂

And yet, All Saint’s has its own pagan roots and traditions. Leaving food by the grave, as some still do. Prayers for dead ancestors. I know that Catholics justify that with  a little verse from 2 Maccabees, but the support for prayers for the dead is pretty slim – and relies on the existence of purgatory, something that even many Catholic theologians are beginning to question. Granted, it’s no celebration of demons and devils – nothing evil about it – but it makes my Protestant sensibilities squirm.

However, I’m also not comfortable with the reaction of many of my Polish evangelical friends. This may sound strange, but they seem to treat All Saints’ Day the same way conservative American Christians treat Halloween (no pun intended). They look at it as an evil, pagan holiday, or at best as an evil, Catholic holiday. Many of them refuse to spend time with their extended, non-Protestant families, in order not to put their stamp of approval on All Saints’ Day. Why not? Is there anything intrinsically wrong with walking through a cemetery with your family and leaving a candle by your grandfather’s grave? What am I missing? But then, I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with my kids dressing up like Spiderman and begging for candy, either. And many of my American Christian friends would say I’m missing an important point.