A Polish-American Easter

It’s interesting that Easter follows so hard upon St. Patrick’s Day this year, especially for me, because on my mother’s side I am a quarter Irish and a quarter Polish. (I am the result of an aggressive West Side breeding program.) And Easter in Polish-American households is (or used to be) a very big deal. I think only the Greeks, Ukrainians and Italians do it up bigger. So in many ways for me Easter is a firmly secular holiday, if only because so much was going on in the house that day that didn’t remind anyone of the resurrection of Jesus. My Polish grandmother lived with us for a time when I was a kid, so Eastertime was a very busy period that involved dyeing eggs, polishing them with butter, loading up a big old fashioned basket to take to Sacred Heart to be blessed; making sure all the goodies were gotten from Harrison’s, including of course the babka; and then tons of her friends, neighbors and relatives to the nth degree stopping by for coffee, cold cuts and boring pani talk as endless polka played in the background from WHEN. Although my grandmother is now gone, Easter is still an important family occasion.

And this really has nothing to do with Easter, but now might be a good time to put out a call… years later, I still cannot figure out what some of the words these ladies used meant in Polish. (Or indeed, if they were Polish at all; my only exposure to real Polish came from an old schoolbook.) It was a sort of “Polglish” they used, really. Now some of these West Side words (like hodgiepodgie) have been fairly well documented. And some of them I’ve been able to guess at (like kotuni, which apparently means “tangles in the hair” or something like that). But I’d love to know the exact meaning of svaanyaach (that’s a phonetic spelling) which was always yelled in association with me going through my grandmother’s jewelry box, and then the biggest mystery of all: the horrible, dreaded paklaaklaai. This was some kind of unmentionable disease or infestation. Someday I’d really like to know what the heck these ladies were talking about.

2 thoughts on “A Polish-American Easter

  1. sean

    that’s a revelatory post, because it hits on something i hadn’t considered.

    i grew up in dunkirk, which was heavily polish. the center of regional influence was buffalo, also heavily polish, where thousands would go during lent to get their butter lambs and other preparations for easter at the braodway market …

    easter, as a kid, simply seemed a bigger deal. there was a sense of anticipation during holy week, with the statues in church all covered with somber purple cloth, and everything shut down on good friday afternoon; the streets were actually quiet. what stays with me is a sense of mourning that i found particularly important for one major reason: the sorrow of good friday was a sense of complicity, the awareness of the danger of the mob, rather than a sense of: THEY did it.

    then easter was an explosion, an incredibly celebratory day.

    i’ve always felt easter lost something as i got older and moved around, and i pinned the blame on cultural change. but i wonder if a more subtle reason also involved living side-by-side with an easter european immigrant culture that placed particular importance on the day … which certainly seems possible, judging by your post.


  2. Taylor Made

    NYCO —

    I know that there is an ever so slight tendency to see the world through our own glasses….but over 30,000 yes that is right 30,000 souls made a Good Friday pilgrimage from Santa Fe to Chimayo in New Mexico.

    IMO that bit of religious fervor is more than is or was ever evinced in Buffalo, Syracuse, NYC or anywhere else in Eastern or Midwestern cities. I note this because religious practice in NM is not trapped or suffocated in a memory of what it was in the “old country” — instead I would submit that this is a vibrantly alive faith that resonates with true passion and zeal because it is rooted in this continent.

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