01 October 2013

Poland: The Land of Our Ancestors

The land we currently call Poland is one of contrasts.  The country’s total area is slightly over 120,700 square miles, a bit smaller than the combined areas of the states Wisconsin and Illinois.  Forests cover almost 29% of the land.  More than 1% of the land is classified as a national park, therefore protected by the government.

On the northern border one finds the Brackish Baltic Sea.  Along this area you will find many long sandy beaches, impressive cliffs and unusual geological formations. Dense forests can also be found here.  There are many islands in the Baltic Sea; many under the flag of Poland.  Some of these are under government protection due to the varied protected wildlife such as eagles, wild boar and other protected species.  There is also a small bison preserve on one of the islands.  Others contain resorts which are enjoyed in the summer months.  These are major tourist attractions for the Poles and other nationalities.  Also found are the remains of one of the oldest Slav settlements that had been built during the 9th and 10th centuries.  At one point in the history of the land, this area had been a Viking stronghold.   This event continues to be celebrated in an annual Viking Festival held in Wolin.
The land along the Baltic shoreline also holds its charm.  Here one finds beaches and sand dunes, lakes and flooded meadows.  Spas, resorts and many historic buildings also tempt the tourist who journeys to the coast.  Scattered among the resorts one finds many fishing villages.  Even a 14th century castle once occupied by the Pomeranian Duke Eryk I who had also ruled Denmark, Sweden and Norway can be seen in the area. 
It is along the shoreline that one finds Poland’s fourth largest city, Gdansk.  It has long been Poland’s major port and trading center.   Here one finds many historic buildings some dating back to the 10th century.  There are fine examples of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture much of which was destroyed during World War II but beautifully restored by a people proud of their heritage.
Now we travel to the contrasting southern border of Poland.  Here we find the Tatra Mountains, part of the Carpathian Mountain range.  The Tatras contain some of the highest mountain peaks of this range.  Winter sports abound in this beautiful area as tourists flock to resorts scattered around the Tatras.  This area has well earned the title “Winter Capital of Poland”
Since World War I, the small town of Zakopane at the foot of the mountains has been known as a refuge for well-known artists, a place to relax and enjoy the rustic beauty of the area.  It continues to be known today as a Bohemian town attracting many artist, writers and composers.  Zakopane also hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics and both the 2011 and 2013 Alpine World Ski Championships.
Even so it is the mountain peaks that attract most of the three million tourists that visit annually.  The area is enjoyed by both the Poles and many other Western Europeans for skiing and various other mountain sports.  The entire mountain area is part of the Tatra National Park which was created in 1954.  The park holds a wide variety of both indigenous and Alpine plants and animals which are protected by the park system.  The area is one of the Poland’s last refuges for the Golden Eagle.  You will also find bears, Marmot and chamois, to name a few.
Previous to the creation of the park, the area was inhabited by the Polish peoples called Gorale or mountain highlanders. Here they could have been seen grazing goats, sheep, and cows in the summer pastures of the Tatras.  The language of the Gorale is a mixture having Polish as the base language.  Their original culture is preserved in stories told by the highlanders who still live in the area. 
The central region of Poland is the largest.  On the west it extends to Germany and the Czech Republic and on the east to Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine.  It consists of flat plains interspersed with lakes and ice-aged rivers. The geography of this area allowed Poland to become a natural roadway between foes; usable for other counties during various European conflicts. 
City of Poznan circa 1890.  
Here is the agricultural belt of Poland. Fields with wheat, rye and potatoes along with other crops are planted on narrow strips of land.  It is an area of contrasts; large, mechanized private farms bordering small farms being worked in the way of the 19th century farmer.
The towns can be bustling cities like Warsaw, Krakow or Posen or small, quaint villages containing thatched wooden cottages.  Nobles’ castles are preserved and war torn cities have been rebuilt.  Most Polish cities have retained their medieval layouts containing a town square with markets, a town hall and burgher’s houses.  The architecture can range from Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance to baroque or neoclassical.  In the large cities one also sees the bland apartments built during the 45 years of communist control. 

28 March 2013

Dyngus Day Fun

The celebration of Dyngus Day is a  very ancient Polish custom is preformed on Easter Monday.  The first known writings on dyngus date back to the Middle Ages.  Some tie this celebration to the 966 AD baptizing of Prince Mieszko and his court on Easter Monday.  This custom is well documented in the Poznan region of PolandIt is a celebration of the end of Lent, a rejoicing about the end of the Lenten restrictions.
Men would pour water on the heads of an unsuspecting female friend or lover.  Dyngus began about 5 in the morning.  The house where the unsuspecting female lived would be secretly invaded, sometimes with the collusion of the males of that household, and the females of the house were doused liberally with water while some were still in bed! 

Even though there was much screaming and shouting by the girls, Dyngus was and still is considered a popularity contest.  The more times in a day that a girl had to change her dress, the more popular she was!  Reilly, the celebration is a strange type of courtship ritual!  It was well known that the girl who was not dumped with water would not be married in the next year.
When our ancestors came to the United States, switches from willows were used on the girls’ legs instead of or in addition to water, but the basic idea of the custom remains the same. 

My mom, Loretta Szostek Kolodzinski, told me of celebrating Dyngus Day when she was a child in Chicago.  There would be a knock on the door and her sister, Phyllis, and her would run yelling and squeaking into the bedroom.  They would crawl under the bed for protection but it would not last.  Their father, Stanley Szostek, would show the boys the bedroom, lift the dust ruffle and point to his daughters hiding under the bed.
Even though this custom seems one sided, the women and girls had their days.  From Easter Tuesday until Pentecost, this period of time was called the Green holidays, the women doused the men!

Dyngus Day is celebrated today in many locations in the USA, mostly where there are large Polish communities such as Buffalo, NY (the consider themselves the capital of Dyngus Day in America!), South Bend, IN, Chicago, IL, Elizabeth, NJ, Bristol, CT, and Pittsburgh, PA. 

26 March 2013

Polish Easter Eggs

Eggs have been decorated for centuries.  The early Christians of Mesopotamia were already coloring eggs by staining them.  It was in 1610 A.D. that the Christian Church officially adopted the custom.  What did they do prior to the availability of food coloring? 

In today's world Easter eggs are largely decorated by children with the help of a parent.  We purchased "fizzy" coloring which is a tablet that is placed in cold water.  We add the boiled egg and after a while take it out and the shell is colored.  Prior to this there were tablets which were place in extremely hot water with a teaspoon of vinegar.  Again we added the boiled egg, waited a bit and soon had a beautifully colored egg.  When I was a child we just used bottled food coloring, a messy alternative but we obtained the same results.

 Prior to the food coloring we know today, eggs were colored with natural dyes.  Red wine results in a violet blue egg, blueberries a blue one of course.  Would you like a green egg?  Try boiled spinach leaves.  Yellow?  Boiled orange ore lemon peels should do the trick.  Boiled yellow onion skins will  give you a shade of orange or peach.  Like pink eggs, try beets.  The list goes on and it is fun to try different and unique natural dyes.  Even strong coffee will dye eggs a brown!  Think of what will stain your clothes and you know of something that will dye eggs naturally.

I did title this the Easter Eggs of Poland.  In our ancestors time the coloring of eggs would use many of the same dyes we term natural today.  It is all they had but they used dyes, wax, paper and sometimes straw in different ways.

In Poland, the decorating of Easter eggs was mainly the task of the girls and women.  It was done in great secrecy on Holy Thursday or Good Friday.  Men and boys were not allowed to see how the eggs were decorated.  If a man happened to enter the room where the eggs were being decorated, he was chased away and the women would have to throw a pinch of salt over their shoulders to cleanse themselves!

The Easter eggs of Poland usually fall into five types:

   Kraszanki – hard boiled and made for eating, these are dyed one color only (these are our basic Easter eggs)

Malowanki – blown egg with a colored design painted on the top (this type is also made in Russia but I am sure they have a different name)

   Pisanki – blown egg made by applying various wax patterns (sometimes known as the Ukrainian Easter egg)

Okeljane or nalepianki – blown egg decorated with paper or straw

   Skrobanki – blown egg that is scratch carved