Jastrë means 'Easter'

Easter eggs, a lamb, a mass, a festive breakfast - these are today's Polish associations with Easter. But what was Easter like in the past? How did the holiday used to be prepared in Kashubia and Gdańsk? We asked academicians and enthusiasts of the region. They told us about customs known centuries ago and cultivated even before the Second World War, as well as those that are still encountered today. In most cases, they did not differ much from customs in the rest of Poland. Nonetheless, the specific cultural identity and turbulent history of Kashubia and Gdańsk have contributed to the uniqueness and colour of the local rituals.

Prof. Andrzej Januszajtis, an eminent expert on the history and architecture of Gdańsk and an honorary citizen of the city, recalls that in 1636, the Easter celebrations in Gdańsk were observed by Charles Ogier, secretary to the French emissary Claude de Mesmes d'Avaux. On Holy Wednesday, which was then March 19, he took part in the so-called dark matins, i.e. a service without candles, and on Good Friday in the Stations of the Cross. Professor Januszajtis cites excerpts from his chronicles from that period. For example, on Good Friday, ‘At about seven o'clock, a procession of penitents dressed in red coats and singing Polish songs formed up, going round the church, stopping, falling to the ground in front of Corpus Christi and flogging themselves there. [...] And when, after a hundred or more blows, they stopped at the signal of their leader, who gave the rhythm to them with a stick, and they lay on the ground, I thought the matter was over. But when the leader started to beat the rhythm again soon afterwards, they resumed the show even more violently. Apparently, in Poland many of the considerable nobility used to torment and scourge themselves in this way during these days [Lent - editor's note], either publicly or privately [...]'. On Holy Saturday, in turn: ‘They take the body of Christ from the tomb and sing a psalm [...]. This is followed by a procession that goes around the monastery three times [...] drums and trumpets blare and bang, along with the organ, and the whole church glows with endless lights’. The resurrection lasted until two in the morning. Charles Ogier wrote that he could not remember ever having spent that time so devoutly before.

Lent, which preceded these celebrations, lasted 40 days. This is still the case today. The number is not coincidental, for Catholics believe that the Flood lasted 40 days, that is also how many days Moses spent on Mount Sinai and, finally, that is how many days Jesus fasted in the desert before he began his public ministry.

‘In the rituals and symbolism of Easter, in addition to Christian practices and symbols, some relics of older holidays have survived, also connected with the greeting of spring and the cult of plants, practised by agricultural people,’ says dr hab. Anna Kwaśniewska, prof. UG from the Department of Polish Ethnology and Historical Anthropology at the University of Gdańsk. ‘Hence, eggs, a symbol of life and rebirth, play an important role in Easter rituals. Eggs played an important role in folk beliefs and practices - not only of the rural population. It was believed that they could prevent misfortune, so in various regions of Poland they were buried under the foundations of newly built houses and thrown into fires. Eggs were also used in folk medicine - rolling them over a sick person's body was supposed to cure him or her of illness. Egg shells, especially Easter eggs, buried under fruit trees, ensured a fruitful harvest. In Greater Poland and Silesia, egg shells were hung on branches to symbolise spring and stimulate vegetation. Green branches were believed to have magical powers,’ she explains.

‘Kashubian Easter customs are firmly rooted in the rhythm of the four seasons of the year, pre-Christian and Christian traditions,’ confirms prof. dr hab. Miłosława Borzyszkowska-Szewczyk, a literary scholar with an anthropological bent who heads the Laboratory for Research on Borderland Memory Narratives at the UG Institute of Germanic Philology, who agreed to talk to us about old customs practised in her Kashubian family. ‘In Kashubia, Easter is Jastrë, and traditions of a ritual and magical nature associated with this holiday are supposed to ensure health and fertility, and above all - protection from all misfortunes,’ she says.

Ash Wednesday has always been preceded by a time of music, dancing, fun and plenty of food to help people survive the fast. For the inhabitants of the former Gdańsk, Kashubia and other regions of Poland, it was ‘zapusty’ (an old Polish name for the carnival period). ‘In the past, Lent was taken very seriously,’ says Aleksandra Kucharska, an expert on historical cuisine and author of the book Flavours of Gdańsk. ‘In Gdańsk, before the 18th century, when the rules of Lent were somewhat relaxed, not only meat but also all animal products - eggs, butter, milk or cheese - could not be eaten. This posed a huge challenge for cooks. During Lent, the people of Gdańsk consumed huge quantities of fish, as they were not a forbidden product. Eating them during this period was accepted by the Church. Herring was particularly popular in Gdańsk and was bought in huge quantities, sometimes in partnership with a neighbour. Interestingly, fish was prepared in a traditional way - in this case, it was supposed to look and taste like them - and in an unusual way - in this case, it resembled meat in texture and taste. A turning point in the 18th century was when butter was allowed to be used due to the problem with the availability of vegetable oils. This was a revolution that soon had further consequences in terms of the relaxation of fasting rules. It is worth mentioning here that Protestants, for example, had abandoned these rigid rules much earlier and had long allowed themselves dairy products or eggs.

Read more (only in Polish) in ‘Gazeta Uniwersytecka’.

Sylwia Dudkowska-Kafar/ Gazeta Uniwersytecka; graphics by Dominika Konkol/Promotion Team UG