Memories of Celebrating Easter

What are your memories of Easter when you were young? How are you capturing your family stories?

My first memories are an image of Sister Valentine marching us first-graders to a pew in the church on Ash Wednesday to receive the ashes on our foreheads from the priest. Over the next few years, the Dominican Sisters at St Patrick’s Grade School taught us the symbolism for Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in our religion classes. However, living with my Polish grandparents when I was in grade school, I realized that celebrating Easter had significant meaning for them, especially my grandmother. The importance of Easter for her seemed to go beyond attending the masses, Easter egg hunts, and the food on Easter Sunday.

After writing my grandmother’s story, I now see our focus during the Easter season should go beyond the merrymaking of Mardi Gras or celebrating Fat Tuesday with the Polish jelly-filled donuts, Paczki. Of course, reflecting on the tenets of our faith during Lent and celebrating the Easter week liturgy is essential, but it is also a time to be with family. Therefore, it is crucial to record and save our family memories before losing them. Easter was an important celebration for our Polish ancestors, and I find it exciting when I connect to them through writing the family history.

I try to bring back memories by reflecting on how our family followed Lenten traditions. For example, how did our meals change – more fish, less meat. What did I give up for Lent? Of course, my fellow grade-schoolers and I always promised to give up candy, but later I began attending daily mass, the Stations of the Cross and doing specific good deeds as I matured.

My memories of Easter identify Lent as a private time. The general emphasis of Easter relating to my family memories starts with the end of Lent and the arrival of Palm Sunday. I helped Grandma collect palms on Sunday and later saw she had woven them into crosses and hung them around the house. This Polish tradition encouraged good health and the protection of the house. What traditions did your immigrant ancestors follow after Palm Sunday?

The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is a flurry of activities and memories. I attended Mass on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and watched the rituals associated with these ceremonies, culminating with the extended reading of the gospel on EasterSunday. Sometimes I was in a pew with my family, and other times in the choir loft singing with my classmates. Often, I was one of the altar boys attending to the priests.

Did you have an Easter egg hunt for the children? Were the eggs decorated a solid color or have traditional Polish designs? For Poles, the egg symbolized fertility and played a critical role in many Polish celebrations. In the 1800s, the Poles gave elaborately decorated and ornamental Pisanki eggs as gifts. Unfortunately, the small Polish community where I grew up did not continue this practice. I learned of this tradition only after beginning my family history research.

The crucial time for our family history was gathering at the family feast on Easter Sunday. Do you remember what was on the menu? Of course, you do. Are you saving grandma’s recipes? For our feast, traditional Polish foods were not available. So my grandmother cooked a Polish ham instead. Today my favorites are Kielbasa (Polish sausage) and pierogis (meat or cheese-filled dumplings), but when I was young, our Polish community was small, and it was rare to see these foods on our table.

Who attended the feast? How large was your family? Who were the storytellers? This gathering is the best time to make new memories and the best source to collect the family stories that need to be saved. Unfortunately, I did not take the time to preserve these stories until after my parents and grandparents had died.

Today, I write down notes of family stories as soon as possible. Sometimes, I jot them down in quiet corners on Easter or when I get home. I find that taking notes at the table or using a recording device destroys the moment’s atmosphere. I write the narrative within a few days and then send a copy to the storyteller for corrections. Everyone knows I am writing the family history and seem to expect they will appear on its pages. Stories about the Easter celebrations of my Polish ancestors give me a different perspective of them, and my visions of them seem to come alive. Capture the stories and let your children and grandchildren see their ancestors.

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