Celebrating Easter with Our Ancestors

I remember the Dominican Sisters at St Patrick’s Grade School teaching us the religious importance of celebrating Easter. My specific image is Sister Valentine marching us first-graders to a pew in the church on Ash Wednesday to receive the ashes on our foreheads. Over the next few years, religion classes taught us the symbolism of Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. However, I also realize Easter is a significant family celebration as a Polish descendant, with memories of attending these masses with my family, especially my Polish grandmother. Now I am writing down these memories to pass them along to my children, grandchildren, and their descendants.

Our focus during Easter should go beyond the merrymaking of Mardi Gras or Carnival. Or celebrating Fat Tuesday with abundant Paczki. Instead, reflect on the essential tenets of our faith during Lent and as we celebrate the masses. But also, it is crucial for us to consider our family memories before we lose them. Easter was an important celebration for our Polish ancestors, and I find it exciting when I feel I have found a way to connect with them.

I try to bring back memories by reflecting on how our family followed Lenten traditions. For example, did grandma change the menu for her family meals? What did you and your siblings give up for Lent? Of course, candy was always on my list and my fellow grade-schoolers, but I also added daily mass, the Stations of the Cross, and specific good deeds as I matured in high school.

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. What traditions did your Polish immigrant ancestors follow after Palm Sunday? Did they use the palms they received from their local parish in America or sought out the willows they used in Poland? Did your grandparents hang the palms or willows in their homes and barns (if they lived on a farm)? This tradition was to encourage good health and the protection of the house.

The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is a flurry of memories of attending mass on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and watching the rituals associated with these days and evenings. Sometimes I am in a pew with my family, in the choir loft, or as one of the altar boys attending the priests. This week culminates with listening to the extended reading of the gospel on Easter.

The crucial time for our family history gathering is the family feast on Easter Sunday. Do you remember what was on the menu? Of course, you do. Were traditional Polish foods available? Are we saving grandma’s recipes? Today my favorites are Polish sausage and pierogis, but these were unavailable in central Illinois when I was young. My grandmother usually found a Polish ham instead. What is the schedule for the day? Who attended the feast? 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.

Did you have an Easter egg hunt for the children? Did the eggs have traditional Polish designs or only solid colors? 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.

How are you capturing your family stories? Taking notes or putting a recording device on the table destroys the moment’s atmosphere. Also, recording a family member without permission is a no-no. One method I use is to write down notes as soon as I get home. 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.

Always celebrate our Polish heritage on traditional holidays. Capture the stories and let our children and grandchildren learn about their ancestors.


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