Polish WNY / Dyngus Day
An important tradition steeped in the history of the one of our region’s largest and most active immigrant groups
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The mere discussion of Dyngus Day notoriously sent CNN’s Anderson Cooper into “a silly giggle fit” on a live television broadcast not too long ago. For the uninformed, it may seem like the Polish “Saint Patrick’s Day”—an immigrant ritual brought over from the old country that, in its current manifestation, is more a festival of ethnic pride punctuated with traditional folk dancing, and peasant food centering on meat, cabbage, and baked goods. Add beer and T-shirts displaying ethnically inspired (and sometimes naughty) inscriptions, and you’ve got yourself a party.
The casual observer would essentially be correct connecting those modern similarities but would also miss an opportunity to more fully understand an important tradition steeped in the history of the one of our region’s largest and most active immigrant groups.
Dyngus Day occurs the Monday following Easter Sunday. In the Polish tradition, it’s not religiously significant, especially in the shadow of Christ’s resurrection celebrated on the previous day. Culturally, however, it’s very important and stems from ancient pagan feasts that celebrated fertility, the coming of spring, and the growing season. These feasts merged and ran concurrently with the Christian celebration of Easter.
Photo by kc kratt
Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of several books including Polish Customs, Traditions, & Folklore, traces Dyngus Day origins in Polish medieval writings, which reveal a German word with double meaning. According to Knab: “Dünngus really referred to a thin stream of water. Then there was another German word—dingus—and that referred to money that was paid to ransom back soldiers. Different words, different meanings, but somehow they got mixed together, so there is this double meaning of ’stream of water’ and of ’buying your way out.’”
During the spring, as the season awakens the earth, so too primal urges awaken within young Polish men and women. The courting rituals this time of year dictated flirtatious play involving an assault with water. “The woman could buy her way out of getting doused with water by giving a gift,” explains Knab.
The weapon of choice was not always water. Depending on where one lived in Poland, the interchange, instead, could involve being tapped with small green tree branches, called śmigus, that were only just growing in the early spring. “The first branch that greened in Poland was the willow, the pussy willow. So, they used those. Those were the first evidence of new life,” says Knab.
Accompanying the act was the joyous proclamation of the phrase “migus Dyngus!” which explains both aspects of the ritual: the attempted hitting with water or a pussy willow switch and the quid pro quo of avoiding the assault with the ransom of a small gift.
Young lovers were not the only ones playfully menaced with soaking or welts from tree branches. The practice extended outside of the courtship ritual, too.“In old Poland, people of all ages, especially the men, would go around to the houses knocking on the door; they would sing, they would ’threaten’ people with water,” Knab explains. “But the people in the house could buy their way out by giving them something to eat, usually.” In some situations, there was no ransom to be paid and no quarter given. It was not unusual for water to be squirted, splashed, doused, or deluged onto an unsuspecting victim by a friend or family member as part of playful prank.
These traditions came with the Poles as they emigrated to America. Knab fondly remembers Dyngus Day water fights breaking out between her mother and siblings when she was young. However, she doesn’t recall Dyngus Day celebrations in her community as she was growing up. She thinks that was a result of new immigrant families giving up traditions in an effort to homogenize and become more American.
The reaction to that is an attempt by many to reconnect and recapture some customs and traditions that were lost. Some examples of this are people taking Polish language lessons and bringing back the traditional Polish celebrations of holidays, such as Dyngus Day.
“I find it astonishing, the revival of interest of things Polish, and it’s very, very rewarding,” Knab says, as she discusses these phenomena. “Young people in particular need to feel connected. Studies show all the time that people who commit many of these mass crimes are loners, people unconnected, people feeling that there’s no place for them in society. So, having people connect through old traditions, I think, is very healthy.”
Gabe DiMaio was neither doused with water nor hit with a pussy willow branch, but still married into a Polish-American family. He has a blog and podcast at guysandfood.com.