For some reason, it seems like I end up traveling during Easter season often. I’ve been woken up by a late-night Catholic ceremony where the priest, followed by a devout crowd, carries a cross to the cliffs of Corniglia in Cinque Terre. Stumbled upon a multi-denomination parade around the square in Santa Fe. And delighted in the sugary Easter delicacies in Genoa. So it should be no surprise that I ended up in Poland this year just before Easter. Here are a few of the traditions I learned about on my trip there.
Upon our arrival in Krakow, a couple of my fellow travel writers and I hit the streets to explore. Minutes later, we found ourselves in one of those perfect European bakeries, the yellow light filtering through the windows and illuminating the vivid-colored confections. As we goggled at the baked treats, a lamb-shaped cake display caught my eye. Curious, I asked the woman behind the counter about it.
Called Baranek Wielkanocny, the lamb-shaped cake is the centerpiece in a basket full of food items that’s taken to the church on the Saturday before Easter. The priest blesses the basket of food, and then families consume it on Easter. The lamb is, of course a universal symbol for the resurrection of Christ, and is also depicted in smaller sugary versions of the Baranek for children.
Later, at Pope John Paul II’s boyhood home, we saw a Baranek mold, and the guide said that many people still bake them themselves, though some prefer to buy them at the bakery.
Having grown up Catholic, I was well aware of the tradition of the church handing out palm leaves the Sunday before Easter (called Palm Sunday). What surprised me was seeing so many people on the street with not palms but strands of dried and fresh plants and flowers. When I asked our tour leader, Jake, about it, he said they were for Palm Sunday. But why not palms?
“We don’t have palm trees in Poland,” he said with his usual dry wit. I didn’t bother to point out that there were no palm trees in Arkansas, but the church had just ordered the palms from somewhere else. (The irony here is that Krakow has a fake palm tree downtown. Not sure why. But as Jake told us, it was “the tallest palm tree in Warsaw.” Also the shortest.)
Children and adults participate in contests to create the prettiest arrangement. As we drove around Krakow, we saw dozens of people clutching their multicolored bundles. One woman at the train stop had an actual palm branch that towered above her. “She wins for tallest palm!” our tour guide said.
The wonderful part of traveling is ending up in a country that has deep traditions for holidays. Easter happens to be a bigger celebration in much of Europe than it is here, which makes it fun to discover.