Easter celebrations in Catholic and orthodox countries are often extremely fascinating with respect to their cultural heritage. They remain less commercial than those at Christmas, and much more mysterious; Easter is connected to death and the resurrection, two taboo concepts even in the most secularised societies. Countries which share a strong Catholic character become the focus of various Easter manifestations and expressions of rural folklore, as well as many ancient beliefs. Spain and Italy become a theatre of pathetic representations and commemorations of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
Poland, however, doesn’t seem to show the same mysterious, moving and cruel attitude towards the holy week celebrations: rural Polish society has always identified Easter as a celebration of the eventual coming of spring. Lesser Poland, the land of John Paul the II is the one region of Poland which keeps the strongest identities in the country, thanks to its rural and mountain communities, which are conservative and truly religious.
Lipnica Murowana lies a short minibus ride away from the old Polish capital, Krakow. But while the bus travels through the snowy countryside on a cold but sunny March Sunday morning, the vibrant and international city seems much further away. With its three churches serving a population of around 900 inhabitants, Lipnica Murowana seems more like a rural and idyllic southern Polish village at the foot of the Carpathian mountains.
However, it is here where the Palm Contest takes place, one of the most interesting events of Polish folklore during Easter week, known throughout the region. This rural and simple event takes place in the small market square of the village, which is full of stalls and benches selling colourful handicraft trinkets, small objects carved in wood, black bread and fresh sausages, and the famous and colourful wooden painted Easter eggs. What you mostly find in Lipnica on this particular Sunday morning are palms.
While olive tree and palm branches are blessed by the priest in southern Europe, in a country where the only true palm is an odd coloured sculpture set in the middle of a Warsaw roundabout, believers in Poland have developed their own way of celebrating Palm Sunday. Polish palms are prepared with bundles of canes, decorated and covered with many kinds of painted greenery, such as pussy willow, or just dressed up with coloured crepe paper and paper flowers. The colourful and peculiar aspect of this symbol also constitutes the first symbol of the incumbent spring.
This year, however, Palm Sunday fell during a period of unusually cold and icy weather, and the small village of Lipnica welcomed us covered in snow. Nevertheless, despite the coldest Easter in living memory, the square is full of people from every background: old men in Sunday clothes with bushy moustaches, middle-aged women with thick make up and voluminous hairstyles, as well as young families and teenagers are standing in the square.
The column with the statue of St Simon, the only simple monument in the central square is encircled by tall palms, decorated simply with colourful ribbons banded together giving the impression that the square is even bigger. The taller palms, which can reach more than 30 metres in height, are prepared by families and groups of people as guilds and parishes.
Most of all, however, Palm Sunday is a holy day for the children of the village, who are taught how to prepare and decorate palms at kindergarten and primary school, and bring their cheerful homework to the church to get blessed. The rules of the tradition are the same in Lipnica as they are every other town or city centre in Poland. Its peculiarity is the competition, and of course, the great profusion and abundance of palms which can be seen here.
The importance of the event is remarked on by the man presenting the competition to the audience, who explains and celebrates the importance of the event for the small community. The audience which has already filled the square at 10 am on this chilly Sunday morning come from Lipnica itself, as well as from the surrounding villages, holding their own palms, waiting for the blessing of the priest.
A few other people have arrived from Krakow, in the small shabby minibus that connects this village with the city, mainly other foreigners attending the event, attracted by this famous, Polish folklorist event, but perhaps just a little disappointed by the small and rural features of the festival.
The ceremony is in fact quite simple: after a short procession, the priest, surrounded by children, gets on the stage. After a short sermon on the importance of Palm Sunday in the Christian tradition, the parish priest blesses the audience; at which point, hundreds of palms are suddenly lifted into the air. The children sing Hosanna from the stage and the square fills with the sounds of small strident voices singing. Immediately afterwards, the small procession of the priest and the altar boys recomposes itself and continues to the parish church, where the Mass is due to take place. Later, in the early afternoon, the presenter announces the winner of the Palm Contest: a palm measuring 32.34 metres high.
Competitions of this kind, a bright witness of the Polish attitude towards celebrating the coming spring, are also organised in other villages in Poland, and offer many ways of decorating and dressing this Easter symbol up. The one from Lipnica goes back up to the 1960s, during the hard communist times, the production of palms, however, goes back to the habits of southern Poland’s mountain men, where Catholic traditions mixed with the pagan cult of fertility and the celebrations for the coming spring.
Thus, considered by its inhabitants as the palm capital of the country, Lipnica Murowana represents an unusual and interesting place for anyone wanting to experience a genuine example of folklorist traditions of the region.
Giacomo Manca is an intern at New Eastern Europe. Currently, he is studying for a MA in International Relations at the University of Bologna.