Poland has 12 holy days of obligation in addition to Sunday, including the second day of Christmas and Easter Monday. Both are considered national holidays in which schools and most businesses are closed.
Christmas is a great experience here…..the sumptuous traditional Christmas Eve meatless dinner with varieties of fish, the decorated streets, the creche with live animals next to the Cathedral. St. Nicolas rather than Santa Clause is the tradition. Exchanging a piece of a wafer and a wish for the other person is traditional. Christmas Day is an added bonus with a variety of meats and pastry. Both December 25 & 26 are legal holidays. All the Christmas decorations in the churches and on the streets stay up until the Feast of the Presentation on February 2. Throughout January, parish priests visited all the families that requested it and blessed their homes. Since Poland is on the most Eastern part of the time zone that begins in France, it would start getting dark here at around 3:30 pm. Cars are supposed to keep their headlights on at all hours during the winter.
Lent. Daily Mass attendance greatly increases. The Stations of the Cross are packed every Friday during Lent and on the fifth Sunday they sing the entire Book of Lamentations from the Bible at the Cathedral. Palm Sunday is festive as people carried palms and feathers of different colors. On Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week there is a candlelight procession with stops or stations along the route through the center of the city while the men carry a heavy cross.
Throughout Holy Week and before, there are long confession lines. Every church has adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday as the altars were beautifully decorated. On Good Friday evening, many people visit the churches to pray at the symbolic tomb of Christ. As on All Soul’s Day, the people visit the graves of their loved ones on Holy Saturday. Throughout the year the people are very faithful to their deceased loved ones and leave enclosed candles there. At night, the cemeteries have the beautiful glow of candles.
Easter is exciting here. The Holy Saturday evening Easter Vigil Mass at Kielce's Basilica Cathedral is presided by the Bishop with a beautiful choir. A few hours later there is a 6 am sunrise Mass preceded by a procession with the Blessed Sacrament. We marched around the building three times amidst church bells, fire crackers, and a marching brass band that played beautifully. It was inspiring! In the U.S. the church would have been cited for disturbing the peace.
On April 2 we attended a memorial concert in the cathedral basilica with a beautiful choir on the anniversary of Pope John Paul’s death. One of his old speeches were transmitted over the loud speakers. That was followed by rosary attended by about a thousand people in front of the statue of the pontiff overlooking the plaza next to the cathedral. For several days the people put vigil light candles enclosed in colored glass containers in front of the statue. With over a thousand candles, it put off almost as much heat as a small bonfire on the chilly night.
May, the Month of Mary. May 1 was once a big Communist holiday, celebrating the "workers' paradise" under the "new order", now on the trash heap of history. Now it's simply Labor Day as in most of the world and many here went to church on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, heralding Mary's month, the beautiful month of May. After Communism took over in 1947, the Cardinal Archbishop of Warsaw (August Hlond, I believe) said from his death bed: "Some day there will be victory, and that victory will belong to Mary". Poland has always had a special devotion toMary. I felt like a member of Mary's army when our 125 mile walking pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa marched through Kielce back in 1999.
In 1683 the Turks were at the gates of Vienna, threatening to take the city and march on to the English Channel. Jan Sobieski, the Polish King, responded to the desperate pleas of Austria and the other Western European powers, On the way his army of excellent cavalry units stopped at the national shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Then under the banner of Mary he led a coalition of troops from several countries to decisively break the Turkish siege of Vienna and drive them back. As a result, militant Islam was held in check until its revival in the 21st Century as the War on Terror. ....really the continuation of the same war.
The Polish Pope John Paul II was instrumental in the defeat of Communism in Europe in 1989. He had a special devotion to Mary, whom he credits for saving his life. The bullet that miraculously changed direction and missed the vital organs in his chest rests in the crown of Our Lady of Fatima. It was there in 1917 that Mary foretold the errors of Russia months before the October Revolution and also prophesied Russia's eventual conversion. No one expected the collapse of European Communism at the time. It was so sudden, reminiscent of Jericho when God told Joshua to march around the city seven times and blow the trumpets.......the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. After 9/11 militant Islam is again a threat to the world. Interesting is that Fatimah is the name of Mohammed favorite daughter and Muslims admire Mary.....perhaps some common ground for peaceful coexistence as brothers besides monotheism and the same roots in Abraham.
The Polish people recognize Mary as the Queen of Poland and have a beautiful hymn to that effect which they frequently sing: "Marijo Królowo Polski jestem przy tobie paniętam....." The Cathedral of Kielce has the title of basilica because of a shrine it contains by the title of "Merciful Mother of God of Kielce". Each night after the 6 o'clock evening Mass, they cover her image with a beautifully engraved silver plate amidst a song and a trumpet salute. They do the same at the national Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. That inspired me to think of our Knights of Columbus and pray in front of the image of the Queen Mother holding her little King of the universe: "Mother, you are my queen; I am your knight. Use me according to your Son's will." Interesting is that in the Old Testament, the queen mother had a place of special honor and influence in the royal court of her son and so most Catholics believe in her intercessory role in the heavenly court.
May is First Holy Communion month in Poland. They have the custom of parents and godparents going to confession a couple of days before and receiving Holy Communion with the child. In addition the kids, parents, and godparents go to Communion for the next seven days at daily mass in full First Holy Communion garb. The children then honor their mothers on Mother's Day which is celebrated on May 26.
On May 18, Poland celebrates Pope John Paul's birthday. Our kids had to go in suits to their Catholic school. Several schools had a program in the plaza with his statue next to the cathedral basilica. I have heard more than once: "Everybody loves and admires him, but they don't follow him". If only we would follow his teaching, the world would be a lot different.
June is the month of the Sacred Heart all over the world. Here they have devotions every day with benediction. In May and October they have rosary and special devotions to Mary. Corpus Christi, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday is both a holy day of obligation and a national holiday. The Bishop presided at an open air mass in front of the Cathedral Basilica. Then we and at least a thousand others marched in a procession with the Blessed Sacrament over twelve blocks under a pleasant sun with two stops for Benediction. At one of those stops, they gave away loaves of bread which the people were supposed to break and share with others. Could you imagine people kneeling on cobblestone streets? The procession took about three hours along boulevards and streets. There were probably another couple of thousand watching us along the way. A marching band played solemn music at both the Mass and procession. There are Marian processions in the churches as well.
What a beautiful profession of faith in a demonstration of unity and solidarity! Processions are opportunities for giving praise and glory in song along with meditation and prayer. The public processions are well planned and the police have the route blocked from any traffic, which was sparse on a holiday morning. Smaller processions continue daily for the next seven days around the smaller neighborhood churches. If a Eucharistic procession would be done on the streets of an American city, non-Catholics would be curious and ask questions. An announcement with a brief explanation could be put in the newspaper. Thus a procession can be a tool for evangelizing. A member of our stateside parish in the middle of the Baptist Bible Belt, a police officer, says that the town would cooperate if our parish would march in a Eucharistic procession on the streets.
In the summer, the pilziemka (authentic pilgrimages) is the big devotion is the 125 mile walking pilgrimage along country roads and highways over seven days to the beautiful National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Stephanie and I did it in 1999, but I don't know if I can do it now. Americans go on pilgrimages on an airplane or an air conditioned bus. Here it's like in the Middle Ages.....on foot.
It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.....the camaraderie, the singing, the praying, etc. Our group had about 800 people. Other groups come from all over Poland. It's beautifully organized. A truck with all of our gear and a first aid van trailed us. The police knew we were coming and simply directed traffic around us or the cars had to wait as we crossed. Several leaders coordinated everything and directed traffic around us outside of the cities and towns.
People would greet us at each town and give us refreshments, lodgings, or a meal in their homes or back yards. There was an outdoor Mass each day and a big concelebrated one at the shrine itself with several of the other groups, numbering several thousand pilgrims. Then the group dispersed and people were free to enjoy the shrine and then return to their homes by car, bus, or train. Some Polish American groups make a similar walking pilgrimage to its counterpart in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
November is the month of the Poor Souls. All Souls Day on the 2nd is big. I never saw it, but my family did. People place flowers and lit candles on the graves of their loved ones all year round, but flock to do the same on All Souls Day and pay homage to their beloved deceased. By nightfall, the entire cemetery is lit up by candle light and can be seen for miles. When a loved one dies, the family offers Masses for seven consecutive days. We Americans tend to almost cruelly canonize our departed loved ones in the funeral parlor and just assume they are in heaven and forget about them. Since we don't know whether they are in heaven yet, it is imperative to continue praying for them. If already in heaven, the merits go for another.