It’s Dyngus Day, the Polish and Polish-American holiday celebrated on Easter Monday each year to signal the end of Lent. Growing up, we never missed the party: I remember driving into Buffalo the day after Easter and wading through the sea of red and white to watch the parades, stopping by The Broadway Market for pierogies and placek for lunch and dancing the polka (poorly) at Central Terminal in the afternoon. Buffalo’s celebrations in social clubs, taverns and church halls draw hundreds of people each Spring, and it’s one of my favorite days of the year. But Dyngus Day isn’t just about the parades and the polkas and the pierogies; this is when it starts to get weird.
Both the meaning of the word Dyngus and the holiday’s origins are largely shrouded in mystery, but if you ask anyone from Buffalo, they’ll tell you that Dyngus likely means “a switch” or “a reed used in whipping.” Why? Dyngus Day is traditionally a springtime fertility and harvest rite in Poland and other Eastern European countries; on Easter Monday, boys chase the girls around town with pussywillow branches and buckets of water, attempting to strike their legs with the branches and douse them with water (years and years ago, they’d throw the girls in the nearest river, too). And on Easter Tuesday, it’s the girls’ turn to chase the boys, striking their legs and dousing them with water in retaliation.
I’m completely serious. It’s a thing. Just wait.
My grandmother grew up in the Fourth Ward of Dunkirk, New York, and she would tell us stories when we were kids about her Uncle Chet, known on Easter Monday as “Mr. Dyngus Day” in their small town. Chester Tarnowski, my grandmother’s uncle, was born in Dunkirk in 1931 to John Tarnowski and Agnes Witkowski; on Dyngus Day each year, Chet would accompany his father, making the rounds of family members, friends and business acquaintances with a bucket of water and a few branches in hand. But Chet’s father was unique in town: to make his neighbors laugh and lift their spirits, he dressed in a big, old-fashioned hat; patched, old clothes; and an old scarf, “like he was just off the boat from Poland.” At each stop, friends and family would give Chet and his father a basket of oranges, apples and cakes for their travels.
After his father retired from “dyngusing,” Chet decided to take up the role. He would dress in an old, oversized suit; ancient, worn-out shoes; a top hat; and a Harpo Marx wig and drive around town with a few friends; then, he’d spend the day hopping out of his car at local businesses or family and friends’ houses and moving with lightning speed through the buildings, switching or drenching everyone he passed before running back to the car and driving to his next stop. In his own words: “For Dyngus Day, I take a personal day from my job. It’s been a tradition, back when I was a kid, when my dad and I used to go out for Dyngus Day, and he always taught me, you dress up as a clown or whatever it is, and you go out there and make people happy. That’s the most important thing. If you can’t make people happy, you might as well stay home.”
It’s been ten years since Chet’s passing, but I still remember the articles of remembrance in the paper, each one lamenting the loss of “a community icon and friend.” My grandmother’s heard that the “Mr. Dyngus Day” family tradition is alive and well, though, and that one of Chet’s sons dresses up in Harpo Marx fashion and runs around Dunkirk each Eastern Monday without fail. But this year, Dyngus Day is on pause; while I can’t travel to Buffalo right now–or stop by The Broadway Market and dance the polka in Polonia to celebrate the end of Lent–I can take a page out of Chet’s book. I don’t mean dressing up in old clothes and a wig or chasing boys with branches and buckets of water–I always avoided that part of the holiday growing up as much as possible–but I can be present and make sure we keep laughing and smiling and staying happy. And isn’t that what’s important?
Weirdest holiday ever (just watch this video of Anderson Cooper laughing about how ridiculous this holiday sounds–I know). Happy Dyngus Day, everyone.