last update 13 February 2004
Three cheers for Notre Dame! I found myself teaching a summer session at the University of the Fighting Irish.
During a class break, a cherished moment in a muggy mid-Western summer, one of the students said, "You're Polish, aren't you?"
"Why, yes," I responded.
"Do you know they are sponsoring some kind of Polish Easter celebration at the faculty clubmusic, food and all?" the student continued. They call it ... something beginning with a D' ... Din ... Ding..."
"Dyngus Day!" I responded, "but in July?"
After the initial surprise, a group of us made reservations with much curiosity and some suspicion. Dyngus Day at Notre Dame? In July? What a combination!
That day, the Fighting Irish became Poles at heart. The food was somewhat traditional, although I had to request horseradish. A local band came in from South Bend and played until around midnight.
At that Midwest Dyngus, I was told that South Bend celebrates the day after Easter annually. South Bend dubbed itself the Dyngus Day Capital of the World. Hailing from Buffalo, I told them not to be so sure of that status. Buffalo surely gives South Bend some stiff competition for the honor.
DYNGUS. WHAT DOES THE WORD MEAN? Each year, various definitions, interpretations and guesses appear: anything from switching with branches to the infamous "Sadie Hawkins Day."
I did some research on the etymology of the word. According to the Encyclopedia Staropolska, by A. Gloger (circa the 19th century), the word can be traced back to a medieval form of the word "Dingnus," which means "worthy, proper, or suitable." Gloger cites a use of the word, namely "ransom during a war to protect against pillage," as well as a German usage of "Dingen," which means "to come to an agreement, evaluate or buy back."
The Deutsches Worterbuch traces the meaning of the word as it appears in German from the 16th century to the present as ranging from "hope" to "bringing a case before court" to "coming to the service of another" to "applying for a job" or "bicker over a price."
ANCIENT PAGAN ORIGINS. Many of our Polish customs date back to pre-Christian practices of our Slavic ancestors. The custom of pouring water is an ancient spring rite of cleansing, purification, and fertility. The same is true of the complimentary practice of switching with pussy willow branches, from which Dyngus Day derives its cognomen "Smigus" -from "smiganie" -switching.
The pagan Poles bickered with nature -"dingen" by means of pouring water and switching with willows to make themselves "pure" and "worthy" for the coming year. Similar practices are still present in other non-Christian cultures during springtime.
MIESZKO'S BAPTISM. Since 966 A.D., and the baptism of Prince Mieszko I, the Church literally "baptized" and accepted these customs, raising them to a level of grace as well as giving them a new and more profound meaning than in the pagan Slavic culture. Other examples of such baptism in Polish tradition include the blessing of Easter baskets, "Wigilia" at Christmas, St. John's Eve -"Sobotka," and Pentecost - Zielone Swiatki, and a host of others.
During the years of the first Millennium of Christianity, baptisms were celebrated exclusively during the Easter season, particularly Holy Saturday and the Octave of Easter. Tradition states that Prince Mieszko I along with his court were baptized on Easter Monday. Thus, Dyngus Day and its rites of sprinkling with water have become a folk celebration in thanksgiving for the fact that the first king of Poland was baptized into Christianity, bringing Catholicism to Poland.
American Polonia has a great cause for celebration in both music and ritual on Dyngus Day, for this day marks the beginning of Roman Catholicism in Poland, the reason that we are today of Catholic faith!
Drawing on the significance of the words mentioned above, it may be said that on this day, Dyngus Day, our ancient ancestors "bickered" - "dingen" with God to make us worthy "dingus" through the waters of baptism, and were thus "bought back or redeemed" by Christ.
WEALTH OF SYMBOLS. From the wealth of symbolism of this day, our ancestors drew some other related and not-so-related meanings. One of the moving stories was the Legend of the Polish Princess Wanda, who was said to have drowned herself in the Wisla River rather than marry a German nobleman she did not love. Today, one of the three mounds in the city of Krakow is dedicated in her honor. For this reason, girls are doused with water to immortalize the memory of Princess Wanda.
Another extrapolation of the Dyngus custom is related to the Resurrection. It is said that the unbelievers in Jerusalem dispersed the followers of Christ -who were spreading the news of the Resurrection on the streets of Jerusalem -by splashing them with water.
Following the somber and reflective season of Lent, the second day of Easter, Dyngus is an appropriate time to celebrate the wealth of our heritage in ritual, song and dance. The emergence of Dyngus Day celebrations, even during the blistering heat of a mid-Western Irish summer and throughout the United States, is an attempt by our Polonia to celebrate and rediscover its history. Dyngus Day, along with other festivals, allows us to unearth the bountiful treasurers of our culture and pass on a sense of "who we are" in this pluralistic nation of many, many such stories of origins.
Copyright 2000 Polish American Journal