Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Everybody's Polish: Dyngus Day at the West Side Democratic Club

In old Poland, the day after Easter was a sort of secular continuation of the Easter festivities, with more feasting and drinking. At a time when the Lenten fast was a lot more strict than it is now, two consecutive days of feasting wasn't excessive. And what must have been a pre-Christian spring ritual was incorporated into the celebration. On Dyngus Day, young men would get up early and awaken young women by dousing them with water and spanking them on the legs with willow switches.

When Poles came to the United States, they brought the tradition with them, but as Polish-Americans became more American than Polish, Dyngus Day might have gone the way of many ethnic customs. There isn't much water-throwing and leg-switching anymore in the States, but the feasting and drinking have continued in Polish-American communities, such as Buffalo, New York, and South Bend, Indiana.

Since 1930 the West Side Democratic Club of South Bend has held a Dyngus Day celebration. If you want to be elected as a Democrat in Indiana, you've got to be there, or at least have a representative to speak for you. This year there weren't any big names at the club, as there were last year, when former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea came to campaign for Hillary. But it was a lot of fun.

Kathleen and I got there at eleven o'clock Monday morning. We paid $8.00 each for admissopn plus a platr of food--kielbasa, Polish cabbage (like sauerkraut but sweeter and less acid), and Kluski--thick noodles in a chicken broth sauce. The food was excellent--the kielbasa was neither overseasoned nor bland, and wasn't overcooked, and the side dishes went well with it. Kathleen bought a Leinenkugel, while I stuck with Diet Dr. Pepper. (I've never cared for beer--I don't know what's wrong with me.)

We talked briefly with Dick Moore, the mayor of Elkhart, who later gave a brief speech. We sang Happy Birthday to him before he had to get back to work. He was planning to be at the evening Dyngus Day celebration at the Elkhart Knights of Columbus.

At noon the official program began with a blessing from a local priest, who transformed the pagan custom into a Christian rite by sprinkling the audience with holy water with an old-fashioned switch broom. We said the Pledge of Allegiance, and then we heard from the speakers. Jonathan Weinzapfel, the mayor of Evansville, had come all the way from the southwestern tip of the state to address the crowd. The rumor is that he's considering a run for governor in 2012, and wants to get his name in circulation.

The highlight of the day was the visit of the South Bend Washington High School girls' basketball team, which has gone to the state tournament for four consecutive years. Congressman Joe Donnelly presented them with an award, and read the remarks he had put in the Congressional Record about them. It's heartening that this all-black team was so warmly received by this mostly-white audience. Skylar Diggins, one of the nation's top players, got a special round of applause, as she'll be at Notre Dame next year.

Everybody's Polish.

Dyngus Day is here.

It's nine o'clock in the morning.

Let's have another beer.

begins the local anthem to Dyngus Day. I couldn't find any videos of this year's celebration, so here's a clip of last year's, starring Bill and Chelsea Clinton, courtesy of the South Bend Tribune:


Charles Gramlich said...

I can honestly say I want to be a dyngus.

Elizabeth said...

Good Lord, is what I say. As an exclamation.

steve on the slow train said...

Charles--As they say in South Bend--"May you have a wet Dyngus." It's a translation of the traditional Polish greeting, though the Poles didn't have the double-entendre.

Elizabeth--If you lived in the South Bend area, you'd get used to it.