I grew up in Buffalo. I spent nearly 20 years in the city. I lived on Delavan and Grider in the '60s and worked for years at the East Delavan Branch Library. How could I possibly have been so utterly ignorant of Dyngus Day?
Russ Pawlak, may he rest in peace, served as my own personal Dyngus Day docent when I turned up back in Buffalo more than thirty years later. Pussywillows and squirtguns. Bratwurst, pierogi and excellent Polish brews. The whole crazy polka-parade-party scene amazed me. What a blast.
But where did it come from? And how did I manage to miss it the first time around? So I did some digging.
The whole shebang is actually thought to date back to 966 A.D. when Prince Mieszko I was baptized on Easter Monday, bringing Catholicism to Poland. Śmigus-dyngus (shmee-goose-ding-goose) means "Wet Monday" in Polish. The baptism water somehow morphed into squirtguns. And easily obtainable pussy willows took the place of the traditional Easter palm leaves, which were not available in Poland. These became the weapon of choice for Polish boys hitting on Polish girls. Wack, wack. The beautiful painted eggs that I find so hard to resist at the Broadway market actually started as "ransom" offered by young girls to save themselves from a soaking. The whole thing is really just a deep sigh of relief after a long four weeks of Lent, just as Mardi Gras is a last hurrah before Lent begins, bookending a time of fasting and sacrifice.
Dyngus Day has been celebrated in traditional Polish neighborhoods in the U.S. since the 1870s, but Dyngus Day in Buffalo apparently didn't get underway until 1961, when the first Dyngus Day party rocked the Chopin Singing Society's clubrooms on Kosciuszko Street. One party led to another (hey, this is Buffalo) at places like the Broadway Grill, the Warsaw Inn, and the Polish Singing Circle at the Central Terminal. Now "everybody is Polish on Dyngus Day" and Buffalo has been declared the Dyngus Day capital of the nation! Lesser celebrations are found in South Bend, IN, Elizabeth, NJ, and Bristol, CT, and Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are in catch up mode. Ironically, Dyngus Day is a lot lower key back in Poland than it is here in Buffalo.
The most confusing part of the whole ritual for me has been who shoots the water and who waves the pussywillows. I honestly thought that I was supposed to wave pussywillows to fend off super-soaker-armed males. Turns out, traditionally boys wielded both on Easter Monday and girls returned the favor on Easter Tuesday. Easter Tuesday? We've come a long way, baby. Gender equality prevails on Dyngus Day - squirtguns and pussywillows are equal opportunity resources. Grab either one or both!
The Dyngus Day Parade in Buffalo started out as a "rag tag group of passionate Poles with a few flags, a couple of pickup trucks and a band on a trailer." Today it's a "big splash of Polish pride surfing a sea of red and white." Among the floats resembling medieval ships, fire trucks with sirens blazing and hoses squirting, and flatbeds with polka bands blaring, you'll see a little beige Prius bedecked in red and white pulling a big white buffalo with red hearts on her sides. Yes. Buffy is dressed for Dyngus Day all year long. And boy does she love a parade! I have fun behind the wheel, too, honking "Let's go Buff-a-lo" and getting soaked. It's actually a bit drier than when we started marching carrying a banner back in 2007 or 2008.
Those were the years when the parade practically marched right into the Central Terminal for a bone-chilling pierogi and kielbasa feast, where a polka turn or two on the expansive dance floor were mandatory if only to defrost your feet. And this year the Terminal is open for a Dyngus Day bash once again! The Broadway Market is also in its prime, thronged with shoppers snapping up butter lambs and chrusciki. Get there at Noon to cast your vote for Buffalo's Best Kielbasa (and to choose your favorite painted wooden egg). A full line-up of all things Dyngus in Buffalo can be found here.
The Dyngus Day parade and parties, like both St. Patrick's Day parades and the many associated festivities, celebrate more than Polish or Irish pride of heritage. These rowdy rituals celebrate ethnicity in general. They elevate immigration and the pluck and enterprise it requires to its rightful place. It's not easy to get started in a place where you don't speak the language and the locals look down on you. It takes hard work and perserverance. These celebrations should remind us that immigration comes in waves fueled by forces beyond our control. Say a potato famine. Or a devastating civil war in Syria. Or unchecked violence in the barrios of Nicaragua. Or systemic oppression anywhere. All immigrants come to these shores facing the same challenges and bringing with them new traditions to incorporate into our colorful national fabric. Buffalo is especially blessed in this regard.
So how did I manage to miss Dyngus Day while living on the East Side in the 1960s? I'm thinking it might have something to do with the drinking. Not my thing. Maybe if I had been into beer and the bar scene. Instead I gravitated to protest marches and poetry readings. But I'm older and wiser now. And I know a good party when I see one. See you at the parade!