Poland’s ‘Wet Monday’ – an age-long tradition

Poles celebrate Easter Monday by throwing bucketfuls of water over girls.

On Easter Monday, many Poles traditionally take to the streets of their towns and villages to pay homage to a century-old tradition known locally as Śmigus-Dyngus, an untranslatable name often rendered in English as “Wet Monday” or “Dyngus Day”. The tradition, involving throwing copious amounts of water over girls, was originally accompanied by numerous other rituals, still practiced in some regions, and may date back to the early medieval times preceding the advent of Christianity.

The origins of the tradition are obscure. The use of water is believed to be either a vestige of pagan customs or a symbolic reference to the baptism of the Polish duke Mieszko I, who united all Polish tribes under the new Christian faith. Similar customs are known to exist in Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary.

Michał Żerkowski, ethnologist working at the Łódź University, has told the Polish state television that the folk tradition of the Wet Monday stems from the symbolic meaning of water. “Water is one of the most uncanny elements”, Mr Żerkowski said, adding that “it is ambivalent in the way that it represents both a threat and a source of life. Water is primal chaos. Coming into contact with water, a descent into water, is actually a form of descent into primal chaos itself”.

He also says that in the Christian era, drenching people in water became a reference to the act of rebirth, with water being considered as a symbol of washing away one’s sins in Christian theology.

Traditionally, the girls could actually bribe their would-be attackers by giving them Easter eggs. The ritual of drenching people in water would also be accompanied by other customary practices, such as reciting verse or symbolically whipping girls with willow branches.

The festive folk traditions continue to be celebrated in their native environment, forming part of regional cultural heritage. The existence of this tradition does not, however, justify throwing water over random individuals in the city centres – a place where the context of the age-old Easter tradition may only serve as a pretext to what is, in fact, a common misdemeanour.

Although the problem is less prevalent now than it was a few years ago, residents sometimes still complain about youths attacking passers-by with bucketfuls of water. The police has long been taking a tough stance on these incidents, leading to their gradual decline over the years. This year’s cold weather is also likely to result in a lower number of instances of unwanted exposure to Poland’s age-old folk custom.