Dyngus Day celebrations combine religion and politics
Adriana Pratt | Wednesday, April 4, 2012
A day of indulgence takes over South Bend on Easter Monday, a celebration meant to both kick off the political season and mark the end of Lent. Polka music is played, kielbasa is eaten and Fr. Leonard Chrobot whips out his special multi-colored vest from Poland. Everybody is Polish on Dyngus Day.
“After Lent, it’s kind of a release, so everybody does crazy things,” Chrobot, pastor of St. Patrick’s and St. Hedwig’s Catholic churches in South Bend, said.
South Bend’s West Side Democratic and Civic Club will host the day’s primary event, which falls on April 9 this year. The club touts itself as the birthplace of Dyngus Day on its website. However, Dyngus celebrations date back more than a thousand years, commemorating the rise of Catholicism in Poland.
Traditionally, Dyngus Day celebrations involved boys dousing girls with water and rapping their legs with pussy willow branches to show their affection. Participants in Poland would attend Easter Monday Mass, then go out and feast.
Today in South Bend, the celebration is first and foremost centered on politics, not religion. However, Chrobot still plays an integral role in the day’s festivities, opening each year’s ceremony with a prayer.
“I believe people should have days for celebration,” Chrobot said. “It’s certainly part of our Catholic tradition, and certainly part of our Polish tradition. The Polish have a saying … ‘You should be able to dance and pray the rosary with equal zest.'”
South Bend celebrants often begin eating and drinking around 9 a.m., then gather to hear political speeches at the West Side Democratic and Civic Club at noon. Chrobot opens the ceremony with a Benedictionary prayer, then grabs a broom dipped in holy water to sprinkle attendees. He makes a point to hit the politicians and journalists, saying he wants to get rid of any devils in the room.
“I sprinkle them with the waters that we bless on Holy Saturday to chase out any evil spirits,” Chrobot said. “When President Clinton was involved with the sex scandal, I took some holy water to there and I think it was … [then-Indiana Sen.] Evan Bayh, I think said, ‘We’ll need much more water to bless the White House than this.'”
Chrobot also brings an Easter candle to the event and lights it, symbolically illuminating a world of darkness. After he opens the ceremony, candidates running for office are introduced. Governors and state officials attend, but the focus usually remains on those from northern Indiana and South Bend.
Other local celebrities are introduced and praised. Chrobot said the club especially enjoys acknowledging those who make the West Side proud.
“The West Side, it’s suffered a lot in the last 20 or 30 years, especially since the [1960s civil rights] riot. I mean, I grew up on the West Side, so I know it very well,” he said. “It was virtually all-Polish up until after the war. It was multi-ethnic, but the vast majority was Polish.
“All the stores down Western Avenue were Polish bakeries, Polish beauty shops, clothiers, all kinds of Polish shops. All of those are gone now.”
The West Side has a history of ethnic transition and tension, exemplified by the locations of the Irish St. Patrick’s parish founded in 1858 and the Polish St. Hedwig’s church built in 1877. Chrobot is pastor of both, and said their locations across the street from each other speak to a history of both pride and resentment.
“When [the Polish] came to this country, that language was so much a part of their identity,” Chrobot said. “Much more so than the Irish, who spoke English … They built their own churches. There are five Polish parishes in the area.
“There was antagonism between the [Polish and Irish]. The Irish looked down on the Poles because of the language. ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ ‘Well, because Polish is important to us.’ The separation, one priest used to refer to it as ‘the kielbasa curtain.'”
After World War II, Chrobot said Polish Americans returned home to find housing limited. New developments opened but quickly filled, resulting in a migration to the suburbs. African Americans moved in and the demographic of the West Side shifted. It is once again in flux as the Hispanic community grows in the area.
A separation still exists between the various ethnicities around the city of South Bend. Chrobot said the West Side Democratic Club is shoulder-to-shoulder packed on Dyngus Day, but not usually with African Americans, who host their own event called “Solidarity Day.” Black clubs around the city open up and hold celebrations full of dancing.
“I went to the Solidarity Club,” Chrobot said. “And I walked in and I said, ‘Am I welcome here?’ Because there was a guy at the door, and he said, ‘About as welcome as I am in Mishawaka.'”
Chrobot said the comment was in jest, but there was truth to the sentiment. A folder sits in his office, stuffed with handwritten copies of Dyngus Day prayers. Usually, he said, they include words meant to relieve the ethnic tensions.
“There have been a lot of racial issues over the years,” Chrobot said. “Many of my prayers address that issue.”
A beacon of racial equality, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy once made a stop at South Bend’s Dyngus Day, putting it on the national map. The Easter Monday celebration became known for its politics and the day is now commonly associated with the Democratic Party of South Bend.