New Orleans gets a taste of Buffalo, N.Y., with Dyngus Day celebration

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- David Martin strikes Rachel Watts with a pussy willow stalk Monday at the Dyngus celebration at the Siberia bar in New Orleans. Dyngus Day is a Polish celebration that celebrates the end of Lenten sacrifice and the beginning of spring. Fertility and courtship rituals are a playful part of the celebration where girls and boys make switches out of pussy willows and strike their love interests with them.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- David Martin strikes Rachel Watts with a pussy willow stalk Monday at the Dyngus celebration at the Siberia bar in New Orleans. Dyngus Day is a Polish celebration that celebrates the end of Lenten sacrifice and the beginning of spring. Fertility and courtship rituals are a playful part of the celebration where girls and boys make switches out of pussy willows and strike their love interests with them.

Jim Wagner walked into the back room at Siberia, the St. Claude Avenue punk-rock club, but he might as well have been back home in Buffalo, N.Y.

The recent New Orleans transplant was surrounded by Polish flags draped on the walls while the smell of bigos, kielbasa and pierogi lingered in the air.

He and several others gathered there Monday for New Orleans’ celebration of Dyngus Day, a Polish holiday recognized for the second year here.

“I’m 62 and haven’t been to a Dyngus Day celebration since I was a teenager,” Wagner said. “This is just like being back home.”

The Polish still celebrate Dyngus Day on a smaller scale, though the majority of the festivities in that country take place in rural areas. With a Mardi Gras Day-like atmosphere, Dyngus Day celebrates the end of Lent and the beginning of spring with food, drink and dance.

In the United States, there are a handful of cities that have active Polish communities that recognize the holiday. In Buffalo, N.Y., which boasts the title of “Dyngus Day Capital of the World,” a parade, polkas and Polish food and drink are the standard each Monday following Easter.

New Orleans’ celebration, founded by Aaron Baczkowski and Jonathan Rogers, of Buffalo and Ithaca, N.Y., respectively, was held at Siberia.

“It made so much sense (to celebrate it),” said Baczkowski, who decided to try to begin the tradition here with Rogers while the two were students at Tulane University. “We’re still growing, but we know what to expect and how to do it better now.”

Wagner said that in Buffalo the celebration rivals St. Patrick’s Day in New York City. “Everybody’s Polish on that day,” he said.

Known as Easter Monday or Wet Monday, the origins of the holiday are rooted in the practice of pouring water to symbolize purification.

After the Roman Catholic Church was established in Poland, residents would bring holy water to their homes to bless them. That evolved into a ritual in which people would pour water on each other the day after Easter. Strangers were soon included in the dousing.

Also part of the celebration is playful swatting with pussy willow branches. That practice between boys and girls is related to fertility and courtship.

Dyngus Day might take some time to catch on here, but Rogers said he’s sure that a city that embraces any reason to party will latch onto the idea.

“Once the music starts and the Sobieski (vodka) starts flowing and the pussy willows come out, it’ll be a good time,” Rogers said.