Smigus dyngus, garden swings and checkmate

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 23, 2003

'Twas the day after Easter, and somewhere in our house, both my grandchildren were waiting, like little water spouts!

I rose from my bed, took my shower, and dressed. But stepping into the hall, I was once again drenched. Naomi and Thomas, with squirt guns in hand, laughed and giggled as they shouted: "Smigus dyngus, Grandpa!"

Yes, indeed, one of the joys of having our Polish-heritage daughter-in-law Monica as part of the family is having two grandkids who delight in dousing me with water every Easter Monday.

Known also as Wet Monday or Dyngus Day, this is a time for soaking those especially close to you – or whom you would like to have close to you – with the water of affection.

The origins of this beloved Polish custom, I'm told, go back to ancient spring purification and fertility rites of pouring water and switching with pussy willow branches. It entered the Christian history of Poland on Easter Monday 966 AD with the baptism of Prince Mieszko I, Poland's first king.

The smigus dyngus tradition has provided an occasion over the years for lightening up after the solemn 40 days of Lent and the Easter Triduum. The fun has not been limited to water, however. Sometimes perfume has been substituted for water, and songs have been sung and gifts exchanged, including eggs.

The ritual has often had intriguing romantic overtones, both happy and sad. On the sadder side, some say girls used to be drenched with water in honor of Polish Princess Wanda. Legend has it that she drowned herself rather than marry a guy she didn't love.

On a happier note, boys would wait outside the homes of girls they were especially fond of. When their heartthrobs appeared, they poured whole buckets of water on them. The girls, if they were likeminded, would take watery revenge on the boys the next day.

For those girls, it was something like a Sadie Hawkins Day event – you douse him, he's yours for keeps.

Interestingly, the comparison with Sadie Hawkins Day, made famous through the Li'l Abner comic strip, overlaps with the heritage our grandchildren have received from our side of the family. Mary Anna caught me for our first date over 40 years ago on a springtime campus version of Sadie Hawkins Day.

She caught me, she kept me.

A couple of years later, our first son, Reg (Naomi and Thomas' father), was born on the actual date of Sadie Hawkins Day in mid-November.

All of which brings me back to my grandchildren's less-than-dry sense of humor. Having succeeded in soaking all of us in the house with their love – but mercifully, not by the bucketful –, they settled into other weekend-with-grandparents routines.

Naomi is 11. I've nicknamed her "Star Gazer," because she loves to observe the night sky and write about it. She also loves reading all kinds of books, especially in Grandma's garden swing – and if possible, with Grandma by her side.

One of the first things Reg and I did when the kids arrived for this year's balmy Easter weekend in Cochrane was to set the swing up for another outdoor season. And following her dyngus deed, that's exactly where Naomi stationed herself, book in hand, for much of the rest of their stay.

Meanwhile, "Geode Buddy" – my nickname for 9-year-old Thomas because of his fascination with geodes and other crystalline rock formations – exchanged his squirt gun for the chessboard in our home office. Chess is a new fascination for him, and he must have thought a game with me would be another good way to show his affection.

Well, it wasn't long before he was humbling me at something I thought I knew pretty well. He thwarted my repeated efforts at checkmating him, set traps for both my bishops, and almost succeeded in taking my queen before I fully appreciated what a formidable opponent my Geode Buddy's becoming – all in an effort to show how much he loved me.

Maybe smigus dyngus isn't such a bad way to show affection, after all.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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