What started as a choral group fundraiser some 45 years ago may soon blossom into a primary tourism draw for Western New York.

As they pack away the Easter bonnets and down the last piece of chocolate, local people of Polish heritage — and those looking for a good time — are preparing for Dyngus Day on Monday.

The holiday is sort of a “reverse Mardi Gras,” according to Eddy Dobosiewicz, who along with Marty Biniasz founded the Web site dyngusdaybuffalo.com in 2006 as a way to educate others on what they day means.

Where Fat Tuesday is meant to allow people to party one last time before Lent, Dyngus Day is a day where people can celebrate after it’s over, he said, as well as welcome in spring.

“We look past the often restrictive customs of the Lenten season,” Biniasz said.

Local events

A kickoff party will be held at 6 tonight at the VFW Post in Cheektowaga. Following that are a series of events throughout Erie and Niagara counties Monday, including parties in North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls.

NT’s Dom Polski Post will host its annual party starting at 5 p.m. The entertainment is Matt Piorkowski featuring Kathy Carr and the Pyramid Band, with accordion players from Matt’s Music Store also appearing throughout the night.

Dyngus Day is a party Carr said she hasn’t missed in a dozen years.

“It’s a riot. It’s just a fun family atmosphere,” said Carr, who is of Polish origin. “You get to celebrate your Polish heritage, (and) see family and friends you don’t see often.”

Dyngus Day parties feature Polish food and music, with mostly upbeat music such as polkas and waltzes featured. The national anthems of both the United States and Poland are also played, Carr said.

In Niagara Falls, the Polish Nook will feature Walter Ostanek and the Dan Mocniak Band at its party, which starts at 4 p.m.

The Dyngus Day parade, in its second year, starts at 5 p.m. Monday at the Broadway Market in Buffalo. Parade details and a complete listing of Western New York events are available at dyngusdaybuffalo.com.

Polish roots

Dyngus Day’s origin is traced back to 966 A.D., when Prince Mieszko I of Poland accepted Christianity as his faith and was baptized along with his court on Easter Monday. After than, the rite of sprinkling water has been a folk celebration that’s still part of the day.

Specifically, Dobosiewicz said, males sprinkle water on the females, while the girls swat the boys with pussy willow branches.

“There’s a very flirtatious courting ritual to it,” said Dobosiewicz, who couldn’t speculate on how those rituals became associated in that fashion. “How that’s supposed to attract members of the opposite sex, I don’t know.”

As for those pussy willows, they became part of the day because they’re among the first plants to sprout as winter nears its end each year.

The holiday remained largely confined to rural Polish towns until 1961, when Buffalo’s Chopin Singing Society brought Dyngus Day back with them from a trip to Poland. The group decided to host a Dyngus Day party as a fundraiser, Dobosiewicz said, but nearby bars and groups found the event so popular they could host their own festivities with the crowds that couldn’t get into the society’s soiree.

That, combined with the influx of Polish nationals who came to the region after World War II, allowed Dyngus Day to expand into Polish neighborhoods throughout Western New York. More than 50 separate Dyngus Day events will be held this year, Biniasz said.

Foliage shortage

While they should be the first plants to sprout as Dyngus Day approaches, Dobosiewicz noticed a few weeks ago that the pussy willows in his back yard hadn’t yet grown. After realizing the rarity of having the day fall this early on the calendar — 1913 was the last time Easter came so soon — he started to grow concerned.

“I jokingly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be horrible if the pussy willows didn’t bloom this year? What would we do?’ ” he said. “I didn’t realize that it was the record. I knew it was early this year. Then we started scaring ourselves.”

After being told pussy willows couldn’t be forced to grow in water, calls throughout the country to locate some of the plant were not successful. Thanks in part to the recent slight warming in the area, traces of the plant have since been found and sold at the Broadway Market, Dobosiewicz said, which should be enough to satisfy need this year.

“Although they may be scrawny, little branches, I think the crisis is abated,” he said. “If you really want to swat your (significant other) ... you’re just going to have to stand closer.”

A growing event

The attention the pussy willow shortage received — The Associated Press picked up the story, with outlets from Vermont to California running it — proves the growing interest in the day, Dobosiewicz said.

“That’s another demonstration of the demand for Dyngus news,” he said.

The first demonstration was after the Web site went live in 2006. Some 150,000 visitors came to the site that year, Dobosiewicz said.

“We thought, ‘There’s obviously something big here,’ ” he said. “I don’t think that the people involved realized that there was this much interest — nationally for sure, but even locally.”

That’s when it was decided to use Western New York’s unique standing in terms of the holiday to bring tourists in. Buffalo is one of few cities in the world to still celebrate the holiday, and none do to the extent that it’s done here, Biniasz said.

“Our goal is to market Dyngus Day in Western New York. It really is one of the most unique ethnic traditions in the United States,” he said. “As we become more homogenized as a culture, these differences make us stand out and be competitive.”

The parade was introduced last year, and official sponsors (Tyskie beer and Sobieski vodka, both of Poland) came on board this year. While official marketing plans won’t kick in until next year, including lining up an official hotel, some 30,000 participants are expected this year, Biniasz said, including buses coming in from Cleveland, Rochester and Batavia.

Hopes are to extend Dyngus activities over an entire week in the next five years or so, Dobosiewicz said. Biniasz even joked about it once again becoming a full-fledged local holiday; Buffalo City Hall workers used to get the day off, Dobosiewicz said, until Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday.

“We are the Dyngus capital of the world,” Biniasz said.

Contact editor Paul Laneat 693-1000, ext. 116.

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