The girls whack the guys with pussy willows and the guys fire squirt guns at the girls.
Or is it the other way around?
That's just the first quandary that confounds the uninitiated every year when Dyngus Day rolls around. Thousands partake in the celebration, which takes place on Easter Monday and centers in the neighborhood around Broadway and Fillmore where the Polish settled years ago, a region now known as Polonia. But thousands, too, shy away.
Maybe they haven't learned their way around the celebration. They might be intimidated because the party seems to get bigger every year. Perhaps they worry because they can't pronounce Polish names, so how are they supposed to order a beer?
Not to worry. That could be you, decked out in red and white, the colors of the Polish flag. You, expertly dodging the squirt guns in the Dyngus Day parade. You, shouting "Na Zdrowie" at the R&L Lounge across the street from the Broadway Market. (You say it "Naz-dro-vyeh," and it's a Polish toast.)
For starters, the business about the pussy willows and the squirt guns? We think we got it right, but nobody will notice if you get it the wrong way around. Remember, everyone's Polish on Dyngus Day, so move forward with confidence. We'll talk you through this.
'Mardi Gras in reverse'
Let's start with the reason for the season.
Polish tradition is tied up with Roman Catholicism. In the Catholic Church, Easter has an Octave, which lasts a week. That means there is Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and so on. Dyngus Day takes place Easter Monday. It is a Polish folk custom that celebrates Easter and the end of Lent.
"It's Mardi Gras in reverse," said Tod Kniazuk. He should know. He is at the helm of the Big Easy in Buffalo, which organizes Mardi Gras celebrations.
"What I love about Dyngus Day, it's this big party, but it's the one day, sometimes, of the year when a lot of people are seeing the architecture and buildings of this old neighborhood, listening to Polish music, and drinking Krupnik and Polish beer," he said. "There's this real cultural celebration happening that half the people don't know they're part of. They're having a great time, but also getting this great lens into what is still a very active and vibrant culture. That's stealth culture."
The official Dyngus Day celebration is organized by Eddy Dobosiewicz of Forgotten Buffalo. He is generally credited as having popularized and publicized Dyngus Day, most notably over the course of a few memorable exchanges with CNN's Anderson Cooper.
Dobosiewicz has come up with a voluminous and creative Dyngus Day guide, found free at Wegmans and online at dyngusday.com. Sit down on your dupa and go over it.
Tunes, cash and wheels
Ken Machelski of the Buffalo Touch, the legendary Buffalo polka band, suggests focusing on the music. "Circle the bands you would like to hear," he said. "There are a lot of them from out of town."
Get some cash together. You will be visiting old-school venues and not all of them take credit cards. Get your Pussy Willow Pass wristband or voucher, for $10, available at Wegmans. This will assure you $2 admission to venues participating in the official Dyngus Day celebration, masterminded by Eddy Dobosiewicz of Forgotten Buffalo. It also covers unlimited use of the official Dyngus Day shuttle bus system.
This brings us to the all-important issue of transportation.
Try to avoid driving. Not only do you not want to say no to that delicious beer, but parking is tough. Take a taxi, grab an Uber or Lyft, or go in with friends and hire a limo. Depending on where you live, Metro Bus might be able to get you there.
You could also do a park and ride. Official Dyngus Day shuttle buses go to nearly 30 locations around town. They ferry folks from Historic Polonia (the Broadway/Fillmore district) to Outer Polonia, which embraces Kaisertown, Cheektowaga and the Polish Cadets in Black Rock.
Get your accouterments — squirt guns and pussy willows, which may be had at the Broadway Market, as well as supermarkets.
Plan what you are going to wear. Dress warm. Wear red and white. You need both colors, not one or the other. Add layers. Tote an umbrella. Easter is early this year, and while rain isn't in the forecast for Dyngus Day, you never know.
Arrive as early as possible to avoid traffic snarls and give yourself time to get your bearings. If you drive, Kniazuk pointed out, the early hour will help you find a parking space.
Just remember where you parked, he stressed.
"Take your cellphone, and take a picture of the crosswalk where you are," he said.
The parade begins at 5 p.m., but the fun starts long before then.
Buffalo Urban Sketchers are gathering at 3 p.m. in front of St. Stanislaus Church to sketch the local architecture. You could bring a sketchbook and join them — it's free. Churches and taverns are open.
Andy Golebiowski suggests you start with Mass at Corpus Christi at 11:30 a.m. You can experience a beautiful old-school urban church and hear Polish Easter hymns not usually heard outside the old neighborhood.
Plus, he added: "It's still Easter, celebrated as such in many countries. It starts your day off right. Every party should begin with a prayer."
Golebiowski added, only half-joking: "Maybe you'll remember the homily when you reach for that last beer. Maybe you'll remember the homily when you get close to kissing someone else's wife."
His words leave no doubt there is a big party in store. Once you are settled in, get your bearings.
"I use the Broadway Market as a base," said Michael Mulley. "In case the weather’s bad you can go inside. Then go from there after the parade."
The market is big, it's warm, and it has nice restrooms. It is centrally located and adjoins Corpus Christi, the R&L Lounge and other destinations.
The parade, which wends its way along narrow streets, is different from parades on Delaware Avenue.
"It reminds me of the Old First Ward St. Patrick's Day Parade," said Kniazuk, who will be marching with his church, St. Adalbert's Basilica. "It's centered on the place and the people in that place. It's not overtly commercial."
What's the deal with squirt guns?
Mary Clare Carey Dolata is of Irish heritage, but her husband is Polish, and last year she attended her first Dyngus Day.
"I don't normally like parades, but I like that one," she said. "It was more unusual. Shorter. Everybody's there to have a good time."
She will be back this year, a little bit wiser. "Just watch out for those squirt guns. It's chilly enough."
Better still, bring a squirt gun of your own and fire back.
"People in the parade squirt the people who are watching. People who are watching squirt the people in the parade. You're a target if you're in the parade," she said with a laugh.
After the parade, the nightlife kicks in. Or, as Kniazuk put it, "all heck breaks loose."
A huge tent party takes place right by the parade route. Food trucks will be there, and bands include Brave Combo, which invented the punk polka genre and won two Grammy Awards, and the authentic folk troupe Ludowa Nuta, from Hamilton, Ont.
Another party will be raging at the Central Terminal. Keep in mind the party at the Central Terminal is not included in the Pussy Willow Pass, and the cover charge there is an additional $15.
If you want a roaring party house, head for the Adam Mickiewicz — you say it Misk-KEFF-itch, more or less — Library and Dramatic Circle, located at 612 Fillmore Ave., right in the thick of things.
The Mickiewicz Library — or Micky's, if you want to sound hip — is also not covered by the Pussy Willow Pass, but its loud, crowded atmosphere is the closest you will find to the atmosphere of the old Chopin Singing Society. Before the society moved to the suburbs, it was located in a warren of rooms and narrow halls, on the floors of which the beer would be a half-inch deep and at the sight of which poor frail Fryderyk Chopin would have fainted.
Such a raucous party is definitely an adventure. If you want a more authentic Dyngus Day experience, head for one of the churches. The social hall at St. Stanislaus, the athletic center of Corpus Christi, and the party at St. Casimir's in Kaisertown are beery and cheery but still family friendly. They carry the aroma of the religious traditions so central to Dyngus Day. Mom-and-pop taverns in the neighborhood offer a glimpse of the past. Among them are the Happy Swallow, the R&L Lounge, and Arty's.
Even if you stay within a few blocks, don't miss the fun of riding the shuttle buses. They're noisy and hilarious.
And there's no need to stay within a few blocks.
"There are parties in Cheektowaga, and when you talk about the Polish Falcons, talk about the Chopin Singing Society, that's just as 'traditional,' just as right a way to do Dyngus Day," Kniazuk said. "The Polish Cadets in Black Rock is great. There are so many ways to do it. You're going to talk to a dozen people, and all of them will have different traditions and locations."
Wherever you may roll, a brief bar guide is in order.
Joseph Golombek represents Black Rock and Riverside on the Buffalo Common Council. He teaches Polish history at Buffalo State College, and he offered a brief guide to pronunciation.
A "w" is a "v," he said, and an "l" is pronounced "w." Hearing him referring, however, to "an L with a squiggly line through it," and "an A with a doohicky on the bottom," one can't help but give up.
So let's leave it at this: The Polish beer Tyskie is pronounced TISS-kee. Krupnik, the famous honey vodka, is KROOP-nik. In the case of Zywiec, you can come off as an insider just by asking for "the Z beer."
Having rehearsed that, you can be creative.
"Impress friends with your command of esoteric Polish history," suggested John Kopczynski, a Buffalo expat living in Los Angeles. "While everyone is filling their Hydro Blitz Power-Pump Water Guns and trying to pronounce 'Zywiec,' simply say, 'Hey, gang. Did you know this all started with the baptism of Polish Prince Mieszko I in 966 A.D.? The water symbolizes purity; pussy willows not so much.'"
As you enjoy your evening, everyone agrees that you follow one central strategy.
"Pace yourself," said Mary Gibbons, a Zumba teacher who has been to more than one Dyngus Day.
There are several ways to do that.
• Talk. Both to strangers and people you know. You will know people, Kniazuk promised.
"You run into your priest, people you work with, people you haven't seen since grade school," he said with a laugh.
• Eat. Lots of places have Polish buffets, and you can find a list of them in the Dyngus Day guide.
• Drink slowly. "There's lots of different European beers to try. Don't suck them all down," Golombek said. "You can get many of them in during the course of the night."
• Dance the polka. "Don't know how? Ask people to dance," said Craig Nowakowski, of Lancaster. "Many people are willing to teach."
Finally, remember you can't cram all your Dyngus Day living into one single evening, much as you yearn to try. There is always next year.
Heck, there's always next week.
Those taverns around Polonia will still be open, and think of how cool you will feel visiting off-season. Watch for dramatic productions at the Mickiewicz Library and go. Gather your friends and go bowling at Corpus Christi. Kick back to the sound of a polka band.
Decide that on Dyngus Day, the fun is just starting.