“I’ve always celebrated it my own way in telling people, ‘Today is Dyngus Day,’” Erik Brady, a retired USA Today sports writer and contributing writer for The Buffalo News, shares about the holiday that is wildly popular in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. “The first thing is, the name is funny so people want to know more.”
“Dyngus Day is just a great reason to party,” shares Brian J. Hillery, owner and operator of Exiles Bar. “Usually, the more the merrier.”
Dyngus Day is part Catholic holiday, part fertility festival, and a whole lot of silly fun.
“Dyngus Day is an Eastern European rite of spring; Śmigus-dyngus means Wet Monday,” explains Matthew Antkowiak, a Buffalonian-turned-Washingtonian owner of AtlasVet on H Street.
He originated the Dyngus Day DC event at Biergarten Haus, also on H Street Northeast in 2017. The wetness is because of the squirt guns, of course, an essential part of Dyngus Day. The pussy willows, too, are pretty mandatory. If you’re not getting it, you’re not alone.
“I could’ve cheated and looked up more about Dyngus Day, but each year we host it and I learn more,” Hillery admits.
Anderson Cooper infamously tried to discuss Buffalo’s celebration of Dyngus Day on the “Ridiculist” segment of “Anderson Cooper 360″ in 2012, and couldn’t get through his report due to an outburst of laughter.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to drown yourself in Buffalo,” Dave Levinthal, another Buffalo ex-pat and senior washington correspondent for “Insider,” shares. “Buffalo knows how to do a Dyngus Day better than anywhere, maybe even Poland.”
In addition the self-proclaimed “Dyngus Day Festival of the World” of Buffalo, Antkowiak points out several other U.S. Dyngus Day celebrations.
“Cleveland is blowing up,” he says. “There are also Dyngus Day festivities in South Bend, Indiana, Las Vegas, Chicago and a few other smaller celebrations. It’s the bookend to Mardi Gras.”
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is widely celebrated with parades and floats, green, gold and purple beads, jazz bands, king cakes and feasts of pancakes, and Bacchanalian drinking and partying as a carnival (literally “farewell to meat”) before the austerity of the Lent season.
“Wet Monday” is the celebration on Easter Monday and the end of Lent’s denial of drinking and meats (for observant Catholics, anyhow) filled with Polish feasts of pierogis and kielbasa, and dancing to polka bands.
And then the pussy willows and water come into play.
“It’s a fertility festival,” Brady explains. “The men squirt women with water and women use pussy willows to tap the men they like.”
In the colder climate of Buffalo, Brady also points out that pussy willows are one of the first plants to bloom, a harbinger of spring after a long dismal winter.
“I’ve been trying to get my father [who still lives outside of Buffalo] to grow them on his property, because they’re expensive,” Antkowiak explains.
He admits, however, that Trader Joe’s carries the necessary flirting tool at a decent price.
Dyngus Day in D.C. 2021
Opened in June 2016, Exiles Bar is a neighborhood sports bar that shows hometown favorites for the “exiled” trio running the place: Buffalo Bills and Sabres games for the Buffalo-born and raised Hillery, Liverpool soccer matches due to the fandom of co-owners/operators Donagh J. Gilhooly (of Waterford, Ireland) and Karl S. Keene (of Dublin, Ireland), as well as welcoming in other regional teams such as Penn State football and Kansas University basketball. But on the Monday after Easter, Exiles turns into Little Poland.
This year, Exiles will feature several types of Polish beer from the Brew Shop in Arlington, decorate in red and white, play polka music, while serving platters of pierogis, kielbasa and cabbage. With a back patio and socially distanced seating both upstairs and downstairs, there will be plenty of room for celebrating.
“And we’ll just rock ‘n’ roll,” Hillery promises.
Started “as a lark” upon Antkowiak’s insistence, the first Dyngus Day DC at Biergarten Haus drew over 200 celebrants, many of whom already knew the holiday or were from the celebrating cities, but also the curious. Dyngus Day DC continued to grow with swag, t-shirts, the TKO Band from Baltimore playing live polka, and owners Aaron McGovern and Arturas “Jeepo” Vorobjovas selecting pierogis, kielbasa and Polish foods from a Baltimore deli. Last year even featured a larger-than-life Butter Lamb.
While this year’s festivities at both Exiles Bar and Biergarten Haus will be a bit low-key (no live polka band, pussy willow tapping or gun squirting), there will still be every excuse to safely party. Erin Fitzgerald, assistant general manager of Biergarten Haus, states that there will be over 45 tables outdoors for enjoying this year’s brews, including Żywiec and Okocim.
“Everyone is encouraged to wear red and white, and to have a beer,” Antkowiak states. “This year will be a little muted, no polkaing on the dance floor this year. Next year will be bigger.”
The mantra for the holiday has always been, “Everyone is Polish on Dyngus Day.”
Brady adds, “To celebrate, one need only need be alive.”
Celebrate Dyngus Day on Monday, April 5. Doors open at 3 p.m. at Exiles Bar. Doors open at Biergarten Haus at 5 p.m., and festivities begin at 6 p.m. Learn more about Dyngus Day DC at www.dyngusdaydc.com and on Instagram @dyngusdaydc.
(Disclaimer: The writer is from the Buffalo, New York area originally, and in addition to discussing Dyngus Day, covered best places to get Buffalo wings in D.C., best bars to catch a Buffalo Bills or Sabres game, etc. with all interviewees.)
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