It’s a bit loud. It’s a lot weird. The festival’s odd rituals made anchorman Anderson Cooper giggle...uncontrollably...live...on CNN. (There’s whipping with pussy willows involved.) But, it's a lot of fun, a lot of sausage, a lot of parades, parties, and raucous polka dancing. Plus beer! Plus all things Polish! Minus any longing for home during your Stay Alfred visit to Sixth City. Best of all, it’s a LOT of Cleveland. More on the pussy willows in a bit..
It’s called Dyngus Day. Yes, “Dyngus” Day. AKA Wet Monday. What is Dyngus Day? Well, we at Stay Alfred are here to tell you that it’s a fantastic Polish-American festival celebrating the end of Lent, and a non-stop party showing off the Polish-American cultural heritage that Cleveland has in spades. If you’re unfamiliar, think mini Mardi Gras with more clothing and flirtatious water fights. Think St. Paddy’s Day with polkas instead of jigs, dots not plaid, and accordions for bagpipes, lots of accordions.
“rituals include dousing your love interest with water (via bucket, squirt gun, you name it) and, ehem, spanking them with pussy willow branches”
Dyngus Day is actually celebrated throughout Europe and in many American cities, but it's huge in places with large communities of Polish immigrant descendents like Cleveland. Every Monday after Easter, the city’s West Side springs to life with tons of Polish food, beer, polka jams in the streets, and general revelry.
The epicenter is at West 58th Street and Detroit Avenue, in the Gordon Arts District, where you’ll find vendors selling great food, Dyngus Day T-shirts, and all things Polish-American. An evening parade starts there at about 6 p.m., with a pierogi float, a phalanx of marching accordionists, and other nods to Polish tradition that Cleveland loves to give.
Just how big is Dyngus Day? In 2019, with crowds exceeding 45,000 the year before, Cleveland expanded the festival grounds on Detroit and 58th to make more room for dancing, vendor stalls, and the growing crowd of visitors flocking to Dyngus Day every year.
At Dyngus Day’s core is the theme of spring. Key Dyngus Day rituals include dousing your love interest with water (via bucket, squirt gun, you name it) and, ehem, spanking them with pussy willow branches. Other super traditional rituals include making verse declarations to your crush, and holding door-to-door processions to find the one (should you get rejected at prior doors), of course, while wearing all manner of costumes from bear suits to chickenhead hats, as well as polkadot skirts and other traditional Polish garb. Too weird? Feel free to just drink beer, eat sausage, maybe get your polka dancing down.
“a few Tyskie beers in the afternoon, and you’ll be the best polka dancer Dyngus Day has ever seen, as far as you know”
Dyngus Day Highlights
Never polka’d in your entire life? This is the place to learn that East Euoropean gift to mankind. The word “polka” is derived from the Czech phrase for “half-step,” referring to polka’s dance pattern of nimbly stepping from one foot to the other. Dyngus Day’s music schedule is packed with accordionists and polka bands galore, at venues large and small, indoors and out, attracting folks of all ages. A few lessons in the morning, a few Tyskie beers in the afternoon, and you’ll be the best polka dancer Dyngus Day has ever seen, as far as you know!
Polish food (and beer)
Foodies will love the spread Dyngus Day puts forth. And, beer lovers, here’s your chance to pound a Polish pilsner, and a Baltic porter, and a…(Phone charged? Because...Uber.) The Poles cornered the market on comfort food with their pierogi dumplings, so don’t try to get out of Dyngus Day without downing a dish. And, there’s no escaping a savory Polish sausage sandwich either. So, dance hard and build that appetite. How ‘bout dessert? There’s Polish paczki, for starters, which are so sweet and so good they put donuts to shame. Thank you Polish immigrants! A beer? Wash down the grub with a few Polish Tyskie beers, imported straight from the homeland, and, cheers, or “na zdrowie!” (Like they say, everyone’s Polish on Dyngus Day!)
Up for a good laugh? Be sure to hit one of DJ Kishka's performances during Dyngus Day. He’s a bit of a local celebrity, known for his fake beard and epic spinning of polka records, all while playing along with the accordion and dancing, too! He’s got his own Beer Heaven Tent on 58th and Detroit, with can’t-miss ***HIGH ENERGY*** performances in the afternoon.
Miss Dyngus Day Pageant
Don’t miss the Miss/Mister Dyngus Day Pageant, around 5 p.m, just before the parade. Young women and men are put through a series of silly tests, and winners get crowned. Miss Dyngus Day then places the ceremonial pierogi atop the Dyngus Day float, sits upon her throne, and is serenaded by several accordion players. The experience will make you feel like a legit Clevelander.
Dyngus Day Parade
The Dyngus Day Parade, which starts at 6 p.m. on 58th and Detroit, features more accordions, polkadots, and suspenders than you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s quite the culmination (of the official ceremonies anyway) to a full day of Polish-Americanism, Cleveland-style.
“Cleveland-style polka music was cranked up a few notches when its home became the Rock and Roll Capital of the World, with more accordions, harder dancing, and other aspects of American culture added, and that energy still drives Dyngus Day in Cleveland.”
Why Dyngus Day?
The lively Clevelanders are always looking for any old excuse to party, and, just like everyone being Irish on St. Paddy's day, it seems like everyone in Cleveland is Polish on Dyngus Day. There’s even a popular polka song lyric that says “Everyone is Polish on Dyngus Day!” So, singing along even if you don’t know the history is totally cool, but the festival does date to way back when, and knowing just a smidge of background puts you in good stead with locals.
First, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Dyngus? To lots of us, that sounds like a kindergarten insult, but, in the case of Dyngus Day, the way-back origins of the word may come from the medieval “dingnus,” which means proper, worthy, or suitable, hence the pussy-willow whipping and dousing of love interests that’s so rampant on the West Side that day. Some trace the word back to pagan times when pagan Poles purified their human nature, or “dingen,” with water, and by whipping themselves with willows.
“Miss Dyngus Day then places the ceremonial pierogi atop the Dyngus Day float, sits upon her throne, and is serenaded by several accordion players. The experience will make you feel like a legit Clevelander.”
Some historians go back even further, and say that Dyngus Day really got rolling with the baptism of Polish Prince Mieszko I (unless you’re super Polish, us Stay Alfreders are fine with you having no idea who that is) on Easter Monday in 966 A.D., with today’s ritual of throwing water on your crush alluding to that baptism.
Whatever its origins, Dyngus Day eventually made its way from Poland to Cleveland with the influx of Polish immigrants in the early 1900s. Throw in some American tradition, add a dash of patriotism, crank up the polka a few notches in the Rock and Roll Capital of the World, add a few more accordions, and, -voila!- you have Dyngus Day Cleveland!
So, where’s the party? Well, just follow your ears to the accordion players and you’ll find large celebrations in several West Side neighborhoods, including Ohio City, Tremont, and Detroit-Shoreway, plus big-ticket performances in other venues, and fun all around. Again, the epicenter is 58th Street and Detroit Avenue, with good Polish-American events throughout the whole day.
Hey, and guess what! Conveniently enough, there are plenty of Stay Alfred travel apartment options nearby! From Stay Alfred at Bridgeview on West 9th, a once-warehouse transformed to high-end lofts with easy access to Dyngus Day events via Detroit Avenue, to Stay Alfred at Flats East and its chic design and rooftop deck, you’ve got two options just across the river from the Ohio City neighborhood festivities! Up for a rooftop swim? Go for Stay Alfred on 12th Street and splash away! Or, enjoy even more Dyngus Day fun and book Stay Alfred at The Garfield in the middle of downtown, though all Stay Alfred travel apartments are in the best downtown neighborhoods and all make for great launch pads to Dyngus Day revelry.
You know where the fun is and the best places to stay. Now, here are some tips for joining in on the fun. You might not be a deft accordionist, and even if you are, that instrument makes for a pretty cumbersome carryon, but here’s some other stuff you can bring, or buy from vendor stalls when you get here: Pussy willow branches, which work just as well for good luck charms, if you’re not up for whipping your crush. Squirt guns, also just plain fun on Dyngus Day, even without the flirtatious gunplay. Polka pants, or a hugely polkadotted skirt, because the dancing just doesn’t look right without them. Though all are key players in the Dyngus Day quiver, again, everyone is Polish in Cleveland on Dyngus Day, so it’s totally acceptable to just bring your fine self and drink and eat and dance away!