Polish Traditions (Tradycje Polskie)


Harvest Holiday, August 15 (Dozynki)

Dozynki, harvest holiday, was traditionally celebrated at the end of the summer. The popular and colorful celebrations were held by the nobility and larger landowners — those owning large tracts of land that required hiring farmers from all around the countryside who had to be rewarded for their hard labor.

The symbol of Dozynki was a Wieniec, [harvest wreath] which was presented to the landowner. This large wreath was made of a mixture of wheat and rye, sometimes one or the other. These grains were considered the most important. Crafted from the most beautiful ears of grain, the Dozynki wreath was made in the shape of a dome-shaped crown. It was decorated with flowers, ribbons, hazelnuts, and the fruit of the mountain ash tree. The conclusion of the harvest and the making of the wreath generally fell around the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin — August 15 — so that it was taken to church to be blessed.

Wearing the wreath was considered an honor. Generally, it was worn by a young girl involved in the harvesting, or someone who was considered a very good worker. The chosen girl went to church in great pomp and ceremony, wearing the wreath on her head while sitting in a wagon pulled by four horses decorated in greenery and surrounded by other young maidens wearing flowers in their hair. The group was followed by all those involved in the harvest. After the wreath was blessed the entire procession made for the manor house, singing the songs that accompanied the event were usually those that were indigenous to the area, perhaps unknown in other villages.

The entire procession stopped at the gate leading to the manor house, its members continuing to sing until the owner emerged. The girl wearing the wreath approached, removed it from her head, and either handed it over to the owner or placed it on his head. Sometimes the owner removed the wreath from the girl himself and placed it aside. She was often given a handsome reward consisting of either money or some gift.

After rewarding those that offered the wreath, the owner signaled to the musicians to start playing. Taking the young girl in his arms, the lord of the manor started dancing. The part of the festivities that everyone had been waiting for, the dancing and refreshments, began in earnest.

The wreath, arriving only once a year, was cherished and given much care. It was hung in a prominent place, such as in an entrance hall, above a chest of drawers, or above the door of the main living room as a symbol of prosperity.

by Stanley Garczynski, Polish Footprints, Vol.XII No.3, Fall 1995

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St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (Sw. Mikolaja - albo Mikolajki)

December sixth, St. Nicholas day — Dzien Swietego Mikolaja — brought a slight reprieve to gray monotonous days, especially to children, who felt that the Christmas Gwiazdka (star) - would never come. St. Nicholas was revered because of his compassion and love for orphans whom he often visited and comforted with little gifts. His name is celebrated more in some Central European countries than is Christmas itself.

The one selected to represent St. Nicholas was usually driven in a sleigh to the homes in a Polish village. He was dressed in a long white robe, wearing a tall head piece much like a bishop's mitre, a long white flowing beard, and in his hand he held the shepherd's staff.

The sound of snow bells and horses' hoofs could be heard on the cobblestone pavement, while eager young faces with their noses pressed to the window panes shouted, "he has come! he has come!" St. Nicholas entered, filling the room with not only his presence, but with his smile, the twinkle in his eye and his teasing booming voice.

He rebuked the mischievous, praised the obedient, listening to the children recite their catechism and prayers, and passed around heart shaped Pierniki, honey cookies, holy pictures and big red apples, which he produced magically from under his cloak. In case St. Nicholas could not make the visit personally, his gifts were placed under the pillow during the night, which made children and parents sleepy the next day from waiting and watching to be sure that the children were sound asleep when St. Nicholas arrived!

by Stan Garczynski, PGST News, Vol. X No.4, Winter 1993

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Christmas Eve Dinner (Wigilia)

Wigilia or Wilia, from the Latin word vigilare — to watch, Czuwac in Polish, is reverently close to the heart of a Pole. It is greeted with such mystical symbolism, that it is considered by many to be a greater holiday than Christmas itself.

The very word Wigilia, which in Poland was formerly known as the day before a feast day is now used only as the day before Christ's birth. The Wigilia supper is so special there is no other like it throughout the year. The day itself had significance many centuries before Christ's birth. Since it followed the longest night and the shortest day it was considered the last day of the year and the mystical symbolism associated with it was closely tied to the solar system.

The severe cold weather and deep snows made family hold their festivities near the hearth within family groups. This day became known for generations to come as the holiday which strengthened family ties. Some customs varied at different sections of Poland, but the importance of the holiday was general in the whole country.

Another custom arising from the past, was the belief that spirits pervaded the home on this day. Everything was to be made as comfortable as possible for them and that this last day of the year would prophesize everything that was to happen in the coming year. From very early on, everyone was careful of conduct and observed everything that occurred in the house, garden and heavens. The rules were to rise early, say your prayers earnestly and carefully, wash thoroughly, dress cleanly, and then peacefully and patiently attend to your work.

The first preparation for Christmas Eve began very early, right after midnight. One of the young girls of the family went to the nearest stream and brought back pails of water. The water was used to sprinkle the cows in barn and also sprinkled on the family, awakening them in this manner. It was believed that water on this day had the power to heal and prevent illness. The entire family washed themselves in this water in order to assure plenty of money for the rest of their lives.

It was the responsibility of the males to go into the forest and bring back boughs of fir and spruce to decorate the house on this special day. Everyone hurried to be first to cut the top of a spruce or fir and other branches. The top of the spruce or pine was hung from a beam in the ceiling, with the tip facing down over the table where the Wigilia was to be held.

In preparation of this most important meal of the year, the table was first covered with straw or hay, and then with a white tablecloth. On the best plate of the house, the blessed wafer or Oplatek (Christmas wafer) was placed. In some areas of Poland, a loaf of common, everyday bread was placed on top of it and topped with more Oplatek.

As the day began to darken and family members began to ready themselves for the evening meal, a child was sent out to look for the first star in the sky. With the appearance of the first star, the Wigilia meal would begin. The belief was that those sitting down to eat must add up to an even number. An odd number foretold that someone would not live to the next Christmas Eve supper. To make up for this, someone was always invited to make up the deficiency, be it honored guest or wandering beggar.

Before approaching the Wigilia table, the family knelt down on the floor and prayed together out loud, grateful for all the blessings of the past year. At the conclusion of the prayer, the most important ceremony of the night, sharing of the Oplatek, and the exchange of wishes began. After everyone had an opportunity to share the wafer, the supper could begin. Tradition dictates that this be a meatless dinner, that there should be an uneven number of dishes served. In the more well-to-do-homes this was 11 or 13, with 13 being the preferred number as it represented the number that sat down at the Last Supper.

One of the traditional dishes was Kutia, which was served in both the homes of the nobility and the serfs. The Kutia was made from hulled barley or wheat, which was cooked and sweetened with honey. Then mashed poppy seeds, raisins and nuts were added. The dish was set down in a place of honor on a bench near the Wigilia table and it was the first dish to be eaten. The rest of the meal reflected the products of the family's labor, Barshch (Barszcz), a beet soup; dishes made from beets, cabbage, sauerkraut, beans, noodles, dumplings, potatoes, dried fruit, fresh apples, and nuts. Fish was served in the families who could afford it.

Throughout all of Poland, the time after supper was a time for the family to gather together to sing carols and exchange gifts which were deposited by Aniolek, (an angel), under the Christmas tree. The smoke from the candles on the tree, lit by the Gospodarz, (head of the family) foretold the future. The period approaching midnight was a magical time when animals talked and well water turned to wine and everyone readied themselves to attend the midnight Mass of the Shepherd or Pasterka. The Poles called it the Shepherd Mass, because the shepherds were first to greet the new born Christ. Every able-bodied individual trudged through freezing weather in the dark of the night, or rode in sleighs to local churches by way of town streets or country roads.

On their way to the Mass, they carefully observed the heavens. If there were many stars, they rejoiced, for as many stars as there were in the heavens, that many sheaves of grain would be harvested the next year.

by Stan Garczynski, PGST News, Vol. X No.4, Winter 1993

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Christmas Day (Boze Narodzenia)

Boze Narodzenia, Christmas Day, was considered so important a holiday that menial work of any kind was not even thought of. This day was spent in comparative quiet surroundings within the intimate family group. Christmas day had its traditional menu, but there was no special number of courses. Ham and Polish sausage were very popular, since pork had always been eaten at special festivities. The old Polish literature testifies that Bigos, hunters stew, was often used as the principal dish on Christmas Day. Cooking included only the heating of previously prepared food.

Christmas day was the beginning of the twelve-day period from Christmas which was called "Gody " These twelve days were observed very carefully, for it was believed among the Polish people that Christmas Day and each of the following eleven days foretold the weather for the equivalent month of the year. The nights were also part of the prognostication. If the day was fair but it rained or snowed during the night, then it foretold that the first half of the month would be fair but the second half would be damp.

The second day of the Christmas season (December 26) was St. Stephan's Day, the traditional day of visiting and wishing everyone the joy of the holiday season, a direct contrast to Christmas Day. St. Stephan's Day marked the end of work contracts for the year; new bargains were struck for the upcoming year. It was also the official day for caroling to begin. The custom of caroling in Poland, or Chodzenie Po Koledzie, began on St. Stephan's and lasted until the Feast of the Purification on February 2.

Jaselka is the general name given to the two forms of Christmas caroling called Szopka and Herody. Szopka was a portable crib or manger scene carried by young boys from house to house. This traveling mode of entertaining with caroling provided a somewhat lucrative way of making money and/or receiving something sweet to eat. Boys usually traveled with Szopka, staying within the confines of their neighborhood, but sometimes moving outside into other sections of town or even different villages. However humble or intricate, the portable crib always portrayed the mysteries of the birth of the Infant Jesus.

The other form of Christmas caroling was Herody. This was a live production done by a group of individuals, usually older boys and young adults, about the last days of King Herod. The oldest form of Christmas caroling in Poland was with the Turon. To go caroling with Turon required that at least one of the participants be dressed in some type of animal costume and mask. The custom of Turon is named after the wild ox or tur, the largest and foremost of the animals that were prolific at one time throughout Europe and caused great damage to the villages.

By Stanley Garczynski, Polish Footprints, Vol.XII No.4, Winter 1995

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The Feast Of the Three Kings (Trzech Kroli)

Although the story of the Three Kings is taken from the apocryphal literature for which strict historical truth is not assured, the love and respect held for these three wise men was so strong, so universal, that the church also paid homage to them. Wherever the initials K M B for Kaspar, Melchior and Baltazer, with a cross between them, were seen written in chalk at the top of entrance doors, it was evident to a wayfarer that a Catholic family lived there.

In areas like the mountainous regions where the priest was not able to travel, people brought chalk to church on this day to be blessed. Upon their return, they wrote the initials of the Three Kings on the door themselves, not to be disturbed until the following year. These initials written with blessed chalk, along with the palms from Palm Sunday and blessed candles from Candlemas Day, were together to be a force to avert disaster.

In remembrance of the star of Bethlehem that hung over the manger the night of the birth of Christ and led the Three Kings to the newborn King, young boys dressed as the Three Kings in long, white pants with chasubles of black paper and paper crowns on their heads. One of them carried a large homemade star on a long pole that was lit from within by a candle, so that it could be seen in the dark of night.

Their particular repertoire was to walk throughout the village singing carols. One of the carolers played a musical instrument to accompany their songs. They usually began at the manor house or church rectory and made stops at various homes. They stopped before a window and sang a carol. After obtaining permission to enter the house, the boys sang both religious and popular Christmas carols. The Three Kings day was also the traditional day to take down the Christmas Tree, which was erected and decorated on Christmas Eve.

by Stanley Garczynski, Polish Footprints, Vol.XII No.4, Winter 1995

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Wet Monday (Smigus Dyngus)

There is one day in the year when the consumption of water in Poland shoots up. This is Easter Monday, and it is due to an ancient custom which is still observed both in villages and cities. It is a delightful tradition, Dyngus or Smigus as this custom is called. There are two versions: one amiable and elegant when it is only a matter of a gentle sprinkling with water or scent, the other quite merciless when whole bucketfuls come into play.

The custom of pouring water is an ancient spring rite of cleansing, purification, and fertility. The pagan Poles bickered with nature — Dingen — by means of pouring water and switching with willows to make themselves pure and worthy of the coming year. Tradition also states that the first Polish ruler Prince Mieszko The First (960-992), along with his court was baptized on Easter Monday in 966.

The first recorded Polish writing on Dyngus dates back to the Middle Ages. A Polish historian wrote of what he called the Oblewania. "It is the universal custom, among the common masses as well as among the distinguished, for men to soak the women on Easter Monday. On Tuesday, and every day thereafter until the time of the Green Holidays — Pentecost — the women doused the men."

Dyngus began somewhat around five in the morning, and the custom demanded that the house where the women slept be secretly invaded. The men crept through a window or through a chimney. Sometimes the male head of the house himself, in collusion with the perpetrators, let the men into the house himself to have his women folk abruptly awakened and doused liberally with water. The spirit of Dyngus is described in this lively description from the Poznan region during 1800s:

"Barely had the day dawned on Easter Monday when I woke the boys and gathered some water to start throwing it on the girls. Up with the Piwezyny! (eiderdown)! There was screaming, shouting, and confusion. The girls are shrieking and hollering, but in their hearts they are glad because they know that she who isn't gotten wet will not be married that year. And the more they are annoyed, the more we dump water on them calling, Dyngus — Smigus! Then we had to change our clothes because there wasn't a dry thread on the girls and we boys were not better off."

by Stan Garczynski, PGST News, Vol. XI No.1, Spring 1994

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The Wedding (Wesele)

The wedding is one of the most important family celebrations. These short moments of joy in the difficult life of peasantry follow many traditional customs before young couple exchange the wedding rings. First, the engagement period Zareczyny or Zrekowiny. The main event on the night of engagement was the tying together of the hands of the couple to be married. There were numerous variations on this custom, but in whatever form it appeared, the central elements were an uncut loaf of bread and a white towel or scarf. Because engagement was as binding as the marriage itself, it was always done in a public act in front of family and friends who acted as witnesses. Starosta (an intermediary) joined the right hands of the couple above the bread, tied them together with white cloth, and made the sign of the cross over their joined hands representing "the joined endeavors of the man and woman to prepare the bread” that they always have bread beneath their hands.

Then there were Oprosiny or Zaprosiny (the invitations). Wedding traditions demanded that guests be invited in a certain obligatory manner. First, invitations were issued to relatives or friends to act as groomsmen or bridesmaids. The bride and groom then went to invite their godparents. In some sections of Poland old custom forbade the exclusion of anyone in the village from being invited to the wedding.

On the wedding day it was customary to have musicians playing as the wedding guest began arriving at the Dom Weselny (wedding home). On seeing a guest approaching they would begin to play, for which they were sometimes rewarded with a small tip.

When the groom arrived with his Starosta, groomsman and family members, the maid of honor began dressing the bride. Everyone would gather at the home of the bride to accompany the bridal couple to the church, but also to witness the blessing and symbolic farewells of the bride with her parents, relatives, and friends. The blessing by the parents were seen as more important than the church ceremony itself. After the receiving of the blessing, everyone stood in a circle around the couple and the mother blessed them with holy water. The blessings were so important that, if a mother or father had died, the wedding party would stop at the cemetery where the groom or bride asked for a blessing from the deceased parent

The trip to the church took place in various ways, with the bride and groom riding together or in separate wagons. Usually several horse wagons with stately horses and guests dressed in their Sunday best with bouquets of flowers pinned to their heads, followed them. pulling a wagon on which stood the driver, cracking his whip for everyone to get out of his way. Behind him were a fiddler and double base player playing a merry tune. Behind the wagon, on horseback, rode the master of ceremonies, the Starosta and the best man with a bottle of vodka who alternately offered it to the wagon driver. Everyone sang — the bridesmaids, the groomsman, the musicians and the wagon driver.

During the church ceremony it was expected of the bride to cry. If she didn't it was believed that she would cry throughout her married life. In some parts of Poland, the bride and groom took bread with them which had been given them during blessings. Leaving the church ceremony, the bride sometimes threw handfuls of straw on the young boys and girls who followed the wedding party. Whoever it landed on was prophesied to marry before the others. Another belief was that whichever one of the bridesmaids touched the bride or her wreath first after the marriage would marry that year.

When the newlyweds, followed by the wedding party and invited guests, finally arrived to the Dom Weselny (wedding home), they found the door closed to them. The Starosta sang a song to open up and the door was opened by the mother who stood before the stoop, sprinkling the married couple with holy water.

In customs that can be documented back to the sixteenth century, the young couple was most often greeted at the entrance of the house with bread and salt. Salt had equal footing with bread in all family customs from birth to death. It was believed that salt had the power to heal and cleanse, uncover thieves, protect houses against fire, dispel storms and hail, and drive away evil spirits.

The wedding feast also followed established traditions. The couple always sat at the table which was located along the wall containing holy pictures. First to be placed on the tables were bottles of vodka and beer, and the wedding banquet began with "Zapicie", i.e., to wash down or to drink. This was done with one glass which traveled from hand to hand. During the drinking, everyone wished one another good health and fortune, kissed one another and if moved, sang patriotic songs. The crowd ate, drank and danced. If a father could afford it, the wedding sometimes lasted three days.

On the last night of the wedding, the most important wedding custom of all took place. The custom was called Oczepiny. It was the moment when the Czepek — the cap of married woman — was placed upon the head at her wedding celebration. It was so essential and played such a vital roll in wedding activities that where other customs have disappeared altogether, the Oczepiny has survived to this day. In old Poland, it was so significant that only after the Oczepiny, and not the church ceremony, that the man exercised his marriage privileges towards his new wife. The marriage cap was usually a gift to the bride from her godmother. This cap was always held as special and reserved for wear to church, for special folk festivals, and on her death, for burial.

by Stan Garczynski, PGST News, Vol. XI No.2, Summer 1994

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