Polish customs and traditions Poles are fun lovers who enjoy festivities, traditions and centuries-old Polish customs. The most ancient rituals, especially those dating back to pagan times, have long lost their magical character, becoming a colorful vestige of the past and a form of amusement. Links with tradition are felt the strongest during the greatest religious feasts, such as Christmas, Easter, Corpus Christi processions and All Saints’ Day.
St. Andrew Day Rituals (Andrzejki) – November 29th
Not diamonds, but picket fences, melted candle wax and walnut shells are a girls best friend on this special night. November 29th – just before the full moon is the Eve of St. Andrew’s Day (Andrzejki). This is a special time for young Polish girls who want to find a husband. On this night and the next day, fortunes are told and the results are not taken lightly.
Here are a few ways that fortunes are told:
The most popular way is by melting wax and pouring it into a bowl of cold water. Wax is then picked up from the water, raised to the light, and the girls try to see the similarities of it to real objects.
Depending on the shapes, fortunes are told for the following year. If nothing meaningful comes up, there is always a chance that a girl will dream of something important dealing with her future, that night – but only if she could remember it.
In another traditional Polish customs way of fortune telling, girls stand in a circle leaning over a bowl of water with a small floating walnut shell containing a tiny-lighted candle. Each girl pastes a slip of paper with the name of a favored young man on the inside edge of the bowl above the water. To whichever name the lighted candle sailed to and burnt, a marriage proposal from him could be expected.
Also, during the day, a girl counts to the fourteenth post on a fence to see what her future husband will look like – fat, thin, short, tall, old, young. In another game, a scarf, a ribbon, and a rosary are placed separately under three plates. A girl, her eyes blindfolded, turns around three times while other girls rearrange the plates. If she draws a scarf, it means marriage; a ribbon – single for another year; rosary – becomes a spinster or a nun. Source
St. Barbara Feast – Miner’s Day – December 4th
One of the most celebrated days associated with workers group is St. Barbara’s Day on December 4th. St. Barbara is a patron of coal miners – one of the most time honoured professions in Poland. Through the centuries going deep under the earth was dangerous and often deadly. Although there is no caste system, Poland miners traditionally have been elevated to a special social station of their own. Not only for the Feast of St. Barbara, but also for weddings, funerals and other important political or social ceremonies, miners wear an especially smart looking black uniform adorned with red feathers.
Miners’ profession was always considered dangerous but prestigious therefore this day called “Barbórka” or Barburka” (there was a long battle between puritans of the Polish language which form is correct) was celebrated for centuries in a spectacular way. The name of the feast originate of course from St. Barbara as a patron.
Miners are dressed in the special uniforms during Barbórka. The uniform consists of black suit and hat with a feather. The color of the feather (white, red or black) depends on the rank of the miner. Miners wear their decorative uniforms not only during Barbórka but also for weddings, funerals and other important political or social ceremonies. Below is a picture of miners in their decorative uniforms with beautiful red feathers.
Barbórka is a time for miners balls. Miners from coal-mines of Silesia and Zagłębie do not work underground during this day but participate in festivities. A big ball takes place each year in Kraków’s University of Mining and Metallurgy (AGH) which collides with a time of Advent.
Barbórka is celebrated not only in Poland but also in other countries of the region with strong mining tradition like in Germany and in Czech Republic. In Germany the celebration is called “Barbarafeier”.
St. Barbara is not only a patron of coal-miners but also a patron of geologists, mathematicians and many others professions. Her patronage is linked with the fact that according to the legend she was imprisoned in a tall tower. Her imprisonment led to association with variety of construction professions. Her festivities take place in geological institutes and universities of Germany and Austria. St. Barbara is also connected strongly with the Orthodox Church’s tradition.
We had in Poland over hundred mines! Besides black and brown coal also copper and silver are excavated and also salt. But salt miners have their own patron, St. Kinga. St. Kinga’s feast is on July 24th. Source
Św. Mikołaj – St. Nicholas Day – December 6th
If you’re over in Poland during the month of December, you probably won’t find any presents under the Christmas tree. The reason: traditionally, Christmas trees are not displayed until they are put up on Christmas Eve Day, and Jolly St. Nick brought the kids presents on his namesake day, December 6th.
St. Nick over in Poland does a much better job keeping a list of who’s naughty or nice. “Rózga” is a little something that might show up from St. Nick’s bag of goodies for children that do not behave they way they are expected to throughout the year. It is (similar to a cane) made from a limb from the birch tree and used for corporal punishment. The naughtier kids are the bigger the “rózga” will be.
It is not to say presents aren’t also given on Christmas Eve (rather than the typical American Christmas Day). Since St. Nick brings presents a couple weeks before Christmas in Polish customs style, usually God’s helpers are responsible for bringing gifts on Christmas Eve. In Wielkopolska (Greater Poland – Poznań and West-Central region) the Starman – a man with a “gwiazdor” (star) brings the gifts to the children. The tradition of starman predates the tradition of Santa Claus.
In Lesser Poland and Silesia a small “aniołek” (angel) who is a messenger for the baby Jesus brings presents to kids on Christmas Eve. The small angel is invisible, but the angel’s presence is signalized by the sound of a ringing bell, and a moment later – the presents magically appear.
Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia! That is the way to say “Merry Christmas” in Polish. Polish Christmas Carols or kolędy are numerous and beautiful, especially when sung in Polish parishes at the Christmas Eve Mass. This Mass is called the Pasterka, which means the Shepherds Watch, and there is popular belief in Poland that while the congregation is praying, peace descends on the snow-clad earth and that during that holy night, the humble companions of men – the domestic animals – assume voices. But only the innocent of heart may hear them.
Christmas Day itself in the traditional Polish custom is spent in rest, prayer, and visits to various members of the family. In Poland, from Christmas Day until the twelfth night, boys trudge from village to village with an illuminated star and sing carols. In some districts, the boys carry on puppet shows called szopki. These are built like a little house with two towers, open in the front where a small crib is set and before which marionettes sing their dialogues.
During the Christmas season, the theaters give special performances. On the feast of the Epiphany, the priest and the organist visit the homes, bless them and write over their doors the initials of the three wise men – KMB (Kasper, Melchior and Balthazar) – in the belief that this will spare the homes from misfortune.
The Christmas season closes on February 2, known as Candlemas Day. On that day, people carry candles to church and have them blessed for use in their homes during storms, sickness and death. Source
Polish Christmas, by Numbers
Poles are a quite conservative – they pay a great deal of attention to tradition at Christmas. So, how does the Polish Christmas tradition look through the lens of statistics?
There are strong ties to tradition, religion, and family. Here’s a look at Wigilia which to Americans is known as Christmas Eve:
Sharing the Christmas opłatek (opłatki plural)is observed by 99 percent in Poland. (The waffers, which each participant holds out so the others around the table may take a bit of it like communion)
Eating traditional Christmas Eve dishes happens in 98 percent of the homes. Just behind these traditions come decorating the Christmas tree, fasting on Christmas Eve until dinner and preparing an additional place at the Christmas table for an unexpected guest – which we will discuss in a little more detail in a moment.
Putting hay beneath the tablecloth is still practiced by 61%. The least important thing for Poles is dressing up as Santa Claus – only 36% see someone dressed like St. Nick.
Another element of the Polish Christmas Eve is the custom of visiting the graves of deceased relatives. The survey said this was important for 75% of Poles. For 68 percent of the nation, it is important to sing Christmas carols.
Here’s a little more about the importance of the empty seat at the table. Nearly all Polish families prepare the extra place. And, nearly a third invite a poor or lonely person to share Wigilia.
The patriotic duty to remember people who are in exile or far from home, has its roots in Polish hospitality – and in times when Poland lay divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Keeping a space open pays tribute to these loved ones. The first casualties of French soldiers from Napoleon’s failed winter attack on Russia retreated to many of these open seats two centuries ago as unexpected guests. And, were well cared for by Poles. Source
Opłatek – History & Background
Sharing of opłatek was, and still is the core and essence of Christmas Eve celebration throughout Poland. Opłatek is essentially an unconsecrated bread wafer of the type used during Holy Communion. It has been suggested that the sharing of this bread wafer at the Wigilia table is a modification of what was once the sharing of ritual bread called podpomyk.
This was a thin, flat bread traditionally baked before placing the loaves of bread dough in the oven. The baking of this first bread was not a chance happening, but an absolute responsibility. The housewife shaped this thin bread on a flat surface and, scraped aside the glowing embers of the flames, giving its name – “before the flames”.
To easily break this bread into parts after baking, the housewife made heavy marks of a checkerboard pattern across the top. This bread baked quickly, with bubbles on he top. It was eaten not only by the inhabitants of the house but was also sent to friendly neighbors. The appearance of this bread in conjunction with the oplatek gave rise to the conjecture that it was an early form of the bread wafer.
In Poland, the bread wafer was known from the time of Christianity, but used only during Holy Mass. By the 15th century, the bread wafers were being made on a larger scale for popular use.
Wafers were used as snacks with wine, as a seal for letters, and for making Christmas decorations. Developing simultaneously with the spread of wafers was the art of iron engraving. Rectangular shaped irons, the insides engraved with various religious motifs, were used to emboss scenes on the wafer. The dough was poured on one side, the other half closed over, and the iron held over a fire until the wafer was baked.
Over time, the responsibility of making and distributing the bread wafer was taken by the church organist, who received a small payment. White bread wafers were made for human consumption and other colours like pink for animals. More about Polish Christmas Source
St. Stephen’s Day
St. Stephen’s Day in Polish customs is known as the second holiday. This is a day for visiting and expressing Christmas greetings. And when night begins to fall, you can hear stamping and jingling, and then Christmas carol singing outside. These are carolers – Herody, who began their wandering from home to home. Herody is a popular form of caroling and this is a live performance usually, done by twelve young boys.
Dressed in special costumes they are: King Herod, field marshal, a knight, a soldier, an angel, a devil, death, a J-e-w, Mary, shepherds, sometimes Three Kings and an accordionist. They sing pastoral songs, carols, and when let into the house, play scenes from King Herod’s life. Oration and songs vary and depend on to whom they are addressed – to the owner of the house, to a young girl about to be married, to a widow, etc. At the conclusion, they are offered refreshments and some money. No less popular is caroling with a Szopka – and with a star. Usually, those are carried by three caroling teenagers. They too are given some money.
Some time ago, caroling began on St. Stephen’s Day and lasted until February 2, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mother. Today it lasts until January 6, the Feast of Three Kings, saying then, goodbye to a merry season.
Nativity Scenes in Poland
The Christmas crèche is common to all of the Christian faith. Crèche (also spelled creche) is a French word that means crib, so it is an appropriate label for the Nativity scene. In Poland; however, they take the construction of scaled models or human sized mangers to a high level of artistry. In Polish the word used is Szopka and is a recognized Polish institution.
Mentioning the word szopka (creche) or jaselka (nativity play) to someone born in Poland conjures images of the live nativity scenes, puppet shows, pageant plays and shimmering fairy tale castle-like scenes celebrating the birth of our Savior.
In the Middle Ages, Polish artisans created elaborate puppet theaters called szopkas to stage morality plays. Today, tiny versions mostly made of paper are still a common sight during the Christmas season in Polish homes, churches and many other places, but live performances survive as well.
The custom originated in the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi, set the first Nativity tableau. Soon there after It was brought to Poland by Franciscan monks. The earliest sign of a manger scene in Poland was in St. Andrew’s church in Kraków. The first crìches were quite simple. With the passing of time monks took on the roles of the figurines, and developed a living nativity.
Throughout the 18th century, native artisans were making crèches that were distinctively Polish in architectural design, folk costume and motif. Each region developed its own unique design, but it was in Kraków that it developed into a high art.
Eventually, dialogue crept in and the jaselka play developed. Monks were replaced in due course by common folk and even the nobility. Figures from history, local tradition and legend, such as Pan Twardowski were added for national color. Allegorical figures such as the devil and smierc (death) carrying a scythe soon appeared, along with Biblical figures, such as, the Holy Family and King Herod.
Even the inanimate crèche without human actors was improved upon. Around the early 1700s stringed marionette or stick puppets replaced the static figures. The performances presented two types of integrated plots: a Biblical one telling the Nativity story and a lay one of traditional, folk and satirical nature.
Still taking place in church, it was soon realized that the excitement of such entertainment had gotten out of hand. In 1736, these plays were banned from the churches by Bishop Teodor Czartoryski, permitting only immobile scenes of a strictly Biblical Christmas. Both the live and puppet shows now were passed down to the people, who included them in the ritual of caroling (kolędnicy).
Following the ban the performances evolved into a true expression of folk art. The live “jasełka” became a traveling show beginning on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26). The Bethlehem locale, was now set in Poland. Original characters and much of the traditional dialogue were preserved, but in the hands of artists and students it became a mirror of community life, with political satire and local anecdotes added in.
Key moments were preserved, such as the well-known scene between King Herod and the devil. The devil triumphantly exclaims in retribution for Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, “Królu Herodzie za twe zbytki, chodz do piekla, bos ty brzydki” (King Herod for your wicked ways come with me to hell because you are deplorable). This scene was extremely popular with the audience.
By the 19th century several elements defined the scaled model version of the szopka. The present day shape found inspiration in the existing structures of Kraków. The stable’s roof was covered by a second story and was flanked by two towers. The two towers eventually resembled the Kosciół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Church) and the central Renaissance dome was reminiscent of Wawel Castle’s Zygmunt Chapel. By the end of the 19th century the stable was moved to the second floor and bottom floor was filled with figures of folklore and history.
The outbreak of World Wars I & II put a temporary end to the szopka, but the tradition lives on in succession of any political or military interruption. Competitions have become an annual holiday tradition with a magnitude of entrants. Kraków hosts the competition in the central Rynek (marketplace) Square. The puppet shows survive to this day as popular entertainment and are anticipated by the public each Christmas. Source
New Year’s Eve – Sylwester
In Poland New Year’s Eve is known as St. Sylvester’s Eve. This name according to legends arose from Pope Sylvester I who was supposed to have imprisoned a dragon called Leviathan who was supposedly able to escape on the first day of the year 1000, devour the land and the people, and was suppose to have set fire to the heavens. On New Year’s Day, when the world did not come to an end, there was great rejoicing and from then on this day was called St Sylvester’s Eve.
New Year’s Eve in the city in Poland is celebrated at more or less formal balls. Some of them have a long-lasting tradition. For example the ball at the Warsaw Philharmonic Society, or the sportsmen’s ball, is attended by “the man of the year”. And, a New Year’s Eve ball always begins with a polonaise.
In the country, New Year’s Eve day has traditionally been an occasion to commit pranks of all kinds. It was not unusual for the village jokesters to disassemble somebody’s wagon and reassemble it on the roof of a house, or to smear windows and door knobs with tar. In the Żywiec region for example, groups of boys (Jukace) disguised as devils, Gypsies and beggars scour the village, and with the earsplitting rattling of empty cans they would accost any young woman they come across and knock her down in snow. All the tricks are forgiven for they are believed to be ousting the old passing year.
One important characteristic of New Year’s Day was bread-baking. Different animals were shaped from the dough – sheep, rabbits, geese, cows (byśki). Godparents often gave these bread animals with best wishes to godchildren as presents. In some areas of Poland pączki or donuts were baked to assure wealth for the whole year. Bread in the shapes of a ring (korowaj), a cross or a child were hidden at the dinner table and used for fortune telling. If someone found a ring, marriage awaited. A cross – entry into clergy. And a child – that meant a child out of wedlock.
Other traditions include: those who wake up early on New Year’s Day will wake up early for the rest of the year. Those who touched the floor with the right foot when getting up from bed could expect a lot of good luck the whole year. And those who wanted to get rich had to put change in a small bag and run through the fields shaking the bag and making a lot of noise.