Poland is an old country with many traditions. Many traditions have their roots in the Catholic Church, some are so old that they have a pagan origin, yet others are a mixture of Catholic and pagan customs. Some customs have been introduced from other European countries.
New Year's Day
January 1st is a day of long sleep – after the long and festive New Year's Eve. It is a day spent in the family. Furthermore, anyone named Mieczyslaw (men) or Mieczyslawa (women) can celebrate their namesake with family and friends.
Holy three kings
On the Three Kings Day (Kasper, Melchior and Balthasar) – on January 6 – the Christmas season ends. In all churches, the priests consecrate water, commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. After this, the priests visit their parishioners, bringing with them the water of consecration. The sign is in many Polish homes “K + M + B” on the inside of the front door, along with the year when the pastor visited.
Fat Thursday (Tlusty Czwartek) or Comber falls on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.
According to legend, there was once a Krakow mayor named Comber, and this mayor levied very high taxes on the citizens of the city. For the same reason he was very ill, and on his death, which occurred on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, cheered for joy; they sang, drank and danced in the streets; and they continued for many years to this day.
Today the cheer has been taken away, but tradition requires that on this day from morning till late in the evening, guests are offered paczki (sweet bakery reminiscent of Berlin Pfannkuchen) or faworki (a kind of very thin cloves). Thursday the bakers produce very large quantities of paczki, and despite this, many queues are seen in many places in front of the shops.
Ostatki or Zapusty – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Prince Zapust, a disguised, fictional, cheerful person, wanders with his servants in town and in the countryside, entertaining people with funny stories and singing. One should always give them a gift to make sure they come again. Eventually, the disguised guests sing a song as a thank you for the gifts.
Ash Wednesday falls on Wednesday 6 ½ weeks before Easter (ie Wednesday after fasting) and signifies the end of the carnival and the beginning of the fast which lasts until Easter Saturday.
During Lent, only a few ecclesiastical events take place. What can wait is postponed until after Easter.
Ash Wednesday evening, believing Catholics attend church to be sprinkled with ashes by the priest.
But the same Wednesday is also the last expiry of the carnival season, and so you can afford a little joke. For example, you can hang a herring, or a hen's foot on another person's coat to amuse those behind him.
Palm Sunday, a week before Easter Sunday, there is a Catholic custom that offers to make a “palm tree”, usually a bouquet of fresh willow branches, commemorating Christ's arrival in Jerusalem. These “palm trees” being blessed in the church and later used for decorating the Easter table.
In Poland, Easter is as big a holiday as Christmas. Easter Saturday Easter is made ‘pisanki’ i.e. you color eggs and paint different patterns; Afterwards, place these painted eggs together with a piece of bread, salt, pepper, horseradish, a piece of sausage and a sugar lamb in a small basket. This basket of food is carried to the church so that the priest can bless the food. On Saturday, you will also have to buy cranberry berries to decorate the Easter table.
You eat Easter breakfast with your family. As an introduction to the meal, the eldest member of the family cuts out one of the eggs blessed on Saturday and distributes the pieces to everyone with the desire for a merry Easter. You first share the foods that have been in the church and afterwards you eat them as well as a good breakfast otherwise: pisanki, ham and good Polish sausages as well as various salads. For coffee and tea you serve Easter-“mazurki”, a dry cake with icing and “baby wheel cannons”, a yeast cake baked in a high form.
Easter Monday Easter Sunday – Lany Poniedzialek (“Wet Monday”) - characterized by the custom that everyone should spray or pour water on each other. Especially in the countryside you go to great lengths: the young men gather in flocks and pour dozens of water over the young girls who are so unlucky to pass the flock, for example. when the girls go home from church. This tradition is called “Smigus-Dyngus”. “Smigus” means pouring water on someone and “Dyngus” means gifts with which one can buy oneself free. “Smigus-Dyngus” also covers the old custom of beating the girls on the legs with palm ice.
“Prima aprilis, not wierz, above them omylisz” (fine aprilis, don't believe it, because you can be wrong) – says the proverb. On this day, everyone is trying to fool each other with an innocent joke.
May 26 is Mother’s Day; on this day mom gets flowers and the kids are extra cute towards her.
Saint Hans Evening
On June 23 in the evening, Sobótki fires were burned, and not long ago it was customary for the brave of the young men to leap over the fire.
At the larger rivers, young, unmarried women send flowers (wianki swietojanskie) down the river; if a girl has thrown her wreath into the river and it encounters another wreath, she can hope to get married soon.
Mary's Ascension Day
(Polish: Swieto Matki Boskiej Zielnej – in parts of the North known as “Maria Harvest Fair”) is August 15, at a time when most farmers are finished harvesting.
In the old days there was a party in every village. The king was given bread by the Polish nobility – the gentlemen – made from freshly harvested grain; he also got wreaths that were braided by the last cornax and beautifully decorated with flowers, apples, rowan berries, walnuts and hazelnuts and studded with colorful loops. The braiding of these wreaths was an entire art; some wreaths were shaped like a crown, other wreaths were round. After the most respected farmer handed the autumn symbols to the local gentleman, the party could begin, perhaps with a whole bull on the menu, with vodka and dance afterwards. Farmers in national costumes danced the popular Polish dances: polonez, oberek, kujawiak, krakowiak, zbójnicki and mazur.
The tradition is still alive. “Dozynki centralne” is organized annually and every year in a new region of Poland. Among the highly esteemed guests is first and foremost the President of Poland, who receives a freshly baked bread made from fresh cereal.
Each Catholic family braids small wreaths of 4 kinds of grain, or perhaps just of autumn flowers and herbs, and brings them to the church so they can be consecrated with consecration water. Afterwards, the wreaths hang at home until next year.
All Saints Day / Day of the Dead
November 1st is All Saints Day or Day of the Dead. The last tradition, Day of the Dead, dates from the time before Christianity in Poland. In pagan times, people, especially in the eastern regions of Poland, believed that the dead would rise from the earth that day. Relatives provided food and drink at their graves in the evening. The tradition was so strong that it was known even in the 18th century. The church could not fight it and therefore sanctified the day, ie. made it a feast for all the dead at the same time as the common day of remembrance for all saints.
Now it is a very strong and vibrant tradition for all Poles. Those who can meet this day at their parents' graves with wreaths, flowers and, above all, candles. That day and far into the night, candles are lit in every graveyard, every grave. On the radio and television, classical music, mourning music is played. Chopin is always on the repertoire. It is the day of the whole year when Poles travel most, both locally and at long distances all over Poland.
Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish poet, described the ancient tradition in one of his poems: “Dziady”.
Different proverbs are associated with November 11 (Dzien Swietego Marcina, ie Mortensdag):“After Marcina, you do komina” (“Sankt Morten has to go in the oven”).
“Sw. Marcin po vodzie, Angry Narodzenie po lodzie” (“Rain for Sankt Morten gives frost for Christmas”).
“Sankt Morten on the white horse (frost and snow) gives rain for Christmas” (Approximate).
It is said that around this time winter comes to Poland.
On November 30 on the day of the Apostle Andreas, there is the prophetic evening – Andrzejki. Young girls are organizing a cozy evening, and the program is as follows: predicting who will get married next year. Wax traces: a wash basin with cold water is placed in the middle of the living room; each girl takes some hot wax and pours it into the water. If something is created that can be reminiscent of a human body, then happiness is at home. If the cast figure can create a shadow on the wall in the form of a man, then you are sure to have an early wedding.
The young girls place their shoes in a row along a wall; then “meter” they distance the door in the opposite wall by alternately putting their shoes in succession. Lucky is the one whose shoes hit the door step; she wants to get married first.
The girls put several banknotes with male first names under the pillow and the next morning they choose a single banknote. The first name on the banknote is the name of the girl's future husband.
It's an evening of fantasy and high spirits!
December 4th is Holy Barbara's Day, “Barborka”. – Barbara is the Miners' patron saint. There have always been many evil spirits underground that Barbara protected the miners from. Each mine has its legend in which Barbara plays the hero role. This day there are big parties in all coal mines in Silesia, in the salt mines in Wieliczka and Bochnia, the zinc and silver mine in Olkusz, the copper mine at Lubin etc.
Saint Nicholas Day
on December 6 (Polish: Swiety Mikolaj) .- Sct. Nicolaus is the patron saint of sailors, priests, monks, writers, prisoners, Misses without dowry and – not least – young children.
That evening, Saint Nicolaus comes to visit kindergartens and private homes. He has a very long beard and is dressed in his red cape and bishop's cap, and adheres to his diocese. He lives in heaven. The children write letters to him. He carries on a heavy sack hanging over his shoulder. Saint Nicolaus has an exceptionally good memory; he remembers whether a child has been naughty or has been good at playing football over the past year. He asks the children to sing a song, dance a little or read a little story, count to 10, etc. After that performance, the child gets his presents from the bag. In some cases, when Saint Nicolaus is too busy, he hurries and puts the package under the pillow while the child sleeps.
The most naughty children risk getting rice with a small branch from the garden; but they usually get their gift afterwards. In the period up to December 6, it happens that naughty children are reminded of the possibility of getting rice. But whether St. Nicholas likes kids better today or there are actually fewer naughty kids today, it is rare to hear about someone who has been given rice.
On December 24 in the afternoon, you decorate the Christmas tree, which you place in a corner of the living room.
While working on the traditional Christmas dishes takes place in the kitchen, you cover the table in the living room. An extra envelope is placed “ to an unexpected guest”, for tradition offers that on this evening no one should sit alone at home. If a guest knocks on the door that night, he should feel welcome. In the middle of the table are placed cachets, which the church clerk came with during the month of December. According to custom, the wafers must lie on hay to symbolize the child of Jesus lying on hay in his crib.
When it gets dark, the kids have to watch out for the first star to appear in the sky. When the silence is broken by the children's cries that they have seen the star, then you can start going to the table, but first you have to “share cachets”.
The host takes the plate of cachets and gives a piece to everyone. The host takes a piece of wafer in his left hand and addresses the elder in the living room. Oblatdelingen (“breaking the bread”) takes place in the way that every person, including young children, expresses personal wishes for happiness and good fortune for every other person present. After expressing a desire, you break a small piece of the other's bread (wafer) and eat it.
Only after this ceremony is completed, the hostess invites to the table.
The food eaten Christmas Eve is prepared without meat according to the rules of the Catholic Church. Christmas Eve is one of the days of fasting, ie. one must eat fish and vegetables, but not meat.
The menu itself may vary slightly depending on the region of Poland you are in. Someone still makes sure 13, 9, or 7 dishes are served, at least an odd number of dishes.
Examples of Christmas dishes:
herring in sour cream or marinated herring in oil or fish in jelly;
mushroom soup with “lazanki” (some kind of pasta) or beetroot soup with “small ears” i.e. small sponges with mushrooms;
fried carp or other hot fish;
cooked sauerkraut with yellow peas and dried mushrooms;
compote of dried fruits (prunes or apples);
a dish containing birch: “makówki” or
homemade pasta with birch, honey, almonds and raisins or
After the traditional dinner, you sing some of the beautiful Polish Christmas songs; also the famous German “Silent Night” sung in polish (“Cicha noc”) belongs to the Polish Christmas.
Many go to church “pasterka”, midnight fair.
All churches build their own Christmas cribs (ie a small scene with figures depicting the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem). If there are gifts under the tree, the children take them out and give them to the guests.
Already that evening, especially in the countryside, you can feel the window knocking and you see a big star glowing as a few Christmas hymns are sung. There are some young people walking around the individual homes in the village and erecting a small play that tells of Jesus, King Herod, Joseph and Mary. They are disguised so they look like the people who attend. The devil and death and an angel are also part of the game. The lyrics are rhyming and very entertaining. The story always ends with the cruel King Herod being caught by Death and thrown into Hell.
Another Christmas tradition is “koledowanie z szopka”, to go on a Christmas visit with a crib.
Szopki (creep plays) are small puppet theaters where amateurs perform a performance involving holy persons, though often supplemented by political figures. The city of Kraków is very well known for this tradition. Their szopki are so beautiful that you make exhibitions with them. Szopki from Kraków does not imagine cribs, but is miniatures of the many old churches in the city.
1st and 2nd Christmas Day
On December 25 and 26, guests arrive for dinner. The menu includes various meat dishes, but for the tea and coffee, traditional Christmas bakes are served: birch cake, gingerbread, cheesecake.
December 31 is Sylvester's day and the last day of the old year. That night and night you have to spend with friends at home or go to the ball. After a good dinner, consisting of several dishes, both fish and meat dishes, the dance begins, which can continue for many hours, but with a break at midnight. You welcome the new year with champagne at 24 and congratulate each other. The party ends late at night or early in the morning.
Text: Maryla Twardowska-Spangshus
Translated into English by Google Translate. Spangshus.dk accept no liability for any errors or omissions in translation.