Poland’s Oldest Songs: The Best of Polish Medieval Music and Beyond

Poland is more than one thousand years old, and its musical heritage goes back just as far. Although seldom recognized today, Poland’s earliest songs date to the medieval era and earlier.

At that time, Latin was the universal language in Europe, and the Catholic Church reigned supreme. As a result, most of the beautiful hymns from that era are religious in nature.

Below are a few of the oldest Polish hymns (embedded from YouTube), along with a brief description of each.

Gaude Mater Polonia (Rejoice, oh Mother Poland)

One of Poland’s most revered hymns, Gaude Mater Polonia was composed by Vincent of Kielcz in 1253 for the canonization of St. Stanislaw Szczepanowski, who had been martyred 200 years prior. Throughout the centuries, this hymn was sung at Polish coronations, royal weddings, and after victories in battle.

Bogurodzica (Mother of God)

This Polish religious hymn, dates to the thirteenth century. It is a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary and was most famously sung before the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, when the Poles fought and defeated the German Teutonic Knights. It was also played at coronation ceremonies during Poland’s Jagiellonian dynasty.

Breve Regnum (Brief Kingdom)

Composed in the 15th century, Breve Regnum was originally sung by Krakow’s students during a week of debauchery that occurred every October. Students would take over the streets, elect their own “king,” and partake in several festive activities similar to Carnival. The original hymn was sung in Latin, and the title appropriately translates to “brief kingdom.”

Oj Chmielu, Chmielu (Oh, Hops, Hops)

While the other songs on this list are religious, Oj Chmielu, Chmielu is the oldest known Polish folk song, dating to the pre-Christian era. It’s a wedding song performed during the custom of Oczepiny, where a young lady was symbolically transitioned into the married life.

It was sung for centuries in Polish villages and continues to be sung today in certain parts of Poland that have either held on to the old traditions or are trying to revive them.

Hac Festa die (This Feast Day)

The oldest-known text of this Polish-Latin hymn dates to around the year 1300, although it is believed to be older. Its verses describe the martyrdom of Poland’s patron saint, Adalbert of Prague, at the hands of the Prussians in 997 and the Poles’ purchase of his relics.

Pieśnią Na Narodziny Królewicza Kazimierza (Song For The Birth Of Prince Kazimierz)

This Latin hymn was written in the early 15th century by one of Poland’s most famous medieval composers, Mikołaj of Radom. As the title suggests, the piece was composed to commemorate the birth of Prince Kazimierz, the son of King Władysław Jagiełło.

Modlitwa, Gdy Dziatki Spać Idą (Prayer When Children Go to Sleep)

This hymn is written as a prayer to God for protection before bed. It was composed during the 16th century by Wacław of Szamotuł and is technically a Renaissance song as a result. The words are in Polish.

Of course, there are many more centuries-old songs from Poland, and I will be adding to this list as time goes on. In the meantime, comment what your favorites are below!


Strangest Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions

Polish Christmas OrnamentChristmas Eve in Poland, known as Wigilia, has some very beautiful traditions. Breaking the Opłatek wafer, caroling, opening gifts, the midnight mass, or Pasterka–these are practices beloved by every Pole and person of Polish descent, including myself.

But there exists a stranger side to the way Poles used to celebrate Christmas Eve, filled with mystery and superstition.

Most of these beliefs have not been taken seriously for well over 100 years. When I ask Polish people today, especially younger ones, they haven’t even heard of them.

Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to travel back in time and study some of the odd beliefs our ancestors held. For that reason, I present to you some of the strangest Polish Christmas Eve superstitions.

Wigilia Predicts the Rest of the Year

An old Polish belief claims that whatever you do on this day will affect your entire year. If you fight with your loved ones, it’s a sign that the upcoming year will be filled with strife. If you stay fit and healthy on Wigilia, you will stay fit and healthy all year long. Lending out money or objects to others was once avoided for fear that the upcoming year would find you lacking food or other necessities.

When you consider how perilous life was in old Polish days—harsh winters, the chance of crop failures, etc.—you can begin to understand why such beliefs existed. Any form of reassurance that you would make it in one piece to next Christmas was embraced. Acting properly on Wigilia gave you a feeling of greater control over life’s unpredictabilities in the coming year.

There should be an even number of people and an odd number of dishes at supper time.

Even Numbers

Wigilia tablePoles used to strongly believe that at supper time on Wigilia, there must be an even number of people seated around the table or else there would be bad luck in the upcoming year.

Having 13 people was the worst scenario because the number 13 represented Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ. Odd-numbered families would place an extra plate anyway, just to keep things even.

Interestingly, an opposing belief held that there should be an odd number of dishes served. Poles somehow believed that this would create “room” for things to even out in the upcoming year, bringing greater food or wealth.

The Spirits are Coming

Here’s where things get sketchy from a Roman Catholic perspective. Poles used to believe that spirits walk among the living on Christmas Eve. The spirits would enter your home in the form of animals, mysterious strangers or invisible entities.

As a result, Poles would be careful not to sweep the floor or dust a chair during Wigilia for fear of disturbing a spirit while it was chilling in the house.

At supper time, an extra place would be set at the table for a wandering spirit. Food and drink would be served to this “person” like anyone else. After supper, the party was over. Everyone in the house would start banging loudly on pots and pans to chase the spirits out.

The belief in spirits is probably a holdover from pagan days. In the past century, though, it has become more symbolic.

During Poland’s many wars, at least one family member was always absent. The extra spot was reserved just in case that loved one might miraculously reappear. An extra plate also symbolizes charity to the less fortunate. It’s believed that if a poor person, or someone who has lost their way, knocks on your door asking for food or company, you will already have a place set for him or her.

Talking Animals

Toward the end of Wigilia, as midnight approached, things got bizarre as heck, or so Poles believed. This was the one night during the year that animals would talk like humans.

It’s hard to say why this belief existed, but it’s possible that animals were given an elevated status on this night because of the animals that were present in the stable during Christ’s birth.

When I was little, I had a dog, and at midnight on Christmas Eve I would always try to start a conversation with him. Unfortunately, it was always pretty one-sided.

Waking the Trees

An old rural Polish custom involved “waking up” the trees right before midnight mass. The head of the household would go outside and tie the trees around the house with straw or hay. Then, he would knock on the trees three times and shake them shouting “Do you not hear? The Son of God is born!”

Notable Mentions

  • Supper could only begin once the “First Star” or “Star of Bethlehem” was observed in the sky.
  • It was once believed that people would die in the same order as they sat down to supper during Wigilia.
  • Leaving the table before everyone finished their meal was considered bad luck.
  • Toward midnight, water in the house would turn to wine, almost certainly a reference to the biblical Wedding at Cana.

But wait, there’s more strange Polish Christmas Eve superstitions!

For further reading on this, check out




What Does my Polish Name Mean?

Polish flagEverybody recognizes a Polish last name (surname). In fact, if it looks unpronounceable, it’s probably Polish. Kowalski, Młynarski, Brzęczyszczykiewicz…maybe yours is even crazier.

Much has been written about Polish last names, and I don’t pretend to be an expert. I did want to distill some of the information out there, though, in case you don’t have time to read pages upon pages of resources.

So, what does YOUR Polish name mean? Keep reading to get a better idea.

Polish first names

When it comes to Polish first names, most are chosen after either a Catholic Saint or a traditional Slavic hero or figure. This makes sense, since Poland is still a predominantly Catholic country and proud of its Slavic past.

Some examples include:

  • Stanisław (Stanek, Staszek), after Saint Stanisław
  • Wojciech (Wojtek), after Saint Adalbert, one of Poland’s patron Saints
  • Bolesław (Bolek), after King Boleslaw (966 – 1025), one of Poland’s greatest kings.
  • Wladysław (Władek), after King Władislaw Jagiełło (1351–1434), another great Polish king.

Another aspect worth mentioning when it comes to Polish first names is how they denote gender. Polish female names almost always end in “a” (i.e. Katarzyna, Małgosia, Anna). Sometimes, you can feminize a Polish male name simply by adding an “a.” For example, Stanisław can become Stanisława.

Male names basically end in a consonant or any letter other than “a” (i.e. Janek, Marcin, Ołgierd).

Polish last names

In explaining Polish last names, let’s start with the most common ones most people recognize: names ending in “ski.” The suffix “ski” essentially means “from.” When combined with the prefix of a location, it creates a last name denoting where you are from. Note that the female form of “ski” is “ska.”

For example, suppose your family originated from Krakow. Your last name might then be “Krakowski.” Someone from Tarnow might have a last name of “Tarnowski.”

Originally, during the high middle ages, the suffix “ski” was used exclusively by nobles. Since nobles were recognized by their land or territory, that’s how they referred to themselves. Going back to the Tarnow example, a nobleman, Jan from Tarnow, would be Jan Tarnowski. His wife might be called Anna Tarnowska. These are called toponymic surnames, named after topography, or location.

But wait, what if your last name has the “ski,” but the prefix is not a location. One of the most common Polish last names is Kowalski, and, although there is a town called Kowal in Poland, it doesn’t explain why so many people have that last name.

That’s because, in the nineteenth century, peasants began taking on last names ending in “ski” as well. Except, they couldn’t use a location because most didn’t own any land. Instead, they used either cognominal surnames or patronymic surnames.

Cognominal Surnames: A cognominal surname is one taken after your occupation, personality, or even physique. For example, the “Kowal” in Kowalski” means blacksmith in Polish (English names often work the same way. Think John Smith). The “Piekar” in Piekarski refers to the Polish word for baker, or “piekarz.” These two surnames would mean “of the blacksmith” and “of the baker” respectively, because, remember, the “ski” means you are from or “of” something.

What about an example of a surname referencing a personality trait? Try the surname “Lisowski.” The prefix “lis” is the Polish word for fox. So the name means “of/from the fox,” which probably meant the family was known for being cunning and wise, perhaps in business.

We will get to patronymic surnames momentarily, but this wraps up the discussion of “ski.” Something fun you can do to figure out what your “ski” surname means is to look at the prefix and use a Polish translator. Is the prefix a Polish town or location? Then you might be a noble. Is it an occupation or character trait? Then you probably have peasant origins. It’s not always super easy, and there’s always exceptions, but these rules of thumb should help guide you.

Patrynomic Surnames: Patrynomic surnames refer to those deriving from a person’s name or family relations. Sometimes, these surnames are used with the suffix “owicz,” “ewicz,” “czyk” or some other combination. These suffixes translate to “son of.” An example is Łukaszewicz, meaning “son of Łukasz (Luke).

Other examples of patrynomic Polish surnames are “Adamczyk” (son of Adam), and “Kowalewicz” (son of the smith). Notice, in the last example, a family name is substituted with an occupation. It can get pretty complex.

The takeaway: if you have a surname with one of these suffixes, look at the prefix. Is the prefix another name or an occupation? It probably translates to “son (or daughter) of.”

Other Surnames: Unfortunately, I can’t cover every possible type of Polish last name in this article, but I will provide additional resources for you at the end. It is worth mentioning a couple more, however.

The most common Polish surname is Nowak, which derives from the Polish word for new, or “nowy/nowa.” Therefore, Nowak means, “the new one,” and may refer to someone who was a pioneer in a particular town or region.

Sometimes, Polish surnames have so-called diminutive suffixes, which I like to think of as cute, pet names. Consider the English “Bobby” instead of “Bob.” Oftentimes, these surnames end in “yk” or “iak.” An example would be “Szymoniak,” or “little Szymon.”

Where do I go from here?

The above are just some general rules. As with any language, there are exceptions and intricacies that only a professional linguist will be able to distinguish. If you are interested in further reading, check out the links below:

For meanings of several specific Polish last names, visit http://surnames.behindthename.com/names/usage/polish

For more detail on Polish surname suffixes, visit http://www.polishroots.org/Research/SurnameSearch/Surnamesendings/tabid/118/Default.aspx

To geographically search for the frequency of a Polish surname in a particular part of Poland, visit http://www.moikrewni.pl/mapa/

Questions/Comments? Write to me below!

Say What? How to Pronounce those Polish Letters

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters.

If you have no knowledge of the Polish language and want to learn it, no one will blame you for wanting to give up approximately 10 minutes after checking out the grammar and pronunciation.

Polish is tough. Many learners agree that it’s one of the harder languages to learn if your native tongue is English. The good news is that the alphabet is the same…sort of. There’s a few extra letters in the Polish alphabet that are not in English. You might come across these from time to time in a Polish last name, recipe or city.

Although I’m not qualified to teach you the entire Polish language, I can help you understand how to pronounce these letters so you’re more familiar when you encounter words that contain them. Below are explanations of the sounds, followed by an audio file. I do my best—I’m still an American.

Ą (ą)

First up, the “A” with the little tail thing (I’m sure there’s a fancy name for it). When you see this in a word, DO NOT pronounce it like the letter “a.” Rather, it has a nasally “own” sound. Sounds kind of French.

Ć (ć)

Cha, cha cha. The letter “Ć” has a “ch” sound, as in “church” or “choo choo.” There’s a little more to it, though. Check out the audio.

Ę (ę)

Here’s the “E” with the little tail thing. It has an “en” sound, like in “ten” or “hen,” but there’s a nasal accent. Listen to the recording to hear it for yourself.

Ł (ł)

Get ready for this. No, the letter “Ł” does not sound ANYTHING like the letter “L.” Instead, it has a “W” sound. Polish logic, right? So basically pronounce it like you would the English “W,” such as in “whale” or “win.”

Ń (ń)

The nearest English equivalent to the Polish letter “Ń” is the “ny” sound in the word “canyon.”

Ó (ó)

This one is easy. Pronounce “Ó” like “oo,” such as in “cool” or “tool.”

Ś (ś)

The Polish letter “Ś” generally sounds like “shh.” Again, this is one you will want to hear because there’s a little twist.

Ź (ź)

For me, the variations of the Polish letter “Z’s” are the hardest to pronounce because it’s hard to find an English equivalent. For the letter “Ź,” the nearest equivalent I found was the “si” sound in “Hoosier.”

Ż (ż)

Again, it’s hard to find an English equivalent to teach the sound of the letter “Ż.” It sounds close to the “si” sound in the word “allusion.” You might be struggling to notice the difference between this and the last one. Check out the recording.


I hope that helped you, even a little bit. I think even knowing that “Ł” sounds like “W” is important. Imagine the difference that can make in a word.


Gorzkie Żale: A Polish Lenten Tradition

One of the signs of Lent in the Polish community are the Gorzkie Żale, or Bitter Lamentations, sung at church on Sundays during that somber season. They’re a series of melancholic hymns about Jesus Christ’s passion and death, meant to be a form of grieving for His suffering.

Here’s an example:

The Gorzkie Żale are divided into three parts:

  • Part one recalls Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest and unjust trial. This part is sung on the first and fourth Sundays of Lent.
  • Part two recalls Christ’s suffering from his unjust trial to His being crowned with thorns. You can hear this part on the second and fifth Sundays of Lent.
  • Part three recalls Christ’s crucifixtion and death and is sung on the third Sunday of Lent and Palm Sunday.

The introductory hymn (Pobudka, or ‘‘wake up call’’) is the same for each of the three parts and goes as follows:

Polish text English version
Gorzkie żale, przybywajcie, Serca nasze przenikajcie. (2x)

Rozpłyńcie się, me źrenice, Toczcie smutnych łez krynice. (2x)

Let us pray in contemplation, While we sing this lamentation. (2x)

With eyes tearful, hearts repenting, Let us grieve with no relenting. (2x)

Słońce, gwiadzy omdlewają, Żałobą się okrywają. (2x)

Płaczą rzewnie Aniołowie,
A któż żałość ich wypowie? (2x)

Lo, the sun and stars are fading; sadness, nature all pervading. (2x)

Host of Angels, sadly weeping, Who’ll explain their deep bereaving? (2x)

Opoki się twarde krają, Zgrobów umarli powstają. (2x)

Cóż jest, pytam, co się dzieje? Wszystko stworzenie truchleje. (2x)

Mountains, cliffs and rocks are crumbling; Sealed tombs open, loudly thund’ring. (2x)

Why such sorrow, desolation?Overwhelming all creation? (2x)

Na ból męki Chrystusowej
Żal przejmuje bez wymowy. (2x)

Uderz, Jezu, bez odwłoki
W twarde serc naszych opoki. (2x)

‘Tis Our Savior’s sacred Passion Moving all to deep compassion. (2x)

Touch our hearts, O Lord most holy, With contrition, true and lowly. (2x)

Jezu mój, w krwi ran Twoich Obmyj duszę z grzechów moich. (2x)

Upał serca mego chłodzę,
Gdy w przepaść męki Twej wchodzę. (2x)

By your precious Blood redeem us; From sin, malice, O Lord free us. (2x)

May our Lenten lamentations, Curb false ardor and wild passions. (2x)

Afterward, each part has its particular set of spoken intentions and hymns. The Polish church I attend does the Gorzkie Żale as part of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament after Sunday Mass. The priest actually omits his Homily from the regular Mass and saves it for the lamentations.

Holy Cross Church in Warsaw during the 1700s–where the Gorzkie Żale were first sung.

Gorzkie Żale are a particularly Polish Catholic tradition. The words and ideas behind them derived from traditional Polish religious songs sung for centuries in villages. Officially, the lamentations were first written down and sung on March 13, 1707 in Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Afterward, they spread to other churches around Poland and eventually wherever Poles emigrated.

I encourage all of you to attend a Polish Mass during Lent sometime to hear these lamentations. Even if you cannot understand Polish, the haunting melodies will certainly move you. When done correctly, the Gorzkie Żale truly make it feel as if Christ is suffering right in front of you, and you with Him.

You can read the full Gorzkie Żale at this link: http://www.ststanskostka.org/pdf/Lenten%20Lametations%20.pdf