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


The Best Things About Poland: Episode II

It’s time to conclude my two-part series on the best things about Poland (Check out episode one here). Like I said two weeks ago, this could be a 10-part series, but there’s so many other wonderful topics to write about. If enough of you comment on this one, though, I won’t be able to help myself. Here it goes…

The Language

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters. Notice the 3 types of “z.”

Polish is not a language for the faint of heart. If your native tongue is English, it’s guaranteed to be one of the most difficult languages you can possibly learn. With seven grammatical cases, a boatload of various word-endings and three versions of the letter “z,” it will unleash hell on your brain.

So why is it so great? I can’t say I’m fluent, but I’m good enough to begin realizing its beauty. Unlike German, which sounds like yelling, or French, which sounds very nasally, Polish sounds soft, fluid and innocent. I especially become entranced whenever I hear Polish women speak it on TV, the radio or in person—it’s such a delicate and soothing collection of syllables.

If you ever read the Polish literary masters—Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Kochanowski—even if you don’t understand everything, you’ll definitely see how beautifully the language flows from the page. It makes learning it, even a little bit, worth it.

The Music

When it comes to music, Poland has so much to offer. For traditionalists, there are plenty of folk songs that will whisk you away to old Poland with their violin and accordion sounds. Folk fans should check out Rokiczanka and Brathanki. There is also, of course, Polka music and the Polish-favorite “Disco Polo.”

In the early twentieth century, tango was big in Poland. When you listen to these old songs, you can’t help but feel like you’re in an old café or saloon in pre-war Warsaw or Kraków. Check out Sława Przybylska for an example.

For rock and pop fans, Poland has a ton of music from the 1960s through today. Lady Pank, Wilki, Elektryczne Gitary, Perfect, Marek Grechuta, Gosia Andrzejewicz, Ewa Farna, and Urszula are just some examples. I purposely didn’t add hyper links to all those names—stay tuned to my blog for much more on Polish music in the near future.

Oh, just don’t listen to Polish rap. It sucks.



Polish Żur soup.

Ok, soup isn’t just Polish, but it definitely plays a big part in Polish life. I remember visiting my grandmother in Poland during my childhood. After the long, tiring, transatlantic voyage from the U.S. to Poland, and the additional journey from the airport to my grandma’s house, the first thing she greeted us with was a hug and kiss. The second, a bowl of hot soup. So soup plays a pivotal role in my conception of Poland.

Traditionally, soup is the first course in a Polish meal. From rosół, to tomato soup, to żur, Poland has no shortage of belly-filling, heart-warming soups. Polish soups are especially delicious and gratifying when you’re sick—a spoonful of warm vegetable, chicken and broth can often provide relief from the worst colds or flu.


Slavic beliefs
An imaginary painting of Poland’s Slavic origins.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about Polish traditions and customs—from Wigilia to Zaduszki—and there is much more to come on that front. The reason I can write so much is that Poland offers a seemingly infinite supply of intriguing cultural and religious practices.

Remember, before Poland became Catholic in 966 AD, it adhered to the ancient Slavic beliefs. Like many pagan peoples, the ancient Poles worshiped nature and believed in numerous supernatural entities. With the arrival of Catholicism, many of these beliefs were eliminated, but many were absorbed. This is why, even today, many Polish traditions are loaded with superstitions.

Aside from that, each region in Poland has its own customs—from the Górale in the southern mountains, to the Kashuby of the northern shores—you will find a rainbow of local costumes, dances and dialects across Poland. It’s a “melting pot” in its own right.

The Polish National Anthem (Mazurek Dąbrowskiego)

Poland has not yet perished. Those lines begin the Polish national anthem. They symbolize the Polish people’s undying hope and strong desire to preserve their identity. Written in 1797, just two years after Poland had been partitioned and erased from the map of Europe, this anthem was, from its inception, a statement that the Poles weren’t just going to lie down and die. As we have seen, there are just too many great things about the Polish nation for that to happen. Generations of Poles have fought and died to protect the idea of Poland, of its customs, food, music, language and people—it’s this Polish spirit that is embodied in the national anthem, making it perhaps the greatest thing about Poland.






The Best Polish Christmas Carols

KolędyWith Christmas right around the corner, you cannot walk into a store without hearing such classics as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” or “Frosty the Snowman.” Indeed, the wonderful sounds of the season pleasantly surround us, which is why I’m taking the occasion to share some Polish Christmas carols with you.

Caroling represents an integral part of the Polish Christmas celebration. In Poland, the word for carol is “kolęda.” Some kolędy date back to the 15th century. Although the people who wrote them have long been forgotten, the songs have survived  through the centuries in the voices of Polish carolers walking from door to door during the Christmas season.

Click on the title of each carol to be taken to an English translation (I couldn’t find translations for them all, unfortunately).

Bóg Się Rodzi (God is Born)

Perhaps the most famous Polish kolęda is Bóg się rodzi (God is born). The lyrics were written in 1792 by Franciszek Karpiński. The music was written centuries earlier by an unknown composer and served as the coronation hymn for Polish kings.

Gdy Się Chrystus Rodzi
(As Christ is Born)

This well-known hymn was likely composed in the early Baroque period, perhaps as far back as 1600. Some experts believe its origins lie in France, but, as with many of these songs, it’s very difficult to say for sure due to sparse records. The earliest printed version dates from 1843.

Anioł Pasterzom Mówił (The Angel Told the Shepherds)

Written in the 16th century, this is among the oldest Polish kolędy. It’s musical origins can actually be traced back to Latin hymns first sung during the Middle Ages. I get chills thinking of how many generations of Poles sung this carol throughout the centuries.

Gdy Śliczna Panna
(When the Lovely Virgin Mary)

This soothing kolęda was composed by an anonymous author in the early 18th century. Its lyrics describe the Blessed Virgin Mary rocking the baby Jesus as he sleeps. Female monasteries in Poland have a particular affinity for this song.

Przybieżeli do Betlejem
(They Came to Bethlehem)

First composed in the 16th century by Jan of Lublin, this kolęda has undergone various changes throughout the years—once in the 17th century and again in the 19th century. It tells of the shepards’ arrival to Bethlehem.

W Dzień Bożego Narodzenia
(On Christmas Day)

Happy and festive, it’s the perfect kolęda to mark Christ’s birth and celebrate the joy of the season. It was composed in the 17th century. Unfortunately, it’s not heard as often anymore, only rarely being sung in Polish churches.

Wśród Nocnej Ciszy
(In the Night’s Stillness)

Composed at the turn of the 19th century, this kolęda was first written down in 1853 in a church hymn book by Fr. Michał Marcin Mioduszewski. Traditionally, it opens the midnight Mass at Polish churches on Christmas Eve.

Dzisiaj w Betlejem
(Today in Bethlehem)

The earliest reference for this Polish kolęda comes from an 1878 church hymnal. As is the case with many other kolędy, the author is unknown, but it describes the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.

Pójdźmy Wszyscy do Stajenki
(Let us All go to the Stable)

This kolęda’s lyrics date to the 18th century, and the music was added a hundred years later. Its marching song-type beat is appropriate given that it’s all about visiting the stable where the baby Jesus lies.

Lulajże Jezuniu
(Sleep, Little Jesus)

This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful Polish kolędy, as it’s written as a lullaby for the baby Jesus. Dating back to the 1600s, the hymn has been a staple of Polish families’ Christmas Eve caroling traditions for centuries and an inspiration for composers like Frédéric Chopin.

Above was just a taste of the hundreds of Polish kolędy sung throughout time. Poland is widely recognized for having among the most varied number of Christmas carols of any country. Unfortunately, most have probably been forgotten, having never been written down.

Maybe, just maybe, if you happen to visit an old Polish village on a cold Christmas night and listen closely, you may hear the echoes of generations of Polish carolers reverberating in the frosty wind.