Echoes in the Winter Wind: Polish Christmas Caroling Traditions

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Imagine it’s a cold, dark night in a rural hamlet, far away from the nearest center of population. A full moon shines through the crisp, dry air, competing only with the light emanating from the hearth in your neighbor’s thatched hut. The pristine snow glistens in the lunar rays.

It’s the dead of winter, in between Christmas and New Year, and all you hear from inside your own thatched home is the wind and distant sounds of…singing? The singing grows louder until you hear a knock at your door. You open to find an odd spectacle—a group of people dressed as various characters. You see a goat, a devil, an angel, a soldier, a Jew, shepherds, kings, an old man and woman…What is this?

You are in a Polish village 150 years ago, and you’ve just been visited by kolędnicy, or carolers. I use the term “carolers” loosely because they differ quite a bit from the top-hatted men and bonneted women going from door to door singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” in a Charles Dickens novel. This is caroling with an ancient Polish spin. The Polish word kolęda, which translates roughly to carol, derives from the Latin word for the first day of the year—calendae.

During the middle ages in Poland, the new year traditionally began on Christmas, hence the connection to the word calendae and the Polish kolęda. The period of caroling, or kolędowanie, typically lasted from Christmas until the Feast of the Three Kings. It was an extremely festive time when groups of carolers (kolędnicy) would celebrate, going from door to door to sing and put on mini performances in exchange for blessings and small gifts.

To be sure, kolędowanie retained some aspects of paganism, held over from pre-Christian Poland. For example, the themes of natural death and rebirth, represented by the transition from winter to spring, or darkness to light, pervaded this Polish custom. As with many other Polish Christmas traditions, the goal during this magical period was to foretell fertility for the coming year. One form this took was the dressing of people as animals, in particular as the ox, or turoń.

>>Check out other interesting Polish Christmas Customs

turon
A traditional turoń costume.

A boy would wear a wooden ox head, complete with movable jaws, horns, and a sheepskin covering. Typically, two other boys would “walk” the turoń on a leash from door to door. Upon entering a home, the turoń would begin dancing and acting festive in the hopes of bringing on a fertile year.

The Catholic Church never cared for such customs but tolerated them so long as the message of Christ’s birth was not lost. To that end, two more Catholic types of kolędowanie emerged—Szopki and Herody.

Szopki:

Szopki refer to portable manger scenes. Beginning during the late middle ages, Polish churches would put on manger scene performances composed of mechanical puppets. Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the angels, shepherds and a host of other characters were controlled by a series of wheels, levers and springs.

Eventually, these mechanical nativity scenes got out of control with the countless characters and elaborate mechanisms, and the church felt they had lost focus. As a result, these original szopka performances fell out of practice.

Over time, however, villagers began creating their own miniature szopki, three-dimensional, house-like constructions made of wood and containing cut-outs of the Nativity scene inside. A group of boys would carry this portable manger scene from door to door, singing religious carols. Sometimes, carolers would carry a giant, homemade star on a long pole. Caroling with this star was called “gwiazdory.” In Krakow, this custom eventually prompted an annual competition in which designers create extremely elaborate szopki, sometimes made with gold and silver. This competition continues today.

>>Check out this video showing today’s szopki in Krakow

koledowanie2Herody: Another type of mini performance during kolędowanie was called Herody. It revolved around the evil actions, death and punishment of King Herod, known for the murder of infant boys in Bethlehem during the time of Christ’s birth. Principle characters included Herod, an angel that tries to stop his murderous decision, a reaper that kills him and a devil that takes his soul.

Groups of between six and ten young men would dress up as these characters and go from door to door to put on live performances for the homeowners in return for money, treats and refreshments. Interestingly, women did not participate in these performances. The men played the women’s parts. Musicians would accompany the groups to play traditional carols.

The performers would often enjoy really getting into character. The devil would chase children around the house, while the angel would try to stop him. Other characters included the Blessed Mother, a joke-cracking Jew, a soldier and a bishop.

In an age before Christmas playlists and smartphones, kolędowanie served the important purpose of spreading the cheer of Christ’s birth throughout the Polish village. Back then, there was no music unless someone made it. The only entertainment was live entertainment. Although many of these practices lasted well into the 20th century, today they have mostly ceased, with the exception of shows put on by cultural preservation societies.

Still, I like to believe that there’s still some hidden village somewhere in the Polish foothills where time stops and the kolędowanie of my ancestors is more than just ghostly echoes in the winter wind.

 

Guest Column: 10 Things to Get a Polish Beauty for Christmas (According to a Polish Girl)

By Kasia N.

The Holidays are in full swing, and before we know it, Christmas will be here! If you are hanging out/dating/getting to know/in love with a Polish girl and find yourself in a frantic search for the perfect gift, DON’T WORRY – polishbeauty, aka me, will share with you what’s on my Christmas gift list.

Statue of Józef Piłsudski

A statue of Piłsudski reminds us of strength and your value in defense of us….and Poland. Go ahead and use Crazy Polish Guy’s Pick-Up Line when you give this to her: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’d save Poland from 123 years of Russian occupation for you.”

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Jewelry

Get your girl a piece of Polish jewelry (like below). She’ll look better than a Victoria Secret angel….she’ll be your Polish Crowned Eagle

polish-eagle-necklace

Music for her Heart

Buy your girl a Spotify subscription and surprise her with a Chopin playlist…or go old school and buy her a Chopin cassette.

chopin meme

Polish Reads

Invest in her mind. Get her a book for her Polish Library. I still need a copy of, “The History of Polish Literature” by Czeslaw Miłosz—one of the most useful guides to learning about the most self-expressive Polish writers and poets throughout the ages. Gifting a book will inspire the inner Polish scholar in your girl and showoff your value in reading and education.

book

Flowers

Buy her flowers. She’ll love you. She’ll probably also use them to make a flower crown…or you could save her some time and buy her a real crown because DUH you’re associating yourself with a Polish Queen. If you really think she’s a Polish Queen, below is a crown that Saint Jadwiga would wear.

Jadwiga the female king

Cell Phone Cover

A decorated cell phone cover to honor one of her loves….soccer star Robert Lewandowski. Click here and check it out!

Polish Girl Wardrobe Staples

T-Shirt of Husaria. Useful if I want to pair with my business blazers and assert a fierce, dominant attitude.

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Map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Polish women are leaders in their careers. I got myself involved with politics. I’m a driven woman who likes to be surrounded by #goals…#greatness and #POWER. Screw Kanye West. Your Polish girl wants a map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to hang in her office.

map-poland-lithuania

An “I Owe You” and Post-US-election-day-gift?

Have money? Were you planning on leaving the USA if Trump was elected? ….or Hillary? Make those post-election plans. Buy those airplane tickets and take that trip to Poland with your girl! #MakePolandGreatAgain

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Polish Reads – Part 2

The title for most romantic love story of all time is held by exiled poet Adam Mickiewicz from his Polish homeland. Get your girl Pan Tadeusz and don’t forget to write a note inside expressing your love for her as more passionate than that of the exiled Pole.

pan-tadeusz

15 Reasons To Be Thankful for Poland

One of the things my friends always ask me is why I’m so crazy about Poland when I wasn’t even born in that country. Some of them just don’t see why Poland matters. “What contributions has Poland made to the world?” they ask.

The answer is more than they think. I have compiled the following list to BEGIN demonstrating what Poland has to offer. There is no particular order to this list (So, no, I’m not saying that pączki are better than Saint Pope John Paul II).

1. Pączki:

Pączki are one of those foods that have transcended cultural borders to become a staple of universal cuisine. Whether you’re American, German, Australian or Dutch, chances are you’ve sunk your teeth into those fluffy balls of fruit-filled delight. Just remember that you have Poland to thank.

Polish paczki


2. Vitamins:

Do you take Vitamin C when you feel like you’re getting sick? Perhaps you take a daily multivitamin to supplement your health. You can thank a Pole, Casimir Funk, for discovering the concept and existence of vitamins in 1912. Although, I’m not sure if that’s the reason some vitamins have such a funky taste.

vitamins


3. Heliocentricity:

The earth revolves around the sun. Duhhhh. But we wouldn’t have known that if it weren’t for Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who proved this phenomenon in the 16th century. For centuries prior to this, the accepted theory was that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around it. Not only did Copernicus discover the opposite (heliocentricity), but this discovery helped spur the Scientific Revolution.

copernicus heliocentricity


4. Saving Europe…TWICE:

In its history, Poland fought back two invasion forces that had the potential to completely change the social and political fabric of the European continent. The first was in 1683 when King John III Sobieski repulsed a massive Ottoman invasion at the gates of Vienna. The second occured in 1920 when Poland miraculously defeated a Soviet onslaught into the west during the Battle of Warsaw.

John III Sobieski


5. X-Rays:

Next time you’re getting your tooth X-rayed at the dentist’s office, remember Marie Skłodowska  Curie, a Polish female scientist who helped develop X-ray technology and was the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize. She also discovered a new element and named it Polonium, after her home country.

Curie Xray


6. Big, Beautiful Castles:

OK, OK, many countries have castles. But Poland has the largest castle on the planet at Malbork. Built by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century and later captured by the Poles, the massive fortification stretches for 52 acres. Still, I must note that there is some friendly competition between Malbork Castle in Poland and Prague Castle in the Czech Republic, which many sources also claim to be the largest castle in the world.

Castle Malbork


7. Polish Women:

In my experience, Polish women are intelligent, resourceful, tough, moral and beautiful. Sure, you find these qualities, and lack thereof,  in all nations, but I can only speak to the great influence strong Polish women like my mother and grandmother had on me.

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8. Polish Chocolates:

Forget Butterfingers and Hershey Bars. Poland offers a celestial collection of delectable confections that will leave you addicted and begging for more. From Wawel, to E. Wedel, to Prince Polo, you can’t go wrong with any Polish chocolate.

prince polo


9. Kiełbasa Sausage:

I just know I’m going to get comments asking me “Why didn’t you make Kiełbasa number one, two and three on this list, Crazy Polish Guy?” Well this list has no particular order, so maybe this is number one. Honestly, though, how could I make any list of fantastic Polish things without including kiełbasa? For some people, Poland’s whole purpose is kiełbasa.

Kielbasa


10. Polish Grandmothers:

They’re kind, loving and willing to force-feed you in ways that would make any CIA interrogator cringe. Everyone loves their grandma, whether she’s Polish or not, but we people of Polish descent have a certain image that comes to mind when we think of our Polish grandmothers; God bless them. Check out how to tell if your grandma is Polish.

Polish grandmother


11. Alcohol:

Żywiec, Tyskie, Krupnik, VODKA. What would the world do without them? And they’re all Polish (Yes, Russia, we’re claiming the Vodka). What would you do without Poland? Give thanks, my friends! Give thanks!

polish beer


12. The Lato Font:

Lato, that font style that everyone is using these days on new business presentations and school projects, is a Polish invention. The typeface, which is the Polish word for summer, was developed in 2010 by Warsaw designer Łukasz Dziedzic.

Polish Lato font


13. Legendary Classical Music:

You may recall the famous funeral march song that they always used to play in cartoons. That happens to be one of the most widely recognized musical pieces by Polish composer  Frédéric Chopin. Not only is he the most famous Polish musician of all time, but he is right up there in the same league as Ludwig van Beethoven and Peter Tchaikovsky when it comes to legendary composers.

chopin statue


14. Saint Pope John Paul II:

One of the most cherished figures in Poland, Saint Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyła, is beloved and respected worldwide for having lead an exemplary life of piety and forgiveness, while simultaneously helping rip apart the fabric of communism in Eastern Europe. Among his most saintly acts was visiting the person who tried to assassinate him and offering him forgiveness. All across the world people revere his name, and Poland gave him to us.

Saint Pope John Paul II


15. Polish People

The world’s estimated Polish population is 60 million. Those 60 million people can be found anywhere from  Albania to Zambia, and if you count the people who are part Polish and part some other nationality (which I do), the number is likely far higher. Poles and people of Polish descent make important contributions to all aspects of global society, from politics, to coal mining and from sports to scientific research and development. I can assure you that this 0.8% of the world’s population packs a powerful punch.

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John Cantius: Poland’s Philosopher Saint

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The painting hanging above the Saint John Cantius Church altar in Chicago.

On the northwest side of Chicago, near Milwaukee Avenue and what locals often call the “Polish Triangle” for its strong Polish roots, stands a gorgeous baroque church, known for its traditional liturgies and sacred atmosphere.

Resting amidst the ornately decorated High Altar is a painting of an old man, adorned in scholarly black robes, handing a kneeling girl a jug. In the background, bystanders observe the man and girl, seemingly with awe and wonder, and behind them two princely church steeples overlook the entire scene. Those who have visited  Krakow will immediately identify those steeples as belonging to Saint Mary’s Basilica.

Why does this very Polish painting hang above the altar of a Chicago church? Even the name of the church—Saint John Cantius—doesn’t sound particularly Polish. When one learns that it was founded in 1893 by Polish immigrants, however, and that the name John Cantius translates to “Jan Kanty,” the connection becomes clear.

But who was Jan Kanty, why was he so revered, and what’s going on in the altar painting? In the spirit of All Saints’ Day, let’s learn a bit about this Polish Saint.

His Life and Works

Born to a wealthy family in the small Polish town of Kęty, near Auschwitz, in 1390, Kanty was christened after Saint John the Baptist. Little is known of his childhood. Indeed, he first appears in the historical record as a student in Krakow’s famed Jagiellonian University in 1413, where he studied philosophy before entering the priesthood.

After ordination, he spent eight years as rector of a clerical school in Miechów. During this period in history, priests and monks dedicated much time to quiet study, and, most of all, copying manuscripts. In this age before the printing press, the only way to replicate anything, was to manually write it out. Kanty spent many hours of his life copying down Holy Scripture and other theological writings. Today, 18,000 hand-written pages survive, and that’s only believed to be a small fraction of his life’s work.

In 1429, he got a job in the Philosophy Department at Jagiellonian University and worked on earning his doctorate. Soon after, he became director of the school’s Theology Department.

Kanty’s intellectualism was matched only by his piety and dedication to his parishioners and fellow priests.  He developed a reputation as a great listener and mentor, and as one who “lived the Gospel.” He rejected material desires, living in a small room and fasting often. In one story, he was hosting a dinner when a beggar entered the room. Kanty rose from his seat shouting  “Christ is coming!” and offered his seat to the guest. As a priest, among his holy passions was cultivating the Sacrament of the Eucharist and encouraging the faithful to adore and partake in it.

The Miracle of the Jug

One of the most famous stories surrounding Kanty is the supposed “Miracle of the Jug,” depicted in the painting hanging above the altar in Chicago’s Saint John Cantius Church.

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Saint John Cantius Church in Chicago

In June of 1464, an elderly Kanty was walking through the market square in Krakow when he observed a weeping girl with a broken jar. It was a servant girl who had been carrying a jug of milk for her stern mistress when she had dropped and broken it. She was crying for fear of punishment. Moved with compassion, Kanty took the broken jar from the girl’s trembling hands and prayed upon it. Miraculously, when he fitted the pieces together, they remained whole and the jug was fixed! He then told the girl to fill the jug with water from a nearby spring. When she did so, Kanty again took the jug and prayed upon it. When he returned it to the girl, the water inside had turned to milk.

Other miraculous tales surround Kanty. In one, as he was walking the streets of Krakow on a cold winter’s night, he saw a beggar freezing on the roadside. Without thinking, Kanty threw his robe over the shivering man. Later, when he arrived home, he found the same robe back in his room. Had the beggar been Christ in disguise?

Kanty died on Christmas Eve in 1473 and was interred in Jagiellonian University’s Collegiate Church of Saint Anne. In 1767, he was canonized a Saint by Pope Clement XIII. Today, he remains a very popular Polish Saint, in the same league as Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Pope John Paul II. His feast day is typically celebrated on October 20.

Click here to check out the website of Saint John Cantius Church in Chicago.

For Polish readers, click here to check out more information about Saint John Cantius.

A Polish Nightmare: 8 Horrific Creatures from Poland

We’ve all heard of vampires and werewolves. BORING! Few people realize that Polish and Slavic mythology has its own collection of horrific creatures straight out of your worst nightmares. If you dare, keep reading to discover why you should probably avoid walking deep in the Polish woods alone.

Rusałka

scary-rusalka

You’re taking a peaceful autumn stroll in the woods. As you approach a calm little creek, you observe a beautiful woman playing with her hair. Turn around. NOW! It could be a Rusałka, the ghost of an unmarried girl who drowned. Rusałki have long light-brown, red, or green hair and often wear white dresses with flowers on them. Although extremely pale, they are very beautiful and completely irresistable to men. If a man happens across one, she will seduce and try to drown him. Learn more about the Rusałka

Południca

When it comes to Polish monsters, you’re not even safe during the day. Meet the Południca, also known as the Noon Witch. She appears amidst whirling dust clouds during the hottest part of the day, carrying a scythe. Oftentimes, she will ask people very difficult questions or quiz them. It’s a high stakes game because if they answer incorrectly, the Południca gives them a haircut down to the neck. In centuries past, peasants used to blame the Południca for heatstroke.

leshyLeshy

Although not the meanest monster on this list, you would still be well advised not to cross paths with a Leshy. It’s a giant woodland spirit who can shapeshift into anything. Oftentimes, Leshy leave people alone, although they are known to lead travelers astray and sometimes abduct children. Some people believe they are evil, while others just think they are moody. I wouldn’t take the chance to find out.

Strzyga

If you are ever stuck wandering the woods at night, be wary of this vampire-like creature that can transform into an owl to appear unnoticed. When one does meet a Strzyga in its true form, it may be too late, as the undead being sucks the blood of humans and sometimes even devours their insides. Strzyga are born human, but die prematurely and return to haunt the living. Polish peasants once believed that if a child was born with teeth, it would become a Strzyga.

baba-yagaBaba Yaga

Common throughout Poland and other Slavic countries is the tale of Baba Yaga, an old witch who lives in the forest, waiting for someone to get lost and stumble upon her hut, which sits on chicken legs and is surrounded by a fence composed of human bones. The keyhole on her door is filled with sharp teeth. When she catches you, she will kill and eat you, adding your bones to her fence. Her favorite meal? Small children.

Wila

Wila are nymphs who inhabit the winds. They are the spirits of women who acted loosely or frivolously during their lifetimes. Now they are forced to haunt the night, leading young men astray with their seductive charm. If the wind is heavy, it means the Wila are dancing; if it’s loud, they are singing. So watch out, because those thin wispy clouds under the full moon on a chilly autumn night may actually be the vague outlines of the Wila.

kikimoraNocnica

Beware of the Nocnica, or night hag, who is probably the most frightening monster on this list. Composed of shadow, the Nocnica is an evil spirit who visits people during sleep to draw their life force. Those who sleep on their back are especially vulnerable, as she will sit on their chest while slowly sucking their life out over the course of many nights. Her favorite victims are defenseless infants. In fact, she is to blame for babies having trouble sleeping at night. Their cries are due to the night hag tormenting them….

Czernobog

Czernobog is the king of all Polish and Slavic monsters. His name literally translates to “black god,” and in Slavic mythology, he was the accursed brother of Bielobog, the “white god.” The source of all evil in the world, Czernobog regularly enjoys stealing and devouring souls. He is also responsible for the most creepy Disney cartoon ever made called “Night on Bald Mountain.” Don’t be too afraid, though, as he hides like a wimp from the sunlight.