Echoes in the Winter Wind: Polish Christmas Caroling Traditions


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

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 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.



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.