Category: Polish Traditions

Category: Polish Traditions

All Saint’s Day

All Saint’s Day (Wszystkich Swietych in Polish) occurs on 1st  November every year and is a public bank holiday. Originally, this day was only used to celebrate the saints; nowadays it is also a day when Poles remember deceased family and friends and is known colloquially as The Day of the Dead.

On All Saint's Day, the Polish will happily travel hundreds of kilometres across Poland to visit the graves of their relatives, sometimes visiting three or four different cemeteries in different towns. All Saint’s Day is akin to a military exercise for some families involving days of planning and preparation. It can also be quite an expensive day with fuel costs to be considered in addition to the cost of flowers and candles for each grave.

The cemeteries in Poland are usually well maintained and extremely neat and tidy but in November, they are spruced up and decorated with thousands of candles and flowers. They are particularly impressive when it is dark and all of the candles are lit.

The day is taken so seriously that regardless of the weather, you will see people cleaning the graves a few days prior to 1st November. A neglected grave is considered to be shameful and is frowned upon.

All Saint’s Day dates back to the early 4th century and is celebrated around the world by mainly Roman Catholics. The Polish version of the day has a pagan background linked to a time prior to Poland being a Christian country.

Way back in the day, people believed that the souls of forefathers would return to this realm to visit their loved ones by gathering near the windows and doorway; which were left open. They would then enter the house and warm themselves by the home's fireplace and enjoy the commemoration meal prepared for them. Usually, a bench was moved close to the hearth and on the bench, there would be a bowl of water, a towel and a comb so that the souls could wash themselves and comb their hair.

Another tradition was to light bonfires on crossroads to help souls to navigate their way home and to warm them up. This tradition was replaced with the lighting of candles on the graves.

Once the cemetery visits are complete, people will usually get together with their families to have a meal and spend some time together.

The 2nd November is known as All Soul’s Day (Zaduszki or Dzień Zaduszny) when practising Roman Catholics go to mass.

The Drowning Of Marzanna

When it comes to whacky & bizarre traditions, the drowning of Marzanna scores 11/10 and has a distinct Children of the Corn feel about it. The tradition is a surviving pagan ritual in which an effigy of the goddess of winter, plague and death is set alight and then drowned.

Marzanna is sometimes referred to as Winter’s Witch and according to Slavic superstition, she had to be killed to ensure that spring arrived on time and the harvest was plentiful. Of course, being a witch, the killing involved a good old-fashioned witch-burning followed by a drowning.

Historically, the effigy of Marzanna was made out of straw, was wrapped in linen and decorated with beads & ribbons. Then on the afternoon of 21st March, the children of the village would torture her by putting her head in every trough, water barrel and puddle available before handing the idol to the grown-ups to set her on fire and throw her in the river, with much applause and cheering.

In some regions of Poland, the burnt and soaked effigy was then removed from the water and paraded back through the village.

Today, the ritual is alive and well (unlike Marzanna) and children in kindergarten and primary schools all over Poland create a Marzanna doll made out of rags, sticks and straw, take her to the nearest riverbank and burn and drown her usually whilst singing witch burning or spring related songs.

The Marzanna doll can range in size from a small puppet to a life-sized dummy and (we should have mentioned this), the burning and drowning takes place under adult supervision.

The tradition of burning or drowning an effigy of Marzanna to celebrate the end of winter is a folk custom that survives in the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and Slovakia. The ritual represents the end of the dark days of winter, the victory over death, and the welcoming of the spring rebirth.

In 1420, the Catholic Church attempted to forbid this old pagan custom, however, both the custom and tradition prevailed.

Śmigus Dyngus

Śmigus Dyngus is a celebration held on Easter Monday each year; which traditionally involved men throwing buckets of water over women. The ladies were supposed to wait until the next day to get their revenge by soaking the guys but the reality today is a massive water fight with everyone soaking everyone on the same day.

The day is known affectionately as Wet Monday (lany poniedziałek in Polish) and if you are in Poland on this day, expect to get soaked from head to toe. There are no rules anymore and weapons of choice include water guns, balloons, buckets and anything else that can carry water.

Usually the ladies end up drawing the short stick during this tradition and the prettier they are, the wetter they will be. Very attractive girls can expect to be soaked repeatedly during the day.

In Poland’s rural areas, sneaking into a girl’s home in the morning and throwing a bucket of water over her whilst she is still in bed and then dragging her to a nearby river or pond for a further soaking is not unusual. Sometimes the girl and her bed are thrown in the water together.

There are other rituals associated with Śmigus Dyngus apart from throwing water at each other, including whipping with pussy willow branches, dressing up as bears and other woodland creatures, house-to-house processions and verse declarations.

Traditionally, boys would whip girls with pussy willows on Easter Monday and the girls would reciprocate on the next day. Pussy willow branches were adopted as an alternative to the palm leaves used elsewhere in Easter celebrations, because they were not available in Poland. Prior to the beginning of the whipping, the pussy willow branches were blessed by priests on Palm Sunday.

The origins of Śmigus Dyngus are uncertain but is believed to date back to pagan times and is described in writing as early as the 15th century. The use of water is said to evoke the spring rains needed to ensure a successful harvest later in the year. Girls could save themselves from a soaking by giving boys bribes of painted eggs (pisanki), regarded as magical charms that would bring good harvests, successful relationships and healthy childbirths. Similar traditions can be found all around Central and Eastern Europe.

Easter in Poland

There’s no escaping the connotations that Easter in Poland is all about religion; however this is far from reality, it is also about eating and spending time with your family & friends.

Second only to Christmas, Easter is one of the most beautiful celebrations of the year, it is also a time which marks the end of winter and the promise of sunny weather ahead.

Easter in Poland in linked to the Western Roman Catholic calendar; which dictates that Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring so there is a pagan connection working alongside Christian rites and practices. Families across Poland take part in Easter celebration regardless of their religious beliefs.

Preparation for the Easter holiday begins with Lent, the 40 days that mark the time prior to Resurrection Day, a time when, traditionally, people were not supposed to eat meat or sweets or enjoy alcohol and tobacco and this practice was once deeply rooted within Polish culture. Nowadays, the majority of Poles do not follow the rules of Lent to the letter and prefer instead to use this period of time to perhaps abstain from one thing such as alcohol or chocolate.

In Poland. the week preceding Easter is all about spring cleaning and getting your property spick and span. It also includes an evening mass on Easter Friday called Droga Krzyżowa (Way of the Cross).

The Saturday before Easter Sunday is traditionally used to paint hard-boiled eggs (pisanki) and prepare Easter baskets (Święconka) ready to take to the church to be blessed. Each basket is filled with a variety of foods and usually contain a piece of sausage, bread, salt & pepper, pisanki, fresh cress or oats and a small sugar or plastic lamb. Each basket is also lined with either a white lace or linen napkin and decorated with sprigs of boxwood.

After being blessed, the Easter basket is taken home and must remain untouched until the next morning, Easter Sunday.

On Easter Sunday, some Poles go to church at 6am for the Resurrection mass; which involves a procession; however the day is primarily focused on family and food. Easter breakfast is a big event in Poland and it includes the contents of the Easter basket in addition to a feast of sausage, ham, roast meats, pâté, eggs, horseradish relish and bread. Its not unusual for the Easter breakfast to take up to 3 hours.

Similar to Christmas with the sharing of opłatek, people at the Easter breakfast will share the contents of the Easter basket. The rules are that the contents must be shared evenly and with everyone.

After the meats comes the cakes with the usual offering being either a sweet yeast cake with a hole in the middle known as a babka or a Mazurek; which is a cake covered in icing topped with almonds, walnuts, dried fruit and roasted seeds. Plus there will always be at least one cheesecake!

The last day of Easter is Easter Monday, known in Poland as Śmigus Dyngus or Wet Monday.

Christmas In Poland

Christmas in Poland is taken very seriously and is mainly focused on family, friends & food. It is very different to Christmas in the UK or USA but has similarities with some other European countries.

Traditionally during Advent, families would bake Christmas gingerbread and use it to make their own decorations. Gingerbread was made into a variety of shapes including hearts, animals and St. Nicholas figures (St. Nick is the Polish version of Santa).

Today, most Poles buy their Christmas decorations in the shops and markets as there is always a fantastic selection on offer. Some families still make their own decorations from gingerbread; however this is more commonplace in the villages of Poland rather than the cities and towns.

You’ll find Christmas trees in most public areas in Poland and also outside churches and within people’s homes. Traditionally Christmas trees in Poland were decorated with shiny apples, walnuts, wrapped chocolate shapes, hand blown glass baubles, and many homemade ornaments and candles with a star as a top piece. You may still find this in some homes; however today most Poles decorate their trees in a similar fashion to trees in the UK or America.

Unlike the UK where Christmas trees are erected in homes in early December and are usually taken down on the 6th January, the poles decorate their trees just before Christmas and may keep them that way until early February.

It is still commonplace for Christmas trees to be real in Poland; however many Poles do opt for replica trees, particularly in apartment blocks – to avoid the inevitable clean-up of pine needles on the stairs and in the elevator.

Gwiazdory

During the run up to Christmas, you may see the “Gwiazdory,” or star carriers wandering through the towns and villages. Depending on location, some of the Gwiazdory will sing carols, recite verses or put on puppet shows & nativity scenes. Today, the Gwiazdory are usually a group of men dressed in Santa costumes.

Oplatek

One tradition unique to Poland is the sharing of the “oplatek”, a thin wafer into which is pressed a holy picture. People once carried these oplatki from house to house wishing their neighbours a Merry Christmas. Nowadays, the bread is mostly shared with members of the family and immediate neighbours.

As each person shares pieces of the wafer with another person, they are supposed to forgive any hurts that have occurred over the past year and to wish the other person all the happiness in the coming year.

Christmas Eve in Poland

In Poland, Christmas Eve is the big event, not Christmas Day. Traditionally, everyone would wait until the appearance of the first star in the sky (Gwiazdka) and then a huge feast would begin (Wigilia) followed by an exchange of gifts. Before the sighting of the first star, people would fast. to make the feast more enjoyable. Today, most Poles begin festivities prior to Gwiazdka.

Wigilia (the Christmas supper) is a carefully planned meal packed pull of traditions. Bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder that Christ was born in a manger and an even number of people must be seated around the table or tradition states, someone may die in the coming year

In some places an empty place setting is symbolically left at the table for the Baby Jesus or for a wanderer who may be in need, or if a deceased relative should come and would like to share in the meal.

The meal begins with the breaking of the oplatek. Everyone at the table breaks off a piece and eats it as a symbol of their unity with Christ. They then share a piece with each family member giving good wishes for the following year. There should be twelve dishes, as a symbol of the Twelve Apostles, or an odd number of dishes for good luck (usually five, seven, or nine). Poppy seed cake, beet soup, prune dumplings, carp, herring and noodles with poppy seed are universal Polish Christmas foods. There is no meat in the Christmas Eve feast.

Christmas Day is a day spent visiting friends.

Flavours of Polish Christmas

If you’re in Warsaw over the Christmas period, and you’d like to know more about Polish cuisine at this time of year, then why not try out the Flavours of Polish Christmas experience.

Christmas is by far the most important celebration in Poland. Almost all of the dishes that are served on that day are cooked only once a year!

During this 4 course dinner you will taste the most popular Christmas food and learn how to make the famous Polish dumplings. Try marinated herrings, taste beetroot soup with mushroom stuffed dumplings, MAKE pierogi with sauerkraut and last but not least, indulge yourself in the festive poppy seed dessert! Please, come HUNGRY!

In addition to the meal, you will get to know the famous Polish Christmas traditions, such as breaking wafers or setting an extra plate on the table – Book tickets.

Fat Thursday

Who ate all the doughnuts?

Of all the traditions in Poland, Fat Thursday is one of the most popular, one of the oldest (16th century) and definitely the tastiest. Fat Thursday (Tłusty czwartek in Polish) happens every year in February and on the last Thursday prior to Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent. It basically involves eating as many doughnuts as possible; which apparently brings you good luck.

Each year, 100 million doughnuts are consumed in Poland on Tłusty czwartek, that equates to two and a half for each person.

The type of doughnuts eaten are known as pączki; which are deep-fried, usually filled with jam or marmalade, sugar glazed and topped with candied orange peel. As an alternative to pączki (or more likely as an addition to), Poles also like to eat faworki. These are thin doughnut ribbons; which are fried until they are crispy and topped with powdered sugar and are also known as “angel wings.”

The traditional reason for making pączki was to use up all the lard, sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, because their consumption was forbidden by Christian fasting practices during the season of Lent.

You can buy pączki and faworki from most bakeries any day of the year; however it is only on Fat Thursday when you will see queues a few hundred metres long outside of the best bakeries with Poles making sure that they get their hands on the best doughnuts. The two most famous bakeries in Poland are Zagoździński in Warsaw or Michałek in Kraków.

Over the years, the recipe for doughnuts has evolved considerably. Today, they are light and fluffy, back in the 16th century they resembled rocks and it is said that if thrown at you, they could cause damage.

The tradition of Tłusty czwartek is so strong; there are even proverbs written about them such as ‘those who don’t eat a stack of pączki on Fat Thursday will have an empty barn and their field destroyed by mice.’

Pączki are different to doughnuts that you will find in other countries, the traditional recipe includes lard, eggs, yeast, wheat flour and loads of sugar. They are fried in lard or deep oil for a very short while and they taste at their best when they are still warm. A small amount of grain alcohol (traditionally rectified spirit) is added to the dough before cooking; as it evaporates, it prevents the absorption of oil deep into the dough.

Today, Polish chefs cater for everyone and it is possible to find vegan and gluten-free versions of doughnuts and even the traditional filling is often replaced with alternatives such as vanilla custard or chocolate.

The equivalent of Fat Thursday is also celebrated in other countries such as Germany, Italy & Spain. It is similar to the British tradition of Shrove Tuesday, where many Brits eat pancakes on the final Tuesday before lent.