An East Baltimore Tradition… Hej Koleda!
BALTIMORE, Md. – It’s Always on the Eve of Christmas Eve. They come from near and far – even from the close border areas of neighboring states – every year to Baltimore on December 23rd to participate in the annual tradition of Polish koledy and English Christmas caroling. Why December 23rd? Because some old-timers here said that this particular day was remembered as a treasured Christmas custom for family, friends and neighbors in their villages of eastern Poland. The tradition here was begun in 1971 by the Polish National Alliance (PNA) – Council 21, and now organized, promoted and funded by the Polish Community Association of Maryland.
In photo: “Making Lots of Christmas Music.” Musicians, mainly from various Baltimore area Polka bands, are shown banded together belting out Polish koledy along with the usual Christmas carol music during the annual promenading event in 2013.
On the big day, at 7 PM, the Polonia, Polish groups, and many other eager participants congregate at the Polish Home Club, 512 S. Broadway, to form up. The musicians – with accordions, trumpets, saxophones, guitars, drums, etc., mount-up on a pickup truck’s sound-trailer, or stroll along behind it. Song booklets with Polish and English carols are distributed to all. Then the cheerful procession … with music playing and everyone singing … merrily winds its way through the old Polish neighborhoods, escorted by traffic police.
An average of 300 carolers gleefully show up every year – which number can balloon either way, depending on the weather. Stops are made along the zagged 2-3 miles route at key locations/landmarks, Polish churches (open and closed), at Polish businesses (where “refreshments” are provided to the adults), and at homes of personages. One such stop used to be serenading U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski outside of her residence when she lived in Fells Point.
With a tip of the hat to “old country” nostalgia: During the earlier years of the koledy happening wagons bedded with straw and drawn by ponies were used by the musicians, elderly and children. These rustic conveyances were operated by street hucksters, mostly African-Americans, are known locally as ‘a-rabers’ who all used to sing-song their various offerings, mainly produce, to the public. Once ubiquitous to the streets of old Baltimore, they are now very rarely seen or heard anymore. And one particular year it was so bitterly cold and blustery that the wagon ponies had to be sheltered in the hallway of the PNA building during the post-koledy reception there.
Fast Forward: Today, when the revelers go full circle and arrive back at the Polish Home they are graciously treated to Polish food, beer and deserts all compliments of host Polish Community Association of Maryland in the large upstairs hall kindly provided by the Home. In short order the Polka band fires up and everyone dances the rest of the night away … with an ear cocked to listen for Christmas knocking on the door.
So come one, come all to Hej Koleda! in Baltimore. What better way to prepare for Christmas Eve (Wigilia) and Christmas Day (Boze Narodzenie) with family and friends by participating in this beautiful and grand Polish tradition.
Richard P. Poremski
Polish American Journal
Washington, DC Bureau
November 4, 2014