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Feb 22, 2024

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Karnawal – PreLenten Customs

As you know, we are immersed in the Lenten season. With Lent, comes some strict religious observances, such as Friday fasting. When I was a youngster, there were stricter rules of fast and abstinence. In the late 40’s and early 50’s, prior to the onslaught of television, even the radio was forbidden during the Lenten season. Lent was practically meatless — and every Friday, Lent or not, was meatless. Those were the days. Today, its somewhat of a cakewalk. Our meatless Friday restriction was even dropped two weeks ago when it conflicted with the corned beef needed to celebrate St. Patrick’s day.

  Through the centuries, the gouging going on prior to the restrictive Lenten season more than made up for those early days of “suffering.” Our finest examples are the “Carnivale” celebrations in New Orleans and various cities in South America. Fat Tuesday is an appropriate name.

  Believe it or not, through the centuries Poland was also known for its pre-Lenten feasts. Our forefathers worshiped animals, trees, forests, and groves, devoting certain seasons of the year to them. As spring arrived, it was necessary to make special preparations to attract and please the goddess who would bring back life, growth and abundance in all growing things.

  With the coming of Christianity, though, pagan customs were no longer observed as religious practices. Instead there was fasting, 40 hours of devotion and other penitential rites.

  The pre-Lenten customs consisted of eating, drinking, games, pranks, and dances. These events were called “Karnawal” meaning “to swallow meat.” In olden days, the days before Lent were called “ostatki” or “kusaki” — “final days.”

  One could characterize the carnival season in Poland as rollicking. Farm hands dressed as landowners, mimicked their mannerisms. Boys dressed in costumes of girls, old men or old women. They often wore masks of heads of sheep, horses or bear. They paraded through their villages teasing young girls and children. Older women dressed as men, kidnapped engaged girls and bargained for their release with their finances. The ransom indicated how much a young man loved his intended bride.

  Of course, unless everyone danced during the festival, the yields of the harvests and the catches of the fish would be poor.

  Each village carnival took on the semblance of a masquerade. Everyone would be clad in a variety of disguises: animals, foreigners such as Spaniards, Gypsies, Germans, Hungarians, etc. The “animals” heckled and chased the children. Jealous boyfriends “cut in” on dances to be with their favorite girlfriends. It was a very inter-personal party.

  In the Carpathian mountain ranges, boys would parade dressed as bison. Two boys would hold a third, dressed in a bison’s head with a large tongue of red cloth hanging from the beard. They would convince a fiddler and a bass player to go along with them as they visited various homes. To the music of the fiddler and bass player, the bison would perform tricks.

  This type of show appeared again and again in various parts of Poland. The bison would be replaced by a rooster or a pony. Always the show!

  In the Pomorze region, the show was called the dance of the flax plant. Dancers had to leap into the air during the dance. The height of the leap indicated how tall the flax plant would grow. If the dancer fell to the ground during the leap, the flax plants would, of course, not grow — they would die.

  Probably the most interesting custom and one that is very widespread is called the “kulig.” It’s a sleigh ride where participants dress in various costumes, primarily Gypsy costumes, and visit homes evoking dialogues and orations and making predictions, both serious and humorous. In the area villages outside of Krakow, the kulig is a dance festival that’s incorporated into a mock wedding. All the characters in the wedding — the newlyweds, the organist, his wife, the parents of the newlyweds, fortune tellers and midwives — all are identified by their costumes. Some, of course, are dressed as guests from France, Spain, etc.

  As the sleigh approaches the home of the host, the wedding party is loud and boisterous. The host denies entrance to his home making excuses that he’s not prepared. After considerable bargaining the wedding party is finally admitted only to find that there is ample food and drink. And the partying goes on till midnight.

  As the festival approaches its climax, some dancers lead the musicians out of the hall in a solemn procession to the outskirts of the village. Here the musician, in this case the fiddler, is “killed” in effigy and his fiddle is broken as a symbol. It is the silencing of all music.

  At midnight, Ash Wednesday will arrive, the beginning of Lent. As the expression goes: “All music and merriment will be replaced by penance and mortification.”


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