Of Sleighs And Carnivals
Old Poland’s Christmas Customs
Imagine a winter evening, with the frosty air biting at one’s ears and the snow scrunching underfoot. The sleighs are lined up in front of Hajnowka station, both the more decorative, metal sleighs with their fancifully twisting runners and the simple, wooden farmers’ sleighs which, if anything, are even more practically comfortable. The horses are impatiently steaming and stamping, and the drivers are waiting, wrapped up to the ears in huge sheepskin coats, their feet hidden in knee-high layers of hay to keep them warm. And then the local band strikes up, with its characteristically wild sound, boys with burning torches jump onto the horses backs, somebody whistles, somebody laughs in high key and off they go to the accompaniment of much noise and excited shrieks.
The sleighs dash over the fields beyond Hajnowka, then into a wood, and onward to Bialowieza. The torches fitfully illuminate the old pines and oaks, and laughter breaks the crackling winter silence. Suddenly, the whole cavalcade comes to a halt. Ahead of the leading sleigh two huge bisons stand, calmly watching the noisy crowd who have invaded their sanctuary for a while then, as if shrugging the whole matter off in quiet disdain, they move slowly into the darkness of the forest, sure and majestic in their strength. A kingly meeting and welcome, indeed, to Bialo-wieza, by the King of Europe’s beasts. Only for a second did the laughter and music die down.
Off the sleighs, dash again, to a point of light among the trees, which turns out to be a bonfire in a forest glade, before a hunter’s manor. Good, wholesome bigos is brewing — a concoction of cabbage and sausage — while a multitude of meat is turning on spits. A warm and fun-full snack, with a glass of vodka and a mug of warm beer with egg to wash it down, make things liven up even more. A serpentine of dancing figures weaves around the fire, until — a little weary — the group is shown into the reserve by the local woodsman. The dignity of centuries old trees, darkly exposed by the moon’s glow, give a feeling of secret awe. The laughter dies as 150-foot spruces and enormous limes are passed. The guide stops for a moment by a magnificent oak to explain that King Wladyslaw Jagiello rested 500 years ago when hunting, and from which he gave the order to his army to move west-wards, to meet the Teutonic Knights in battle at Grunwald in 1410.
The entire group again approach the bonfire, leaving the sleeping forest behind. But time moves inexorably on. A drink of hot borsch for those who are feeling cold, a piece of hot sausage, and the hunter’s horn announces it is time to return. Again the sleighs tear off through the night, picking up late-comers on the way, the music playing and the harness bells tinkling. Back to the warm hostel in Bialowieza.
The carnival — time kulig (sleigh ride) — could be considered one of the most trying of all old Polish social customs, were it not for the fact that it was an agreeable and liked event. We all know what to think of a guest who arrives at an inopportune moment. “A guest at the wrong time is worse than a Tartar” — so goes an old saying dating back to the days when Tartar invaders burnt and ransacked the country. Whereas the first rule of a kulig was to surprise the host with an unexpected arrival, the second rule was to stay as long as one pleased. The Polish rule of conduct prevalent was: “A guest in the home, God in the home; and so the kulig became a well-liked carnival-time event in Poland.
Here in brief is what a kulig was like. A group of eager initiators gathered in some manor to dance and celebrate. Then they harnessed and mounted horses and with music and song and with bells ringing, in the glare of torches, the gay, colourful procession sped off briskly along snowy roads over fields and through forests to the nearest neighbouring manor. A gaily dressed harlequin holding a canduceus rode at the head of the procession. The harlequin was the first to burst into the house and unceremoniously ran from room to room inflicting his caduceus upon all the inhabitants. Thus it was that he announced the arrival of the uninvited guests who were none-theless cheerfully hailed and greeted with shouts of “Kulig! Kulig! Kulig!”
The host would then proceed to welcome his guests with the traditional bread and salt on the porch, while preparations were made feverishly in the manor house. Usually, the largest room was tidied up in preparation for dancing. The pantries and cellars were emptied of their provision, and tables were laid out copiously. The guests made merry, danced, ate, drank wholeheartedly and remained as long as the food and drink lasted. They would then drive off to the next manor house taking their host with them. The procession grew and the high spirits rose even higher. And this went on until the end of the carnival when at the last visit the oncoming period of fasting was ushered in with a meal of herring and zurek (a traditional sour soup made of rye). This was the Polish carnival — snow, sleighs, frosty roads, hot-blooded dancers, drivers, riders and revellers.
At present, the old kulig custom is continued, but without encroaching on anyone’s peaceful home or provisions. It is no longer an outing to noblemen’s manors, but a winter excursion combined with sleigh rides and gay parties in the open air.
A kulig, nowadays, is organized by the tourist organizations.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .