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Poland may be a staunchly Catholic nation, but it is fascinating to learn how many pagan rituals remain popular here. From witch-drowning customs celebrating the coming of spring to wafer-sharing at Christmas and fortune-telling with hot wax on St Andrew’s Day, we round up the most unusual Polish customs and traditions.
The Polish version of Pancake Day is more like Doughnut Day. Lent in Poland often involves giving up things such as fat and sugar, meaning that lots of soon-to-be-forbidden ingredients need using up, and Fat Thursday kicks off the abstemious weeks with a final day of over-indulgence. Top of the menu are sugary fried Faworki (angel wings) pastries and Pączki [pownch-key] doughnuts, iced or sugared and filled with fruit jam (rose-flavoured is a favourite) or cream. Coming five days earlier than Shrove Tuesday, Fat Thursday goes far beyond the half-hearted pancake-flipping seen elsewhere: this is a full-on national celebration with doughnuts distributed in offices and in queues outside bakeries.
Twelfth Night in Poland features colourful parades and costumes, nativity plays, carols, candy and fancy cakes. Traditionally the day the three kings arrived at the stable, 6 January marks the official end of the Christmas season and has been a national holiday since 2011. Some families take boxes of gold, incense and amber (to symbolise the kings’ gifts) along with a piece of chalk to be blessed at mass; back home, they write the initials of Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar over the door with the holy chalk to bring year-round good luck. A king cake is sliced up, and whoever finds the lucky coin or almond baked inside is king for the day.
In some countries, 25 December is the big deal, but in Poland it’s all about the night before on Christmas Eve, or Wigilia. Starting only once the first star has appeared, Wigilia involves a feast that can last for hours. A traditional meat-free Wigilia meal has 12 courses drawn from forest and ocean, field and orchard, representing the months of the year. Classics feature honey, nuts, beans, barley and beetroot, fruit, fungi and fish (fried herring or carp, or even stuffed pikeperch). Borscht and other soups are de rigueur, as are pierogi (dumpling pies), dishes involving poppy seeds and sled loads of sweets.
If you’re in Poland on Easter Monday, don’t be surprised if you are doused randomly with water on the street. Śmigus-dyngus (also called Wet Monday) dates back to the Middle Ages and initially formed a courtship ritual of sorts, as young women were sprayed by boys. Today it’s a public holiday in Poland; everyone can take part, and the use of more sophisticated equipment, such as water guns and garden hoses, is actively encouraged. Top tip: don’t have any valuables on your person that will be damaged when wet, such as cameras, laptops or passports – it’s highly likely you’ll be ambushed at the most unexpected moment.
A pagan ritual in dim and distant times, the drowning of Marzanna endures to this day in Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The wintry Slavic witch-goddess Marzanna is superstitiously associated with plague and death, so it’s only right that an effigy should be torched to usher in the advent of spring, on the first day of which (between 19 and 21 March) the burning takes place. For good measure – and in keeping with the trials of witches in times of old – the effigy is subsequently drowned. It’s an eye-opening event for a modern, religious country.
Have you got a head for vodka? You’ll need one to cope with the shots administered during the Polish ritual of Poprawiny. In Poland, a wedding, by tradition, lasts two days and there’s a follow-up party the day after the nuptial celebrations – which usually last until the early hours themselves. The after-party is not as formal, and every bit as bacchanalian, rolling on until early evening. Modern newly-weds don’t all adhere to the practice, but should you venture beyond the big cities and find yourself invited to a rural wedding, you can bet Poprawiny will be part of it. Just don’t forget the paracetamol.
Part of the Wigilia festivities for Christmas Eve (see the full description in this list) is the Yuletide practice of scattering bunches of hay underneath the table before the meal commences. This is performed, as you might have guessed, to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus in a Bethlehem stable. In comparison with pastimes, it is a fairly muted custom – in some parts of Poland, people used to cover the whole floor of their house with the stuff.
Also observed in Lithuania, Latvia and the Czech Republic, another very popular Polish Yuletide tradition is sharing thin squares of wafer (opłatek) with family members and friends, and wishing each other all the best in the New Year before sitting down to the Christmas Eve dinner. The wafer doesn’t taste of anything – it’s simply made, using flour and water – but this is one festive ritual that’s not about candy and calories. It’s a time-honoured gesture of forgiveness, friendship and unity, and a true example of Polish heritage.
Known as Uroczystość Wszystkich Świętych in Poland, All Saints’ Day is spectacular, with oceans of flickering tea lights and gathered crowds. An annual bank holiday is solemnly observed on 1 November, and millions of Poles gather at local graveyards to commemorate their deceased loved ones by laying flowers and candles on their graves. The most beautiful cemeteries to visit in Poland during the holiday include Warsaw’s Powązki and Krakow’s Rakowicki and Salwator. You may also hear the occasion called Dzień Zmarłych or Święto Zmarłych, meaning Day of the Dead, which is how it was referred to in socialist times when religion was suppressed.
Poles also have a unique way of celebrating St Andrew’s Day (30 November, although the festivities can kick off on the evening of 29 November). The festivities include a whole variety of fortune-telling games, including pouring candle wax through a keyhole into cold water to create a wax figurine whose shape is then used to foretell the future. Key to the occasion is the tradition of predicting the likelihood of marriage with the amusing shoe race, in which everyone in the room takes off their shoes and lays them across the floor, one pair after another, starting at the wall furthest from the door. The first pair of shoes to cross the threshold means wedding bells for the owner.
Phoebe Taplin contributed additional reporting to this article.