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Poland is a proud and patriotic country with a long and traditional history. Through the years, the country has experienced many political and geographical changes from Hanseatic times to the Middle Ages to the Communist era, and through German occupation right up to the modern day. Nonetheless, many Polish traditions and customs have been well preserved and maintained. This is a list of ten common yet peculiar traditions that you might encounter if you happen to be in Poland at the right time.
On the final Thursday before Lent each year, Polish people celebrate Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday). This is a final chance to overindulge in tasty treats that shouldn’t really be consumed during the Christian Lent festival. On this day, all over Poland, people eat their favourite sweet and sugary snacks. Normally the Polish eat Pączki on this day. Pączki are Polish-style doughnuts normally filled with rose or raspberry jam. Another popular treat that the Polish love to eat on Fat Thursday are Faworki, which are pieces of fried pastry dipped in a sugary coating.
On the first day of spring, many rural parts of Poland still celebrate the drowning of Marzanna. Marzanna was a Slavic goddess associated with death, cold winters and nature. So these days, an effigy of the so-called Marzanna is constructed by locals as part of a sacrifice. This effigy is usually made from straw, with white clothing and some colour added. Onlookers normally watch from a bridge or from the riverside, as the Marzanna doll is dropped into the river and floats downstream. To ensure you avoid bad luck, you must be careful not to touch the Marzanna doll while she is in the water. On the way back, you must also not look back towards where the Marzanna doll is, as this is rumoured to cause illness or disease.
If you happen to be in Poland over the Christmas period, you will begin to realise how religious a country it truly is. From church services to family get-togethers to days where businesses are completely shut, this is a country proud of its former Pope, John Paul II. On Christmas Eve, there is a tradition known as Wigilia. This involves twelves dishes being served (one to represent every disciple) and shared by the family. None of the dishes can contain meat, none can be the same, and some of the dishes are cooked only on this day. Many families also leave out an extra plate on Christmas Eve, for the ‘unexpected visitor’ that might arrive. Although there is no meat, Polish fish dishes often make up part of Wigilia.
One of the crazier days on the Polish calendar is Wet Monday, known as Śmigus Dyngus. On this day, boys soak girls with water. It is an age-old tradition that has existed for generations. On this particular morning, boys all over the country sneak into the bedrooms of the girls and wake them up by pouring water on them. The theme continues throughout the day, as buckets are launched at girls walking through the streets. There are special water fight events also organised on this day. The girls who end up the wettest are said to be the ones who will get married first. The following day offers the chance for revenge, as the girls use the Tuesday to soak the boys.
Visit any traditional Polish housing block in early January, and as you pass the entrance doors to the flats you will probably notice that some of them have letters on them. These letters are usually written in chalk, and take the form of something like “K+M+B+2018”. While at first this might seem confusing or that some maintenance work might be going on, this is a long-time tradition in Poland. The writing has been written by the family who lives inside. The initials and the year are supposed to represent the three kings who visited Jesus with gifts – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. They are believed to protect the house and family from disease, illness and bad luck during the year. These initials should remain above the door for the rest of the year, unless removed by accident or naturally.
Poland might well be the only country in the world where everyone wishes their friends to live for ‘100 years’ on every birthday. This tradition occurs every time somebody has a birthday. Expect a friend to appear with a tray full of vodka shots, announcing ‘Sto Lat’ (100 years) before launching into the famous ‘Sto Lat’ song, and the birthday guy or gal is expected to raise a toast. In the bars of cities like Warsaw and Kraków, this is a regular nightly occurrence.
Polish weddings are an interesting affair. The first day normally features the church service followed by the huge party and evening of food, drink and dance. However most Polish weddings include an ‘after party’, which is known as Poprawiny. Poprawiny takes place the day after the wedding and is a much more casual affair. Typically on this day, guests are not expected to wear formal attire; often a fancy-dress option is suggested, and the food tends to be a more relaxed buffet form.
Yet another special day in Poland’s calendar year occurs on November 1 every year. This is known as All Saints’ Day (Zaduszki), which is when Polish people pay their respects to their deceased loved ones and friends. The day involves visiting a cemetery in the evening and lighting candles. Although it is a melancholy affair, witnessing the display of lights from the graveyards around the country is a sight to behold.
Perhaps the most poignant and meaningful tradition in Poland occurs on August 1 every year in the country’s capital, Warsaw. It is on this day that the citizens of Warsaw have a one-minute tribute to the fallen heroes of the 1944 Warsaw uprising. If you happen to be in Warsaw on this day, wait until 5pm comes. At this exact time, for an entire minute, the whole city freezes and comes to a complete standstill. Everything stops. Food vendors stop cooking. Buses stop moving. People stop walking. The city goes silent in one of the world’s most peaceful and moving tributes to the war heroes of yesteryear.
For a Christian festival of colour in one of the country’s coldest months, witness the Three Kings Day in Poland. On this day, which is globally known as Epiphany, Polish people hold huge parades in the streets of the main cities and towns. There are three colourful wise men marching through the streets on camels or horses. They hand out sweets to the children who watch from the street. It is a religious day that also includes a church services and a reenactment of nativity scenes from the Bible. Many Polish people also prepare and eat a special Three Kings Cake on this day. The cake contains a coin hidden inside, and the person who gets the piece with the coin becomes king or queen for the day and is believed to enjoy good luck for the rest of the year.