Shrovetide period, later also called a carnival, was a colourful and sometimes overly cheerful epilogue of Christmas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). As such, it was the period of the most active social life in Old Poland (Ibid.:214).
During Shrovetide hunts for big and small animals took place (Ibid.:214). Weddings often combined with feasts and balls kept continuously lasting for several days (Ibid.:214). There were carnivorous feasts, masquerades, or games where participants dressed up and put on masks, and the famous old Polish sleigh rides were also organised (Ibid.:214).
These boisterous time, often combined with gluttony and drunkenness, widely scandalized clergymen and secular moralists, such as Jakub Wujek (1541-1597), Grzegorz of Żarnowiec (1528-1601), and Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569) (Ibid.:214).
Crazy sleigh rides of the Old Polish nobles
Sleigh rides were particularly popular among the Polish nobility (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). The closest neighbours made arrangements and visited other manors on a few sledges and on horseback (Ibid.:214). The surprised host had to accept unexpected guests with everything he had in the pantry and in the basement, and then he usually joined the sleigh ride to the next noble court (Ibid.:214). At each stop, not only did they feast, but also danced, so either the musicians they met by chance were used, or the sleigh ride went with their own playing group (Ibid.:214). Women, wrapped in fur, rode a sleigh, men usually accompanied them on horseback (Ibid.:214). The whole procession was accompanied by the service on horseback, lighting the road with torches at night (Ibid.:214). The Old Polish sleigh ride presented then an exceptionally colourful picture, also noisy, not only because of the bells jingling at the sleighs, but also because the men, excited after drinking alcohol, often shot ‘to the cheer’, sometimes to chase away packs of wolves, but more often out of an excess of fantasy (Ibid.:214-215).
If one would like to come back in time to such ‘noble’ attractions in winter, sleigh rides are usually organised for tourists in Polish mountains …
Donuts and faworki
Sumptuous dishes were served at balls and feasts, including native Polish dishes, such as bigos (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Today bigos is a dish of chopped meat of various kinds stewed with shredded fresh cabbage but in the past it was mostly hunter’s stew, of course, always full of cabbage. Faworki (called in English angel wings are a kind of sugared oblong cakes), and donuts (without the whole in the middle) appeared among carnival sweet cakes (Ibid.:215). Polish donuts, light, aromatic and delicate, gained immense popularity already in the eighteenth century, during the reign of King Augustus III (Ibid.:215). Today, the inhabitants of Poland eat millions of confectionery donuts on the so-called Fat Thursday (Shrove Thursday), not to mention those that are fried along with faworki according to old family recipes in many homes (Ibid.:215).
Carnival for all
During Shrovetide, not only the nobility, but also plebs from towns and villages had fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215).
Such celebrations were less noisy than those of the nobles but there was no shortage of food or drink, and they also included dances and masquerades (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Shrovetide was primarily an opportunity for young people to entertain themselves (Ibid.:215). Many carnival pranks were played by them, which, if they had not excessed the limits of good fun, would rather go away with impunity (Ibid.:215). In rich bourgeois houses, carnival parties were not inferior to the nobility’s, although they were held without noble excesses or sleigh rides (Ibid.:215). The journeymen had the most fun among them (Ibid.). Daughters of the masters were also invited to such feasts (Ibid.:215). The men inviting girl had to take care that she had a good time, because when she did not have a partner for every dance, such a young man had to pay a fine (Ibid.:215-216). Not only did they eat, drink and dance at this occasion, but they also sang songs, sometimes with completely frivolous lyrics (Ibid.:216).
The priest, Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728-1804) writes about the carnival party of Kraków street vendor women, famous for their unrestrained language and fiery temperaments (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215-216). It was a feast with an old tradition, organized on the Kraków market square, full of humour and vigour, deserving of remembrance (Ibid.:215-216). It was called comber (a folk carnival party from the Middle Ages), and it was held every Fat Thursday (Ibid.:216). The amiable comber was a kind of ‘democratic’ feast celebrated by common town people, and only the ‘distinguished’ refused to take part in it (Ibid.216).
In the countryside, on the other hand, the farmhand carried a wooden rooster on a cart, receiving cheese, butter, pork fat, sausage and eggs from girls and even from sedate housewives fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216). At the end, from the collected victuals, they arranged a merry feast, sprinkled with booze. This rooster driven around the village was probably an echo of some Slavic pagan folk rite (Ibid.:216). It is probably related to the tradition of leading the Turoń, goat or the bear during the Christmas and following it Carnival.
Coming back to fasting
Finally, the Shrovetide was coming to an end, and on Ash Wednesday the long reign of fasting żur (sour rye soup) and herring began (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216).
Nowadays, people still enjoy the period of Carnival but it is not as traditional as it used to be in Old Poland. In some regions, however, it happens that old rites, such as leading the goat or the bear, are still preserved. Especially during winter holidays, Poles go up to the Polish mountains, covered in snow, to have fun on sleigh rides with their whole families. Yet the most important still remains Polish traditional cuisine, typical of the Shrovetide: Polish, large donuts and faworki.
I usually spend both, the Shrovetide and the Ash Wednesday outside Poland; just after the New Year, I need to come back to work. Nevertheless, it is the Christmas Eve I always wish to come back to Poland for and spend it together with my family.
Featured image: Shrovetide, or in the Krakow dialect – comber (the last frolics of the carnival) before fasting, in the image by Peter Bruegel the Elder; “Carnival fight with fasting” (1559). Image source: “Ostatki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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Lemnis M., Vitry H. (1979). W staropolskie kuchni i przy polskim stole. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Interpress.
Stajnia TROT (2017). “Kuligi dawniej i dziś czyli: sporo o tradycji, troszkę o współczesności”. In: Stajnia TROT. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rnnzom>. [Accessed on 24th December, 2020].