In Poland, Christmas time is special and magical. There are myriads of customs and traditions associated with the time of year during which people celebrate the birth of Jesus. The most well known Polish traditions are the Pasterka and Wigilia. Pasterka, which could be literally translated as shepherdess but really means Shepherd’s Mass is celebrated at midnight Christmas Day. Wigilia, from Latin vigilare, means to watch, or wakefulness (and we also draw the English word vigil). Wigilia literally means eve in Polish and wieczerza wigilijna is the dinner enjoyed by the family after the first star appears on the firmament.
Another Christmas tradition celebrated to this day in Poland is Christmas caroling; kolędowanie. The custom is celebrated between Christmas Day and Epiphany, i.e. January, 6th. During this time, the priest walks from one household to another with blessing and prayer. Children and teenagers also go around singing Christmas carols (and receive some money for it). People visit their friends and family and traditionally enter with a carol on their lips.
This tradition of kolędowanie, evolved from an earlier, pagan-inspired holiday of Gody, or fertility. During winter solstice, the light defeats darkness (days become longer) thus people are optimistic, joyful, and full of hope. At this time, people would put hay under their tables (sounds familiar?) to foretell the future by pulling pieces of straw and appease the gods Siem and Rigł who were gods of homes and fields respectively. (It is possible that this was in fact one god Siemrigł.) They also observed the weather over the 12 days to foretell the weather for the next 12 months.
The carolers (kolędnicy) walked from house to house singing carols (kolędy), which in this meaning refer to songs welcoming the new-year and wished health, benediction, good harvest etc. in the upcoming new year. When children spotted the carolers, they exclaimed: kolędnicy idą!; the carolers are coming! The tradition of good wishing is known as winszowanie (literally, congratulate), and is done in rhyme and good cheer. It might go something like this:
By the grace of our Lord May you have plenty,
In barn and in pantry,
May moles not dig up your field,
And bogeyman* in your dreams not be concealed
May you have sheep the size of horses,
And cows the size of elephants,
May you do nothing but eat, drink, and play,
But from time to time remember to pray
A coin from you, host, may we receive,
And in good cheer and happiness leave,
May God bless you.
(*note: what is translated as boogeyman, is in fact Bebok. In Polish folklore, likely inspired by a Slavic entity by the same name, Bebok (Babok, Bobok, or Bobo) was a demon that liked to make mischief, beat children and so forth. He could be appeased with gifts of food. Adults used him to scare their children if they misbehaved: “if you don’t behave, Bobok will take you”.)
This traditional troupe of carolers consisted of monsters (maszkary) and varied by region but some of the more recognizable characters are turoń (auroch), wolf, bear, goat, horse, star-carrier (gwiazdorz), stork, policeman, soldier, chimneysweep, Gypsy, Jew, devil, death, and, of course, musicians.
All would dress up in their respective costumes but the person playing turoń had a special role. Usually a nimble lad with a knack for tricks and pranks would be chosen and he would wear a sheepskin or an overcoat with fur lining to cover up as much of his body as possible including his head. He would carry a stick with a head of an auroch, usually made of wood so the large mouth could make noises when shut. He would sometimes be led by a chain by the leader of the troupe (star-carrier). Once the troupe entered a cottage, turoń would play tricks, run around the cottage, dance, make animal noises, scare children and provide overall entertainment. An important part of the ritual was that at one point, turoń fell on the floor as if dead and had to be revived, usually by massaging, magic incantations, pouring vodka into his snout, and burning hay. He would then revitalize and start his pranks again. This symbolized Slavic vegetative magic as earth was reborn and spring was heralded.