Color image of fireworks in Warsaw

Anthropology: New Year’s Eve Customs and Traditions in Poland

New Year’s Eve is welcomed in Poland with special foods, customs, traditions, and practices. The New Year celebrations are believed to bring good luck, health, and prosperity for the coming year. They are awaited by everyone in Poland. Some of the Polish traditional celebrations are also common in other countries, while others are completely unique to Poland. This article will explore some of the Polish traditions and customs related to New Year and New Year’s Eve, and their cultural significance in anthropology.

New Year’s Eve – Sylwester

New Year’s Eve is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, on the night of 31st December. Most of the world observes the festival by attending evening parties, eating, drinking, and watching or lighting fireworks. In Poland, the last night of the year is called ‘Sylwester’ because it falls on Saint Sylvester’s Day (also known as the Feast of Saint Sylvester). It is the day of the feast of Pope Sylvester I.

Saint Sylvester served as the people (Bishop of Rome) from 314 to 335. The feast day is held on the anniversary of Saint Sylvester’s death, which coincided with New Year’s Eve after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. Christians mark this celebration by attending midnight masses in church. Some attend Watchnight service, watch firework displays, attend parties, and feasts. Silvester’s name is used as a preferred name for the holiday in several countries in Europe, including Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Israel, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Germany, France, and Italy.

A brief history of New Year’s Eve celebrations

According to historical sources, civilizations around the world have been celebrating the start of each new year for at least four millennia (four thousand years). The earliest recorded festivities related to the arrival of the new year date back around four thousand years to ancient Babylon. Babylonians celebrated the night with a religious festival that they called Akitu. ‘Akitu’ came from the Sumerian word for barley which was cut in the spring. The festival was 11 days long and different rituals were performed on each day.

Throughout ancient times, different civilizations around the world developed different calendars. The first day of the year was usually related to an agricultural or astronomical event. In Egypt, every year began with flooding of the Nile river, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. In the Chinese new year, the first day of the year occurred with the second moon after the winter solstice (History.com, 2021).

Old Pagan Slavic winter and New Year traditions

According to Pagan Slavic culture,’kolyada’ (also known as koliada or koleda) is the traditional Slavic name for the period between Christmas and Epiphany. It is related to a festival or holiday, celebrated at the end of December to honor the sun during the winter solstice. Koleda also refers to groups of singers who sing carols and visit houses in the village. Kolyada is believed to come from the Roman word ‘calendae’, which refers to the first 10 days of any month. However, some sources suggest that it is derived from the Slavic word ‘kolo’, meaning the ‘wheel’. The wheel is a cycle of winter rituals stemming from the ancient calendae. This is similar to the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Yule’, which also means ‘wheel’ but represents Christmas and winter solstice holidays. In Slavic culture, the Winter Solstice festival was filled with various rituals that symbolized different things.

Slavic paganism had its own calendar, known as the Wheel of the Year, with different celebrations based on the seasons. It shares some similarities with other pagan calendars, such as the Celtic Wheel (the most popular year-round calendar of pagan practice). The calendar was based on observation of the natural world, the seasons, and basing ways of life and beliefs on it (Mnomquah, 2017). The Slavs believed that the God they worshipped at the time – Volos, gave them the “calendar”. Thus, Kolyada is a holiday celebrating the astrological calendar of the Slavs (Destinations Magazine, 2017).

Illustration of the old Slavic wheel of the year
Slavic Wheel of the Year (wiaraprzyrodzona.wordpress.com)

New Year’s Eve pranks

In the Slavic countryside, on the last day of the year, people would prank each other and disguise themselves as devils, bears, and beggars. They would walk around the village and, accompanied by the rattling of empty cans (in the past, Slavik people used to believe that noise was able to scare off the devil). They would approach any young woman they came across and knock her down in the snow. The pranks were all forgiven because they were believed to be the end of the old passing year (The Association of the Sons of Poland, 2019).

Koleda and New Year wishes

Groups of revelers would go from house to house and sing carols (koleda or kolyada). The songs would refer to the God or Goddess of the holiday, and good wishes. The groups would request gifts and threaten those who listened if they refused (similar to today’s Halloween tradition of trick or treating). The gifts would usually include pastries shaped like cows or goats, known as ‘korovki’. Hosts or hostesses were gently hit with hazel twigs by one of the carolers, as a symbol of happiness, luck, and health in the coming new year (The Association of the Sons of Poland, 2019).

Color image of a painting of a group of Christmas carolers in Ukrainian village
Kolyadki (Caroling in Ukraine) by Konstantin Trutovsky (1864) (wikipedia.org)

Bonfires and summoning spirits of ancestors

Old pagan Slavic New Year’s Eve traditions would also include bonfires. During a New Year’s Eve bonfire, the souls of the dead ancestors were believed to come back to earth and invited to warm themselves up around a bonfire. One of the bizarre practices was a mock funeral. Mock funerals were held where a person would pretend to be dead and be carried into the house, while groups of villagers would laugh and pretend to be weeping. The person pretending to be dead would be kissed by a chosen girl on the lips and leap up as a symbol of rebirth. Kutia (a traditional Christmas dish consisting of whole grains) was being served as a symbol of new life and a new year (The Association of the Sons of Poland, 2019).

Begging for oats

In Poland, all the unmarried men from the village would get together to go begging for oats on the last day of the kolyada season. The evening custom was that the carolers would steal grain from farmers as part of the custom, and then sell it. The money would be spent on a large dance party in the village during the pre-spring period (The Association of the Sons of Poland, 2019).

The old Slavic New Year’s Day traditions

On New Year’s Day, Slavs used to bake bread. The dough was formed into animal shapes, such as sheep, rabbits, cows, and birds. This would be gifted to grandchildren as presents for the new year. Donuts were also baked as a symbol of wealth for the new year.

Fortune telling was a significant practice in the pagan culture and was a part of New Year’s traditions. Ring or cross-shaped bread was hidden on the dinner table and used for fortune telling. Anyone who found a ring-shaped bread could expect to get married in the coming year. Meanwhile, anyone who found a cross-shaped bread could expect to join the clergy (The Association of the Sons of Poland, 2019).

Podbljunaja  – New Year’s Day divination

The Winter Solstice was considered the most powerful time for practicing seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means in Paganism. One of such practices was called ‘podbljunaja’, and was performed on New Year’s Day. In podbljunaja, each person from the group takes off his or her ring and places it in a bowl of water. The bowl is then covered with a plate while singing a song referring to different life events. A song could foretell a wedding, wealth, death, etc. A person then pulls out a ring, and the fate of the song that has just been sung foretells the year ahead for the owner of the ring (The Association of the Sons of Poland, 2019).

People would also place a handful of soil, a sprig of myrtle, water in a glass, keys, and a rosary, and then each would pick an item blindfolded to predict the future.

  • Soil would predict death
  • Spring of myrtle an engagement
  • Keys – good husbandry
  • The rosary – godliness
  • Water foretold a baptism
A color image of a painting by Simon Kozhin titled "The Christmas Divination"
Simon Kozhin “The Christmas Divination”, 2008 (commons.wikimedia.org)

Sleigh rides (kulig)

Kulig is a sleigh ride that has been a New Year’s tradition in Poland for centuries. In the past, it was an activity that was only enjoyed by noble Poles in the February-March period, before lent (Zapusty). Over the centuries, it became a tradition for Polish families to enjoy sleigh rides on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Sleigh rides are still enjoyed today, all over Poland. For those concerned with animal welfare, there are tractor-drawn kuligs (inyourpocket.com).

A color image of a painting of sleigh ride in Poland
Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski’s “Kulig”, 1903 (inyourpocket.com)

Contemporary New Year celebrations in Poland

On New Year’s Eve, the core of all the traditions in Poland is that everyone should be optimistic and feel good, nobody should be left out lonely on that night. The tradition is also that on New Year’s Eve you should wish at least one person “do siego roku!” (literally “may we live in happiness and health to see the new year”, a form of New Year’s wishes).

A legend says that the greetings are actually “dosiego roku” (wishing you a Dosia year) because centuries ago, a woman from Krakow, called Dorota (Dosia) was known throughout the city as hardworking, loving, and caring. She always put others first and so God granted her a long life. She lived to be more than a hundred years old. Therefore, wishing someone “Dosiego roku” is how Poles wish someone a happy and healthy year (Crazy Polish Guy, 2015).

Some people smudge windows and doorknobs of their houses with tar to drive out the old, and welcome the new year.

Other than maintaining some of the old Slavic traditions, Polish people celebrate New Year’s much like the rest of the developed world. Sylwester is the beginning of Carnival balls and parties before Lent – a period of penitential preparation for Easter.

Many Poles choose to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the mountains. The southern parts of Poland offer festivals, Christmas markets, and various skiing/snowboarding spots for those who want to stay active during the time of Christmas and New Year’s. Zakopane is known for the go-to winter getaway, allowing people to immerse themselves in the snowy, wintery, and picturesque town.

Polish New Year’s Eve food

Sausages, bigos (hunters stew), and vodka are the basics of the Polish Sylwester. People prepare lots of cold foods that go well with vodka and beer. Herring, pork lard with cracklings, pickles, eggs with mayonnaise, vegetable salad, borsch, mushrooms, and meat. For dessert, gingerbread cake, poppy seed, and cheesecake are eaten.

Bakers today still sell bread, shaped into rabbits, sheep, geese, and cows, symbolizing wealth and luck in the coming year.  Another popular bread shape is round or ring-shaped bread. This symbolizes life coming full circle and eternity (Rolek, 2019). Poles in some parts of Poland still make donuts to ensure wealth in the coming year (123newyear.com).

Cultural significance in anthropology

Many countries around the world have their unique New Year’s Eve traditions that are significant in anthropology. Cultural customs and traditions provide insight into the history of people from certain countries and teach about various norms, values, and beliefs of a particular culture. It gives insight into how the new year’s eve traditions started and the roots of, as well as reasons why, different cultures have special meals, customs, and rituals for special occasions. Anthropologists believe that such rituals help improve the eating experience and make the food seem tastier.

The most important function of New Year’s rituals, as well as any other cultural traditions and rituals, is their role in maintaining and strengthening family relationships. In fact, many anthropologists argue that holiday rituals may be the glue that holds the family together.  Such traditions and rituals highlight identity and group membership and taking part in collective rituals create a feeling of belonging and increased generosity towards other members of the group (Xygalatas, 2017).

References:

123 New Year. New Year’s Eve Traditions in Poland. Available: 123 New Year 

Crazy Polish Guy (2015) Curious Polish New Year’s Superstitions and Practices. Available:  Crazy Polish Guy

Destinations Magazine (2017) Slavic Pagan Traditions for the New Year Eve. Available: destinations.com.ua

History.com Editors (2021) New Year’s. Available: HISTORY

Mnomquah (2017) Slavic Way: Rodnovery and Slavic Wheel of the Year. Available: mnomquah.blogspot.com

Rolek, B. (2019) How Eastern Europeans Celebrate New Year’s. Available: thespruceeats.com

The Association of the Sons of Poland (2019) Winter Traditions from Pagan Slavic Heritage. Available: The Association of the Sons of Poland

Xygalatas, D. (2017) An Anthropologist Explains Why We Love Holiday Rituals and Traditions. Available: heconversation.com

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