Kulig is an old Polish winter tradition dating back to the days of the gentry's hegemony. Nowadays, the custom has been revived for special occasions, like New Year's Eve, when it is celebrated again, albeit in a more modern version. We believe, however, that the fun and thrill of it have remained the same despite the passage of time. So join us and participate in this unique event, if only in our imagination.
One of the colorful customs of the Poles is a festivity called Kulig. To the Pole, life is divided into the calendar year according to the generous sprinkling of saints' days, holy days, and church festivals. The gayest, and most enthusiastically participated in, is the carnival season which precedes Lent with its somber quiet days of meditation, prayers and self-denial. These are the days of penitence that lead up to the glorious festival of Easter. In the rural areas the carnival is punctuated with days of merrymaking, tricks, parades, music and folk dancing, but the most loved social event is the winter sleigh party or Kulig. The time for Kulig is anytime from Christmas to Ash Wednesday, depending mainly on the occasion when the snow is very deep. Kulig originated with the gentry, but has been practiced to different degrees, and with variations, by most of the population.
In the past, the preparations for Kulig were very extensive and festive, and the celebration involved several days, depending on the geographic area and willingness of the planners. The following describes a typical Polish kulig. Families get together and may visit a neighbor who they mutually agree will be willing to be the first host, and treat the guests with customary Polish hospitality. If possible, the householder who has a birthday or namesday during these days is considered the obvious choice for host. Everyone in the families, young and old, becomes an actor and eagerly joins in the fun-filled days of merrymaking.
There is much to do and it all is done with the most enthusiastic spirit. The visiting folk feverishly work on plans and costumes (if they have decided to wear them). The supposedly unsuspecting host begins frantic preparations of baking ciasta, babki, chrusty, strucle and sausage making. The host must load his table with foods that match a wedding feast.
The day is set, the actors are ready, and the revelry begins. It usually starts with the sleigh ride at night. If the air is crisp, the moonlight bright and the necessary snow as high as the fence, then Kulig has no obstacle to a round of hilarity that will sustain them through the quiet days of Lent.
In the country, horses ply the snowdrifts, sinking to their bellies in the feathery billows as they pull their happy cargo, and crisscross the farmlands, sometimes forsaking the roads and paths for a more hectic and turbulent ride through the fields to thrill the passengers. Sometimes firecrackers bursting with sharp, staccato cracks, flung out by the merrymakers, rip the crisp air and excite the horses to fling their decorated manes in a picture of charged and high spirits. Even the sleighs pulling the happy cargo become a part of the act. Some of these vehicles, filled with hay for warmth and comfort, are rustic and simple, with daubs of paint smeared on in gay abandon; while others have gracefully carved swans proudly holding up their long necks, or fierce eagles sitting atop, adding to the spirit and fun of the gay ride.
Cares are forgotten. Happiness takes over and bubbles in a medley of shouting noises, songs and music. The traditional fujarka, a fife or whistle carved of a willow stem, can be heard in its high pitch tooting staccato notes to add to the hilarity and confusion.
Should this caravan of revelers have a long ride, or have an unexpected breakdown before they get to the home of the host, they may choose to make a stop at the nearby inn. This is an occasion for wine and pranks, and is a beginning of the hilarity that will last until the day breaks after the last stop of the sleigh ride. Usually this is an opportunity for the ladies to put on their costumes, which were carried carefully on the sleigh in order not to crush them. If the inn could not provide separate chambers, the makeshift partitions inspired the young men to much devilment. While the girls would be changing into the costumes, the bold young men would leap over the thin barriers to raise a chorus of squealing and screaming protesting the invasion of their privacy. The teasing became bolder and protests louder if the delay was long and the wine plentiful.
When the ride is resumed there is much jostling and crowding to get back onto the sled. Merriment is boundless, and conversation is flowing freely and the air is filled with laughter. This is the opportune time for holding hands and for a stolen kiss. The horses start and the air bursts with song. The most popular form of singing is a ballad of teasing and taunting by the women to the men and they have their turn to reply.
The ladies sing:
"Felled has been the little oak tree, Felled and hewn away. Heart and hand have I betrothed, If wisely, who can say?" and from the men in a mocking bass, they answer: "Pray tell me what the reason is, I've found no answer yet, One day I love a fair-haired maiden, Another day - a brunette."
While the merrymaking sleigh makes its way, numerous bells jingling on the horses' harness, and young men darting alongside carrying burning torches and shooting off firecrackers, add to the excitement. The play unfolds when a messenger is dispatched to the home that is to be visited. Dressed as a Cossack, the young man gallops into the yard of the host, signaling his arrival with outbursts of firecrackers, and flings a letter into the doorway. The letter is a note, sometimes written comically in verse, advising the gospodarz that the Kulig is coming. Mission accomplished, the young Cossack races back to rejoin his group.
The Kulig arrives with all the noise and commotion it can muster but the home of the host is dark and silent! The pretense is played out that this is a surprise and all the actors are a serious lot! The host pretends he is asleep. When the noisy band makes its loud and raucous presence known, the host slowly emerges and sleepily asks, "Who is it?"
The reply is that the merrymakers have heard that he offers generous and warm hospitality and they come to partake of it. "Ah," says the host, "Do come." Then with Polish humility he adds, "My house is small, my dear friends, but it would disgrace home to have such distinguished company dancing outside in the yard; so please do come in, come in under my lowly thatched roof."
The roof need not be thatched, but the lines imply the humility of the host.
Once the greeting is over, the house suddenly with bursts with lights and fun, all along well prepared for dear friends and neighbors.
The revelers make the costumed appearance in the order of traditional importance and status in their community.
The Play Begins
First come the Starosta and Staroscina (the Elder and his wife); Organist and his wife; the Miller and the Innkeeper. The musicians come in with the guests, still playing rhythmic dance tunes of the Oberek and Mazur. Then follows the Newlyweds (Panstwo Mlode). This pair of play actors is usually selected with an eye on matrimony, or if available, they are a betrothed couple, and the Kulig serves to spur them on to marriage. They are followed by attendants, dressed as mountaineers (Górale); the gypsies and the fortunetellers.
While the gospodarz (host) has signaled for the food and drink, the musicians squeezed into a tight corner of the big room, and begin the festivities, or rather continue them with a spirited Krakowiak. The couples begin to dance, and now everyone moves from room to room, where the furniture has been removed, to make way for the dancers. Over the din the host scurries from one knot of merrymakers to another encouraging them to dance saying, "There is plenty of room for everyone, dear neighbor!" and passes out endless servings of cakes and wine.
Meanwhile, the table is receiving the traditional load. The ladies are setting it with food delicacies they have been preparing beforehand and kept hidden for this event.
When the guests are weary from dancing, food, drink, laughter, and singing, they prepare to leave, and the elder delivers a carefully planned oration of extravagant thanks to the mistress of the house, and offers her a board made to resemble a make-believe wheaten cake as a token of appreciation for her hospitality. The carriages take all participants home, in high spirits and already planning their next kulig.