February – carnival in the snow

Luty February is another month whose name in Polish relates to the characteristics of this time of year – it’s usually very cold, frosty and snowy and the word luty in old Polish means severe frost and cold. 

Luty is the time of karnawał carnival with revelry, balls, parties, visiting friends and kuligi sleigh rides. Karnawał lasts between the 6th January (Epiphany) and Ash Wednesday (the movable feast 46 days before Easter).  In old Polish, it was also known as zapusty. The word carnival comes from the Latin carne vale ‘farewell to meat’ and it was the time of indulgence before Lent.  While in places like Venice, Rome or Rio the focus has been on street parades, in Poland it was more family and the community orientated, and the kulig was the main focus of the revelry.   

Kulig was a form of carnival entertainment – a sleigh party, organised by local magnateria landowners and szlachta Polish gentry where groups of horse drawn sanie sleighs and jeźdźcy na koniach riders on horseback were travelling od dworu do dworu from one country estate to another – with a lot of jedzenie eating, picie drinking and tańczenie dancing involved.  For the elders it was a chance to engage in discussing the day to day business of running large estates or exchanging their views on the current political situation; it was the time for building alliances and arranging marriages; it was also a chance of finding peace and agreement between quarrelling rodziny families and sąsiedzi neighbours ; for młodzież the youngsters it was a good time to get to know their peers. It was also seen as an opportunity to show off horse riding and sleigh driving skills.  

Wesola-sanna-czeslaw-Wasilewski-1934
Czesław Wasilewski Wesoła sanna

The traditional dish prepared for the occasion was bigos hunters stew, the alcoholic drink of  choice was krupnik honey and spice liquer or miód pitny mead, while traditional Polish dances such as mazur, polonez, krakowiak or kujawiak were performed.  

When the sleigh party arrived with as much commotion as they could muster, the hosts were busy preparing the food and drink. The feasts and partying could easily last a few days. At the end, when the party was ready to bid farewell, strzemienny the last drink before departing was drunk at the front door and the whole group, including the hosts, would move on by sleigh to the next destinations.

The routes of the kuligi were carefully planned and involved households with panny na wydaniu young women of marriageable age who could be introduced to eligible kawalerowie bachelors. The organisers were very careful to include in the route the wealthy households as well as the poorer ones to give everybody a chance of participating. Sometimes the aim of this careful and clever planning was to bring together quarrelling neighbours or family members.  

Sanie sleighs were specially built for these occasions – with carved heads of a bear, a stag, a swan, a lion, a horse or some other fantastic beast. Henryk Sienkiewicz portrayed kulig in his novel Potop The Deluge. Oleńka and Kmicic, the two main characters, are riding in the elaborate sleighs decorated with a head of the bear – the scene has been beautifully portrayed in the book illustration by Juliusz Kossak.

Juliusz-Kossak_Olenka-i-Kmicic-na-kuligu
Juliusz Kossak Oleńka i Kmicic na kuligu

The nature of kulig changed under the partitions (1795-1918), when the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided and annexed by neighbouring empires.  Maintaining the tradition of kulig was seen as a patriotic duty and it became an opportunity for organising clandestine meetings and sabotage actions under the guise of carnival parties.  

Kulig today is a far cry from what it was in the past. It’s a pleasurable ride in the snow, anywhere in the country without any special purpose. The best kuligi (plural of kulig) are organised in the mountains where the tradition is the strongest and the weather conditions are the best.  

Kulig-in-the-Tatras

From the word sanie sleighs comes sannna which means winter scenery or sleigh ride (in individual sleighs rather than in a group as in kulig). It is a frequent motif in Polish art and literature.  From sanie also comes the word sanki children’s sleighs and jazda na sankach children’s sleigh ride.  Related to sanki is the name of the sport saneczkarstwo luge.

Kulig_Alfred-Kowalski-Wierusz
Alfred Kowalski-Wierusz Kulig

The final feast of karnawał is on Tłusty Czwartek (you can read about this tradition here ) and the end of the revelry comes on the last Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. 

sanna

Polish tutor tips

Watch how to make bios here.

You can watch the clip of kulig from the film Potop here.  The soundtrack is the popular hit song “Z kopyta kulig rwie” by Skaldowie. You can read the lyrics here