January – mysterious letters on the door

Styczeń January is the first month of the New Year, and the name most probably originates from the verb stykać to join as Nowy Rok the New Year joins the old one. The weather is usually cold and snowy which gives a touch of magic to landscapes and cityscapes. Snow brings some brightness to the dark short days. 

As in many other countries, on January 6th Poles celebrate Objawienie Pańskie Epiphany, more commonly known in Poland as Święto Trzech Króli the feast of Three Kings. Epiphany is a public holiday in Poland, and there are big celebrations across the country – street processions, carol singing and Nativity performances. Many Poles will start the day by attending church, where kreda chalk and kadzidło incense will be blessed and distributed amongst those attending.

chalk and incense

The chalk is then used to write three letters separated by crosses on the front door. The letters might be either: K+M+B or C+M+B and they are accompanied by numbers referring to the calendar year. The crosses symbolise Christ. The inscription may looked like this: K+M+B 2019 or like this 20+C+M+B+19

chalking the door

The letters KMB refer to names traditionally given to the Three Magi: Kacper Caspar, Melchior and Baltazar Balthazar. However, there is some ambiguity as to what the letters CMB refer to. According to some, they stand for: Christus Mansionem Benedicat Niech Chrystus błogosławi ten dom May Christ bless this house or alternatively – Christus Multorum Benefactor.

The tradition of chalking the door goes back to the 18th century in Poland but it has its roots in antiquity.  Israelites in the Old Testament marked their doors with chalk in order to be saved from death and hence it serves as a house blessing to invite the presence of God.  It is also a public show of the Christian faith. For many Poles living under the communist rule which persecuted the Catholic Church, chalking the doors on January 6th was a small sign of resistance. 

Kadzidło z jałowca juniper incense was in Poland a substitute for kadzidło frankońskie frankincense, one of the three gifts offered by the Three Magi to the newborn Christ. The other two being złoto gold and mirra myrrh. In Poland, the tradition of blessing the incense during the Epiphany Mass goes back to the 15th century.  It was then used to incense households as a symbol of cleansing and protecting from evil. Today we also know that using incense was a way of disinfecting  houses and aiding spiritual meditation and prayer. 

incense burner

In the past, in the afternoon the whole family would gather for dinner where ciasto z migdałem cake with an almond also known as placek Trzech Króli Three Kings cake was served.  The tradition of the cake with a single almond hidden inside arrived in Poland from France in the 18th century.  The cake was often in the shape of a wreath. It was divided into as many pieces as guest plus one more ‘for God’. In the custom echoing leaving a spare place at the table for Christmas Eve supper, a spare piece of the cake was left for an unknown beggar who would knock at the door and ask for food.  The person who found the almond was named Migdałowy Król Almond King or Migdałowa Królowa Almond Queen. It was believed that finding the almond would bring luck and prosperity for the whole year. 

After dinner children would engage in kolędowanie carolling. Carrying a big star made out of coloured tissue paper and lit up from the inside, they would walk around the neighbourhood knocking on the doors and singing carols for which they would received rogaliki cakes called ‘szczodraki’. The name comes from the word szczodry generous.  

gwiazda

The tradition of having a big family dinner has largely disappeared in Poland because the Communist regime abolished Epiphany as a public holiday.  However, since 2011 when the government re-established the holiday, a new tradition has been developing – Orszaki Trzech Króli Three Kings processions. These are colourful processions led by ‘three kings’ dressed in beautiful costumes, with horses, camels and thousands of participants, many also dressed as biblical characters. The procession, winding its way through city centres, is accompanied by carol singing and the largest Nativity performances in the world. The ‘kings’ distribute sweets and treats among spectators. The processions attract millions of Poles and they are fast becoming a popular tourist attraction.

three kings

Polish tutor tips:

You can find out more about Orszaki Trzech Króli here

Find out how to make placek Trzech Króli here

Research the tradition of kolędowanie carolling and where the word kolęda Christmas carol comes from.