Kolęda: An (Old) New Year Tradition in Poland
If you ever watch a Christmas kolęda procession in small Polish villages, you’ll expect to find the usual nativity characters: the three wise men, angels, Herod… What would be more surprising to see would be people dressed as goats, horses, roosters, a devil, and grim reaper.
Kolędowanie, as it is known in Polish, is actually a pagan tradition and is not limited to Poland. In Poland, it took root in the 13th-15th centuries, and the tradition was to go door to door between 26 December (the second day of Christmas, or St. Steven’s Day) through to Candlemas on 2 February (Dziura 56). The Church heavily disapproved of the tradition initially, because it was begun as a pagan festival of fertility and renewal and a celebration of the coming spring.
Traditionally, the poems carolers (all male) would recite, as well as the songs they would sign, were heavily centered on fertility and a belief in the power of words and manifestation. The belief was that the words in these songs and poems had a greater power and effect when they were uttered not by people, but by figures of the supernatural realm, hence the tradition of dressing up and masking during the kolęda.
Carolers would stop by each house with these wishes and blessings of a good harvest and fertility in the new year and in exchange would receive small tokens from the households – things like food, cakes, alcohol or space changed served as payment (Dziura 61).
Originally the ritual was associated with the pagan new year, which in those times was celebrated to welcome spring, but once Christmas became more widely celebrated and New Years Day was established as 1 January, the carolers moved their ritual celebration to the wintertime, during their winter solstice celebration of Szczodre Gody.
It was common for the carolers to carry with them a star made of colorful paper and hung up on a pole. This star would symbolize the sun, as the tradition of Szczodre Gody was a celebration of the sun and light’s triumph over the darkeness – ushering in the longer days after the shortest and darkest of the solstice.
In more recent times, the pagan symbolism meshed with the Catholic tradition and the star came to represent the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus. To this day in Poland, there is a tradition of Gwiazdka (the Star) or Gwiazdor (the Starman) delivering presents to children in some parts of Poland on Christmas Eve instead of Saint Nicholas.
The ensemble of carolers would not be complete with the appearance of Turoń, who was a mythical figure – not quite goat, not quite bull. He was a shaggy beast with horns of a bull and the face of a goat with a flapping jaw (Dziura 57). Turoń was a figure almost certainly based on the Aurochs, which was a cattle species now extinct in Europe. Before it went extinct, the Aurochs would help plow the fields before – coincidentally, the last known Aurochs died in Poland in 1627.
During the kolęda, Turoń would go around scaring children and harassing young women by charging at them with his horns. At one point during the caroling, Turoń would drop to the floor “dead,” and would be “revived” by the household with food and spirits (Dziura 58). Historically, goats and bulls represented virility, so the death and rebirth that played out during the caroling was symbolic of the harvest, as well as fertility in the coming year; this would also explain Turoń’s “fascination” with the young female members of the households he visited. When Turoń left the household, the carolers would sing:
Gdzie turoń chodzi
Tam się żytko rodzi
A gdzie nie chodzi
Tam się nie rodzi.
Gdzie jego stopy
Tam staną kopy.
I’ve translated it as follows and included a note from my research:
Where Turoń goes,
there rye is born [grows],
and where he doesn’t go,
there it doesn’t grow.
Where he sets foot,
there will be large yields*.
*yields were quantified in “kopa” which was a unit of measurement during 17th-19th centuries in Poland, equivalent to 5 dozen sheafs.
In modern day, the tradition of kolęda continues, although more expected in cities and schools is the yearly Christmas pageant, called Jasełka, that tells of the birth of Jesus. In villages around Poland, kolęda is still popular but today it is made up of all members of the community, both male and female, and the fertility element has been toned down. The kolędnicy still bring their well wishes but, as Poland is less and less an agrarian society, it is done for a prosperous new year with much joy, happiness, and abundance. So as this year ends and a new one begins, I wish you a happy and healthy next revolution around the sun.
Dziura, Małgorzata. 4 Pory Roku: O Pracy i Świętowaniu Na Ziemi Przemyskiej. Muzeum Narodowe Ziemi Przemyskiej w Przemyślu, 2019, 54-62.