Kulig: A Sleigh Ride as Protest?
Winter is known for its festive activities – baking cookies, decorating the Christmas tree, stringing lights, and… attending a sleigh ride party as a form of civil resistance against the partitioning powers of your country.
Ok, that last one is very specific but for good reason; organizing a kulig, as the activity is known, is an old, historic Polish tradition dating back hundreds of years (the protest part came a bit later). I had always known about the tradition but recently had stumbled upon some literature where the author had briefly mentioned it as a form of civil resistance at one point in Polish history, and so my curiosity was piqued.
What is a Kulig?
A kulig is a sleigh ride party and winter tradition in Poland dating back to the 1500s. It involves a gathering of neighbors who go door to door in a horse-drawn sleigh, stopping at each house to eat, drink, dance, and sing, and only moving on to the next house when the first house’s food and drink have been exhausted. With each stop they pick up the neighbor they have visited along with his family, creating a chain of carriages and sleighs, eventually returning back to the first first house where the event began. This activity took place during Carnival, the period between 6 January (Three Kings’ Day) and Ash Wednesday, which formally ended the period of celebration and Lent began. It was the last chance to eat meat, dance, and sing before the somber Lenten period in preparation for Easter.
The Beginnings of Kulig
The kulig became popular in the mountain regions of Poland where, during the cold winter months, it was a practical and easy way to make merry. Horses and carriages were plenty, alcohol was abundant, sheep skin blankets, woolen pants and shirts were on hand. It spread throughout the country; sometimes even parties of 20-50 sleighs and sleds joined in on the kulig.
Festivities took place deep into winter when the joy of the Christmas holidays had begun to wear off and the coming lenten season meant an end to parties and debauchery. This was the last hurrah, known as ostatki in Polish, literally meaning “the last bits”, or zapusty, “letting oneself go”, reflecting the engorgement that was allowed and encouraged during Carnival. Organizing a kulig signified class and status – often, musicians were hired out, elaborate feasts were served, and drinks flowed throughout the evening and well into the night. Historically, it was mostly the magnates and middle and upper classes who were able to enjoy kulig to the fullest.
The term kulig came about during a time when the Polish language was heavily influenced by Czech and taken from the word “koleg” which meant to circle around, and was exactly what the kulig did – the party would go door to door, singing and picking up sleighs and passengers to ultimately celebrate with a bonfire at their final location, where they began. [Glos Podhala, nr. 6, page 4]
The Kulig of the Partitions
During the Partitions of Poland, a time when Poland was divided up between the Russian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Prussian Empire, the kulig served as a form of civil resistance. The powers dividing Poland were keen to suppress Polish nationalism, which they saw as a threat to their rule. The tradition of kulig was a way for Polish patriots to keep their traditions alive and assert Polish culture. A notable Polish historian, diarist, and invaluable record keeper of Polish culture during the Partitions, ks. Jedrzej Kitowicz, detailed the kulig writing,
Two or three neighbors would get together, bring along their wives, daughters, sons, servants, and whoever they had at home of adult age… and would get on sleighs… riding over to the nearest neighbor without warning as to find him at home. Surprising him, they would demand food and drink, to both people and horses, and would dance and party until all the food and drink in his stores was gone. Once they were through, they would take the neighbor and his household with them to the next neighbor, where they did the same. They would continue until they arrived back at the house at which they started. (Kitowicz, 355)
Kuligs were organized not only to celebrate the season and start of Lent, but also to strike deals, create marriage arrangements, and generally socialize. During the partitions, these get-togethers took on a patriotic tone: although dancing was always a staple of the kulig, the only dances allowed during the partition years were Polish dances like the mazurka, polonez, and krakowiak. No foreign dances, like the waltz, were tolerated. The dress code was equally patriotic. White ties were looked down upon as they were a symbol of the powers that had partitioned the country. The kulig became a more formalized event; whereas before, people would assemble haphazardly and spontaneously, during the Partitions, the travel routes were well established in the autumn. During the kulig, after all the fun and dancing in the late evening/early morning hours, the men would talk about world and country politics (Lud, Oskar Kolberg, 70).
The kulig featured enough in Polish literature of the Partition era that it can be considered a strong and distinct part of Polish culture – the tradition, therefore, became a way to assert Polish identity and featured in a number of texts during the partition years. In 1783, Józef Wybicki wrote a 5-act comedy called Kulig, recounting the Polish tradition. Later, in 1861, Juliusz Słowacki, a romantic Polish poet, featured the kulig in his work Jan Bielecki.
The sources I’ve used for this post, quoted and cited above, are primary sources of the time. Their vivid and detailed descriptions are from first-hand accounts. They attest to the fact that the kulig may have started as a bit of Carnival fun and debauchery, but morphed into something larger, emobodying Polish patriotism that would manifest itself into rebellions and calls for independence.
The Wilanów Kulig
Perhaps the largest and most ostentatious kulig was the one that was organized during the reign of King Jan III Sobieski (1674-1696). It was immortalized in the painting almost 100 years later, “Wyjazd z Wilanowa Jana III i Marysieńki Sobieskich” by Jozef Brandt. From an article in 1827, it was described as a lavish affair:
The kulig set out from the Danilowicz Palace at 15.00 (3pm). At the fore were 24 Tatars on horseback with the prince’s servants along with 10 sleights pulled by 4 horses each filled with musicians. After them, 107 sleighs pulled by six horses each were surrounded by young magnates on horseback. At the end, on a sleigh carved in the shape of a Pegasus sat eight young magnates, reciting poems by Ustrzycki and Chrościński… Coaches and carriages numbered 450, and all totalled with sleighs and sleds, 1,000 vehicles… the sleighs were pulled by eight horses each and lined with rugs and furs, they could fit a dozen or so distinguished young men.
Along the way, they stopped at multiple palaces, visiting the most powerful and royal people of Poland. Wherever they stopped, they were given a grand reception, with the master of the house and housekeeper handing over the keys to the food stores, allowing everyone to take as much as they wanted. The last stop was the palace in Wilanów, where the king greeted the whole party and continued the festivities into the early morning hours.
The painting that captured this moment in history was most likely completed in 1896, about a hundred years after the event during the Partitions, and reflects the Romantic period of the time. Reflected also is a deep nostalgia and yearning for the Poland that did not exist on the map. By painting the scene of this famous kulig, and on a giant canvas measuring 186 x 343 cm (approximately 6 x 11 ft) no less, Brandt establishes it as a defining moment in Polish culture and history, echoing the link between kulig and patriotic sentiment.
Kuligs today are making a comeback. Today, they are a fairly popular activity enjoyed by anyone who wants to experience them. There are multiple companies in Poland, predominantly in the mountain regions, who offer the experience for an hour or two – instead of stops along the way, participants either eat and drink on ride or enjoy a warm meal after the fact; caroling is encouraged.
To plan a kulig experience of your own, check out https://www.kuligi.pl/
As you can see, a kulig is not your typical sleigh ride. It was a symbol of national unity and pride in Polish culture and history, undoubtedly factoring into the Poles’ ability to keep their homeland in their minds while they fought for sovereignty during the Partitions.
Kolberg, Oskar. 1890. “Lud; jego zwyczaje, sposób życia, mowa, podania, przysłowia, obrzędy, gusła, zabawy, pieśni, muzyka i tańce; Kaliskie Ser. 23 Cz. 1.” Akademia Umiejętności, Kraków.
“Głos Podhala : aktualny tygodnik powiatów: gorlickiego, grybowskiego, limanowskiego, makowskiego, nowosądeckiego, nowotarskiego i żywieckiego. 1931, nr 6.
Kitowicz, Jedrzej. 1925. Opisie obyczajów i zwyczajów za panowania Augusta III. Krakowska Spółka Wydawnicza.