New Orleans Mardi Gras is a spectacle. However, the Polish tradition of Karnawal and especially the Zapusty part of it is not as well known or appreciated even by folks of Polish extraction here in America.
The last six days of Carnival from Tlusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday) to Shrove Tuesday is Zapusty. It is a semi-reckless time of abanondoment. A time when folks acknowledge and accept that forty days piety are just around the corner. It’s a time when we give into the weaknesses and desires of the flesh, before our penance and atonement, our resolve and commitment to our spiritual well-being.
Polish-Americans are steadfast in holding on to the Polish customs and traditions of Christmas and Easter. Faithful observances of Wigilia on Christmas Eve and Swieconka at Easter. So, it’s a bit surprising to me that the typical American from Polish lineage really doesn’t know about the other significant celebrations, which were and still are a big part of the fabric of Polish traditions.
The long cold stretch of days from New Year’s until Ash Wednesday are not a vast boring void in Polish society. No sir! This time of year is “ball” season. Window displays in shops feature formals and accessories any self-respecting dame would be proud to wear at any of the formal dances and parties held during Karnawal.
In the States “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD) has become a big concern and medical topic of considerable proportion. Winter is the season when people are more likely to feel the blahs, the blues, and tend to be more psychologically depressed due to the short days and cloudy skies not to mention the tendency to be cooped up in the house due to the colder temperatures. It seems to be a modern phenomena and an increasing concern for the medical community in treating folks so affected.
I am amazed sometimes of the simple brilliance of our forefathers. Polish winter weather is just as, if not more dismal as ours up here around the Great Lakes Region. But, instead of spending a hundred bucks or so each week at the psychiatrist, the Poles simply and more inexpensively party their way to happiness until the serious observation of Lent falls upon Christians.
Throughout the years the middle and nobility classes of Polish society held fancy masquerade balls, which were kicked off by a majestic polonaise. These jovial events also held an ulterior purpose. Well attended by younger singles, the guys and dolls of marriageable age would eye one another with interest in the hope of finding the man or woman of their dreams during these social gatherings. With so many hormones pumping through the human body, what chance is there of depression setting in?
Outside of town the rural gentry also held elegant balls and banquets in their country mansions. The petty gentry would organize caravans of torch lit sleighs filled with revilers and musicians. Making the rounds on the circuit of manor houses in the surrounding area, often they would swoop in unannounced and literally eat and drink the lord of the manor out of house and home.
Peasant class folk had their fun as well. Bands of masquerading revelers roamed around the village much the way Carolers make their rounds during Christmas. They most often masquerade as a goat, a bear, a horse, a stork and Jew. Sometimes a bear costumed man would growl at the small children, who clung in terror to their mothers' ample skirts, and whoever played the devil would chase the young girls round the room with his pitchfork as they squealed and feigned horror. There were numerous local variations on this custom of house-to-house visits by roving bands of revelers known as zapustnicy. The personification of the season was Zapust (Mr. Carnival), a masquerader wearing a paper hat and a sheepskin coat turned fleece-side-out.
Today, the city of Krakow seems to be the epicenter of Polish Karnawal celebrations. There you will see the traditional lajkonik, a costumed replica of a Mongol riding a horse from the late 13th century days of “The Golden Horde.” It became an important role in the Krakowiak, the dance of the people of Kraków.
According to Robert Strybel, a stringer in Poland for Polonian publications here in the USA:
At one time, female market vendors hired musicians, assembled food and drink and danced in the streets with every male passerby they could get hold off. The hapless victims could buy themselves off, but not very well-to-do males often put up with the abuse for the free drinks and eats they would get. Unlike the gourmet delights that graced the tables of the upper classes, the common folk of town and countryside drank beer and gorzalka (vodka), feasted on fatty sausages, black pudding (kiszka), boiled bacon, tripe and buckwheat pancakes known as racuchy. Paczki were a relative late-comer to the peasant scene and usually turned out heavier and more substantial than those fried in cities and rural manor-houses. The same was true of the other well-known Shrovetide speciality, faworki, which turned out thicker and heavier than the dainty angel-wing pastries of upscale circles and thus were and dubbed chrust or chrusciki (kindling).
Singing, dancing and drinking went on at country inns and masqueraders paraded through the village streets. Young bachelors would herd eligible girls together in a large cottage or inn and stage a mock auction as if they were buying cattle or horses.
If a lad found a lass to his liking, he would take her to the hay barn to 'inspect' her more closely. If the girl took a fancy to him, he could expect a colored egg from her come Easter. Many parish priests were often surprisingly tolerant of the carnival goings-on of the younger set, knowing the frolic would eventually lead to the altar. One reason for this was the great stigma attached to any eligible young man or woman who failed to find a mate before the carnival period ended. Such people could expect to have egg shells, chicken feet, turkey necks, herring bones, cattle windpipes and other such nasty things pinned to their clothes. They might also have blocks of wood attached to them: You refused to submit to the yoke of matrimony, so drag this as you go!' But it was all in fun and they could buy themselves off by standing drinks for everyone at the village inn, where everyone laughed, sang and made merry.
The merriment came to an abrupt end on the evening of Shrove Tuesday. Many social gatherings ended before midnight with a snack of salt herring, which would become a dietary mainstay for the next 40 days. According to one folk belief, the devil himself stood outside inns, taverns and houses in which parties were being held, noting down which merry-maker had left the premises after midnight and had therefore committed a mortal sin.
In other venues the last party of Zapusty lasted until dawn. The revelers would then go directly to Church when light broke on Ash Wednesday to be anointed on the forehead.
Here in Toledo, trying to keep as much of the Polish traditions in practice as possible so that us Poles don’t become too mundane vanilla, I hold a Zapusty celebration on the Saturday preceding Ash Wednesday. The practicality of Saturday is of necessity in secular American culture. I call it Glupi Saturday (foolish Saturday). It is not a completely authentic replication of the Polish celebration because of certain inhibiting factors in American culture. But, the general custom observance is what’s really important.