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A Land of Conflict, Occupation and Liberation
Poland’s illustrious history has been marred by tragedy, ruled by tyranny and liberated by determination. In the 20th century, Poland began as an established monarchy, evolved into a nationalist state, occupied by the Nazi’s in WWII, controlled by the Soviet Union, and ultimately gained her independence as a Parliamentary Republic.
Despite these catastrophic obstacles, modern Poland has materialized as a major world power. Poland has become a formidable force in Eastern Europe. A member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Poland has recently joined the EU (European Union).
Poland’s fertile soil produces much of Europe’s potatoes and rye. Poland is the world’s leading producer of sugar beets. While family farming is on the decline in the industrialized country, there are over two million private farms. Poland’s economy is considered one of the healthiest of the post-Communist countries and is a leading factor in the EU. The industrial progression of the country has made Poland one of the most economically stable regions in the world.
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Religious Influences in Polish Culture
Tourism is the number one service industry in Poland. Visitors relish the centuries-old architecture and rural mountain villages where time has literally stood still. In contrast, monolithic cities, skyscrapers and contemporary structures move Poland forward in the global arena.
Rich in cultural diversity, Poland offers a variety of popular destinations for sporting, recreation and historical study. Jewish, Islamic and the predominant Catholic Church have all added to the culture of the country. Gothic cathedrals loom over the cobblestone streets in the old sectors, while steel and glass edifices adorn the progressive cities.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp has become a place of pilgrimage for people around the globe. The monument, once a centerpiece of death and destruction to Polish Jewry and political Poles, now stands as a testament and memorial to the sacrifices made by those who perished. More than one million pilgrims flock to Auschwitz yearly.
Post WWII Poland is predominantly Roman Catholic. Poland is considered to be one of the most devoutly religious countries in Europe. The customs of modern Poland are steeped in religious culture and ritual. Many festivals and celebrations are influenced by the Church and its people.
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Western and Eastern European Influences in Poland’s Culture
Poland’s national culture is a synthesis of Latin and Byzantine influences. With the addition of numerous European occupations, traditions in Poland have become a diverse mix of the East and West.
Artistry is inspired by Ukrainian, Slavic and Russian influences. One tradition that has stood the test of time is the “folk cut-out." These intricate pieces of paper resemble lace and are indigenous to Poland. The cut-outs are used mostly for decoration during Christian Christmas and Easter celebrations. “Wafer cut-outs" are an intricate form of sculpture that emerged from the paper cut-out. The raw material is flour and water. The intricacy and lacy texture reminds one of carved Ukrainian egg shells. This folk art is often found in the rural areas of Poland and is highly marketable throughout the world.
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Polish Cuisine, a Mainstay for Family Dinners and Celebrations
Polish cuisine is an essential element in the culture of the country. Breaking bread with family and friends unites the Polish people. Celebration feasts and informal meals rely heavily on meat and potatoes. Sausage and other cased meats are served in abundance. Germanic, Russian and Jewish flavors add to the traditional meals in Poland. Heavy, hearty bread and vodka are also known to satisfy hunger and thirst at a Polish table.
A traditional dinner will begin with soup such as zupa ogorkowa (hot cucumber) or kapuiak (sour cabbage).
The main course is based around meat. Favorite dishes include the baranina, a simple dish of grilled or roasted lamb. Fasolka po bretonsku (bean and sausage stew), zrazy zawijane (rolled filets of veal in a spicy sauce), and berka w miodzie (honeyed pork ribs) are preferences at the table.
Polish pastries are abundant. Sernik is a raisin-covered, orange flavored cheesecake. Babka, a raisin-covered, sugary cake is a national favorite. Makowiec is a crunchy sugar frosted cake filled with poppy seeds, nuts and raisins. This dish is generally served in celebrations around Christmas.
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Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations
Dozynki or Harvest Holiday announces the ending of summer and the abundance of autumn. The symbolic wieniec, or harvest wreath, is made of wheat and rye and decorated with flowers, ribbons and fruits. The wreath is blessed at the church on August 15, the traditional Catholic Holy Day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The wreath is worn by a young girl who parades through the streets, then offers the owner of a farm the headdress as a symbol of prosperity. Villagers revel in the parade and celebrate with a feast and traditional Polish dancing.
The Polish Feast of Greenery celebrates the bountiful harvest of autumn. Farmers bring bouquets of herbs, vegetables and corn interwoven with flowers. The sprays are blessed by the priest, then brought back to the home and kept until the same day next year.
All Saints Day is a traditional, somber, Holy Day in the Catholic Church. The origins are Pagan in nature. The ability to conjure up wayward souls has been replaced by a solemn visit to the cemetery. Candles, representing eternal light are lit in the church, streets and homes. Mourners bring candles, decorate graves with autumn flowers and at dusk celebrate the mass among the graves.
St. Andrew’s Night is celebrated on November 30. During this Pagan celebration, single girls pour hot, melted wax into a bowl of cold water. The hardened wax is then held up to the light. The shadow produced from the newly formed, waxy figure is said to foretell the girl’s marriage prospects. If the wax melts into a shape that resembles a man, she is said to marry within a year.
Another St. Andrew’s tradition includes young girls tossing their shoes into the middle of the floor. The owner of first shoe over the threshold is said to be the first to be married. Fortune-telling, singing and eating are part of this centuries-old tradition.
St. Nicholas Day, December 6 is akin to the Western celebration of Christmas. The children of Poland excitedly wait for a visit from St. Nicholas. Donned in a purple and gold robe, bishop’s hat, and carrying a staff, St. Nicholas hands out sweets and blessings to children who have been good throughout the year. Swishes, cut from the trees, are dispensed to those who have been naughty.
Wigilia, or Christmas Eve dinner, is a sacred holy feast. The day has significance many centuries before Christ’s birth. Wigilia is closely related to the Winter Solstice. Mystical symbolism is an important element of the holiday.
Boughs from fir trees are brought into the house to decorate the ceiling and table. The family and farm animals are sprinkled with water from the nearest stream. It is believed that only on this day, the water holds mystical and medicinal powers.
Before the meal, the family kneels on the floor and recants their thanksgiving of the past year. After the prayer, the group shares the oplatek (communion wafer) and exchanges wishes for the following year. The meal is meatless, and an uneven number of dishes are served. Thirteen, representing the attendants at the Last Supper, is the preferable number of delicacies presented on this most holy night.
Feast of the Three Kings – January 6. In keeping with Catholic culture, Polish families have a piece of chalk blessed by the priest. With the white stick the initials KMB (for the Three Wise Men, Kaspar, Melchior and Baltazer) and a cross are written on the front door. A young boy carries a star throughout the village while revelers carry palms preserved from Palm Sunday and blessed candles from Candlemas Day. The villagers sing carols and visit neighbors, oftentimes receiving gifts of sweets and traditional Christmas foods.
Wesele – the Wedding. The celebration of matrimony relies heavily upon older, traditional customs. Many Polish weddings incorporate Western themes and decorations into their celebration. The engagement period, or zrekowiny, is celebrated by tying the hands of the couple to be wed. In front of many witnesses, the two are literally united by a white scarf. The sign of the cross is made over their hands and a loaf of bread, for prosperity, is placed underneath. After the ceremony, the bread is broken and shared with family and friends.
At the church, the mother of the bride blesses the couple with holy water as they are encircled by the wedding guests. The wedding blessing is more important than the ceremony itself. If the mother has passed away, the wedding party stops at the cemetery and receives a blessing from a “stand-in" in front of the grave.
The wedding ceremony is a traditional Roman Catholic High Mass, with flowers and music. Leaving the church, the bride sprinkles hay upon unwed guests in hopes that they will soon find a life-time partner. The newlyweds and guests arrive at the dom weselny, or wedding home. Again, the couple is blessed and holy water is sprinkled upon them. After the traditional customs of departure, the parties begin. The couple and guests enjoy a Westernized reception including a feast, vodka and wine, and dancing.
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Poland: A Country Rich in Old Customs and New Traditions
The diversity of its people is derived from tragedy yet succeeds in hope. Despite famine, war, and atrocities beyond comprehension, Poland has matured and flourished. The land is rich and the culture is vast. A mixture of old traditions and new values are found in every aspect of Polish society. The future is bright for the people of Poland.
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Poland for Visitors: Polish Culture and Life Style, http://www.polandforvisitors.com/travel_poland/culture
Polish Genealogical Society of America: Polish Traditions, http://www.pgsa.org/traditions.php
Polska, Polish Holidays and Customs, http://en.poland.gov.pl/Polish,holidays,and,customs,412.html
Image Credit: Plac Zamkowy, Waszawa – The Castle Square; Warsaw, Poland by Jaroslaw Pocztarski under CC BY 2.0