All I want for Christmas is…tunes: TFN takes a look at the family tradition of carol singing
This Christmas Eve (Wigilia) thousands of Poles carried out a centuries-old tradition of singing Christmas carols around the festive table.
It’s a tradition that dates back as early as the 15th century and has prevailed all the way into the 21st century. According to a study done by the CBOS Institute 5 years ago, nearly 80 percent of Polish families still sit around their table on the 24th December to sing carols together.
While Poland has a myriad of beautiful Christmas customs, singing carols is perhaps the most heart-warming of them all. Choir director and Music teacher of Warsaw’s Witold Lutoslawski Music School, Katarzyna Boniecka told TFN:
“Singing Christmas Carols is an immanent part of my family’s Christmas Eve celebration. Even those members of the family, who normally don’t sing and have got a huge problem of singing in tune still join in.”
The oldest Christmas carol in Poland dates back to 1424 and was called Zdrów Bądź, Królu Anjelski (Praised Be, Lord of Angels). Since then the tradition has thrived, with one carol, Bóg Się Rodzi (God is Born) almost becoming Poland’s national anthem in 1792.
With such a long history, Polish Christmas carols also played a key role during the dark times of three partitions (1772-1918) when Poland was invaded and carved up by the Prussian, Austrian and Russian empires and ultimately disappeared from the European map for 123 years.
“Carols became a focal point of national identity for many Poles.” Boniecka told TFN, “Even the greatest Polish poets and composers such as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Stanisław Moniuszko were involved in writing new Christmas texts and carols, in order to sustain Polishness during oppressive times.”
Polish culture persevered, however, due to underground activities, such as concerts and theatres, with the lyrics of the well-known carols changed in order to give patriotic or satiric meanings.
Boniecka continued: “Nativity plays were performed in secret in the camps for Polish war prisoners in the Nazi-German concentration camps and in the Soviet gulags. The most popular Christmas Carol during these dark times, as well as during martial law, became “Nie było miejsca dla Ciebie” (“There was no place for You”) which addresses grief, homelessness and feeling abandoned.”
While Polish Christmas carols helped fan the patriotic flame during oppressive times, Boniecka explains more about the alluring lyrical nature of Polish carols. Commonly known to follow rhythms of the Polonaise, she said: “They are often lively and ear-catching, which makes them easy to remember and sing. Their lyrics are strongly connected with the specifics of the Polish people's life – names, cuisine, Polish customs, musical instruments, names of wild and breeding animals and Polish weather at winter.”
Since then, Christmas Caroling in Poland has evolved into a light, festive, family activity for millions of Poles every year.
This article was first published in December 2018.