Mysterious ‘Bearded Men of Sławatycze’ tradition added to list of Intangible Cultural Heritage
A mysterious folk custom in which men dress up in flamboyant costumes with long beards and spend the last three days of the year chasing children and young women with sticks has been entered on Poland’s national list of intangible cultural heritage.
Called ‘Bearded Men of Sławatycze’ after the village it originated from, the strange custom is believed to be unique not just in Poland but in the whole of Europe.
Announcing the news on social media, the Voivodeship Culture Centre in Lublin which helped organise the listing said: “We are proud to announce that the Bearded Men of Sławatycze - the custom of saying goodbye to the old year, has been entered on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage.”
The tradition in Sławatycze, which sits just a few kilometres from the border with Belarus in the Podlasie voivodeship, involves men from the village dressing up in carefully crafted costumes and parading through the streets for the last three days of December.
They chase children and young women and, according to tradition, beat errant children, though nowadays they give New Year's greetings.
The men devote much time to preparing their impressive costumes. Going from bottom to top, they wrap their legs in straw, then turn a sheepskin coat inside, which symbolises old age, longevity and wisdom. They cover their faces in a painted leather mask.
The most important part of the costume is the beard, which is made in the village from long strands of linen fibre. It is supposed to indicate old age, long life and experience.
The ensemble is topped off with an 80-centimetre-high conical hat made from 100-120 colourful flowers of tissue or crepe paper. Ribbons are attached to the hat.
According to Bolesław Szulej, director of the local culture centre, preparing the costume is no easy task.
“You need to start with a frame to which you attach flowers and tissue paper ribbons. The difficult thing is to get the traditional bearded man's sheepskin, as no one wears them anymore. Therefore, if someone has such a garment, they keep it just for this occasion,” he said.
Although the village has a population of just over 1,000 inhabitants, the tradition takes place without fail every year, with around ten men dressing up and stalking the village.
Local municipality boss Arkadiusz Misztal said: “I have been dressing up as a bearded man for eight or nine years now.
“It is only here in Sławatycze, for the last three days of the year, that bearded men appear.”
He added that the purpose of the tradition is to bid farewell to the old year, rid the village of bad spirits and at the same time to welcome a new, better year.
“That is why they frighten children, shout a lot, run and make a lot of noise to ward off everything that was bad in the old year,” he said.
According to legend, any unmarried woman who is lifted up and thrown in the air by one of the bearded men will improve her chances of finding a husband in the coming year.
Though the ritual is old, no one is sure exactly when it began nor where it comes from. Misztal said: “It is certainly several hundred years old, if not more. In any case, the grandparents of today's bearded people tell us that their grandfathers used to dress up as bearded people.”
In order to keep the unique tradition alive, the community culture centre offers a cash prize for the Bearded Man of the Year each year. A strict criterion is that the participants must prepare their own outfit.
Village bosses have been trying for some time to get the tradition entered on the national list of intangible cultural heritage.
Entry on the national list paves the way for a full entry onto the prestigious UNESCO list of the same name.
The list is drawn up and maintained by the culture ministry in line with principles adopted by UNESCO in 2003 and currently contains 49 entries.
The list covers the “practice of traditions, customs, traditional crafts and handicrafts, cultivating historical memory, preserving traditional knowledge and beliefs, musical, performance and linguistic traditions and any other manifestation of human activity sanctioned by tradition.”
From national lists, UNESCO then creates its Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Poland’s entries on this list include traditional beekeeping in trees and nativity scenes from Kraków.