Painting by Polish artist Lela Pawlikowski titled "Matka Boska Jagodna" 1939
For many centuries the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic Church was celebrated on July 2. The feast day commemorates the day that Mary, pregnant with the infant Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Elizabeth immediately knows that the child Mary carries is the one who will be sacrificed for the world. Elizabeth cries out “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42-45) This holy day was established in 1263 by St. Bonaventure of the Franciscan Order and then introduced by Pope Boniface in 1389 throughout the Church. As a result of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1969, the Feast of the Visitation is now celebrated on May 31, ending May - the Marian month.
In Polish folk tradition July 2nd, the Feast of the Visitation, was also called Matka Boska Jagodna, Our Lady of Berries. The day is associated with a legend in which a pregnant Mary walked many miles along lonely paths in order to visit her cousin Elizabeth. During the long journey, Mary's main food was the berries growing in the forest. Folk tradition dictated that until July 2 picking berries from the forest was to be avoided so as not to take the food from the pregnant Mary, who traveled to visit Elizabeth.
This refraining from picking and eating the berries of the forest, such as raspberries and blueberries, until that date was especially important to the pregnant women of Poland. This small sacrifice (because berries were already present and ripe for plucking by Feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24) was a way of asking Mary for the grace of giving birth to a healthy and strong child. Our Lady of Berries was seen as the guardian of mothers and pregnant women, especially those who had problems with pregnancy, miscarried or had still births. Mary would also provide protection for the still born children in the afterlife.
Our Lady of Berries (Matka Boska Jagodna) depicted in folk art. National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw.
Our Lady of Berries also became the patron of forest berries and orchard and garden fruit, all beliefs captured by Polish poet Leopold Staff :
Matka Boska Jagodna, Panienka Maryja,
Która owocnym, rodnym drzewom sprzyja,
Chodzi po sadzie kwitnącym i śpiewa
Pocałunkami budząc w wiosnę drzewa.
Nocą wieśniaczki jej śpiew słyszą we śnie,
Wieść, aby jagód nie jadły przedwcześnie,
Każdą jagodę z ust matce odjętą
Da zmarłym dziatkom Panna w jagód święto…Leopold Staff
Our Lady of Berries, Virgin Mary,
Who favors fruitful, fertile trees,
Walks in the flowering orchard and sings
Kissing trees awake in spring.
At night, the peasant women hear her singing in their sleep,
A message that the berries should not be eaten prematurely,
Every blueberry abstained from mother's mouth
The Virgin will give deceased children on the feast of berries ...
The Visitation is the subject of much devotional art. The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden. National Gallery London
From the earliest days of Christianity, pilgrims have journeyed to Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps once taken by Jesus Christ on the road to Calvary. Indeed, it was pilgrims who originally performed the stations (although it wasn’t called that back then) when they visited Jerusalem and prayed at the sites of Jesus’ Passion. It took centuries for it to evolve into what Christians today call the Way of the Cross or the Stations of the Cross, the devotion which commemorates the Passion and death of Jesus Christ
The yellow line depicts the route that is believed by many to follow the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to His crucifixion.Photo credit: https://santeos.pl/droga-krzyzowa-jak-to-sie-zaczelo/
After Constantine the I issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD which allowed Christianity to be a freely practiced religion, the holy city of Jerusalem became a mecca, a sacred place of pilgrimage for European Christians. But by the 7th century , the flow of pilgrims was effectively cut off with the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, a control which would not be threatened until the beginning of the Crusades whose goal was to restore the holy city of Jerusalem to Christian control.
One of the illustrious pilgrims who devoted much effort to enable Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy Land was Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who traveled to Egypt with the Fifth Crusade and walked into a Muslim camp to meet the Sultan Melek-el-Kamel. As a result he, as well as his friars, were granted safe conduct to visit the holy places. In 1217, St. Francis founded the Custody of the Holy Land to guard and promote the devotion to holy sites.
The Holy Land changed hands many times between Christian crusaders and Muslims over the centuries with evictions and expulsions on both sides. In the 13th century the Franciscan order was allowed back into Jerusalem. Their earlier efforts to guard and protect the holy sites was later recognized when the Franciscans were officially proclaimed guardians of the shrines of the Holy Land by Pope Clement VI in 1342. The Franciscans accompanied pilgrims as they visited the sites and told the story of Jesus’ death with time for reflection and prayer at each site. Through their efforts, the Passion of Christ as a spiritual devotion, truly began to flourish.
William Wey, an English pilgrim, who visited the Holy Land in 1458 and again in 1462, is credited with the term “stations” and interestingly enough, his description of the way a pilgrim followed the steps of Christ was in reverse from what is done today. Instead of beginning at Pilates house, the steps moved from Mount Calvary to Pilate’s house.
In the 16th century, the path that Jesus would have taken, forced by the Roman soldiers on the way to his crucifixion, was officially titled the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way), or simply the Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross. (Wikipedia photo)
In 1686, Pope Innocent XI, realizing that few people could travel to the Holy Land due to Muslim oppression (again), granted the Franciscans the right to erect stations in all of their churches. In later years Pope Clement XII permitted stations to be erected in all churches and fixed the number at 14 (the number varied over the centuries). In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV exhorted all priests to enrich their churches with the Way of the Cross, which had to include 14 crosses and to be accompanied with pictures or images of each particular station. In Catholic churches (it is also practiced by the Lutheran and Anglican faiths), The Way of the Cross is depicted in paintings or sculptures placed most often on the side walls of the church.
Polish army walking the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem 1944. Photo: polona.pl
The Franciscans began to introduce the Way of the Cross, called Droga Krzyżowa, to their churches. In Poland, the oldest surviving Polish text, titled Sposób nabożeństwa droga krzyżowa nazywanego, “The Manner of Devotion called the Way of the Cross,” was published in Wrocław in 1731. When one counts the number of churches and calvaries (outdoor reproductions of the Via Dolorosa) and crossesthat dot the landscape of Poland, The Way of the Cross has withstood the test of centuries and remains a very spiritual devotion among the faithful, especially during Lent and most significantly on Fridays during the Lenten season.
A Legend from Kurpie Region
The Puszcza Zielona, the Green Kurpie Region, in the northeast corner of Poland was a place of erection of numerous crosses throughout the centuries. On a church wall in Nowogród there was at one time a painting (lost during a remodeling in 1904) depicting Christ and a Kurp (the name given to a person from the Kurpie region) carrying a cross to Golgota. Adam Chętnik, an untiring scholar of the region, documented that the painting was connected to a popular legend:
The Lord Jesus left Pilate and began the road to death carrying His cross to the hill of Golgota. He was tortured, beaten, dripping with blood and sweat and stumbled with the heavy load on the uneven road. The Jews who walked along were in no hurry to help. A Kurp passing by saw this and felt terrible sorrow for the person with the crown of thorns. He pushed his way through the throng and took the cross on his left shoulder which immediately eased the Lord Jesus. And Jesus looked over, smiled, blessed him and as the Kurp was leaving, said to him: For that, that you have a good heart, may you and your countrymen never be without wood - for your own needs and for crosses. And there grew the enormous forests of Puszcza Zielona, and the Kurps found themselves rich in wood and everyone who could, wherever they could, erected crosses.
A blessed Lenten season.
Chętnik, Adam. "Krzyże i Kapliczki Kurpiowskie." Polska Sztuka Ludowa. 1977
Candlemas (also spelled Candlemass), celebrated on February 2nd is also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Polish folk tradition, the other title for this day was Matka Boska Gromnicza, “Our Lady of the Thunder Candle,” appeared around 1471 in Płock and began to be used interchangeably with the Feast of the Purification.
Women from the village of Modlnicy in procession with their gromnicza.
An inseparable element of celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Candlemas in Polish tradition is blessing specially made and decorated candles during the service, called gromnicza, meaning thunder, because the candles were used to try and deter storms and lightening that were generally preceded by thunder. How were these candles made?
In old Poland, when bees were tended in the wild in the forests, the candles were made only from pure beeswax as it was considered the purest of substances, the fruit of the unrelenting labor of thousands of workers of God’s creation. Beeswax candles burned clean and pure, smelling like flowers and honey. Very often the color of the candle could vary anywhere from golden to brown, depending on what type of flowers the bees had been foraging on. The beeswax was collected over the course of the year and even though difficult and time consuming, handmaking the candles was often undertaken by various societies or brotherhoods to burn in church for the glory of God but also to make and sell or to gift family and friends on the feast of Candlemas on February 2nd.
Extracting honey to reach the wax comb in village of Momoty in southeast Poland. Author photo. 1992.
The candles were made using a wooden wheel called in some places a kołowrot (not to be confused with a spinning wheel also called kołowrot) hung on a wooden shaft so that the wheel could move freely. Nails or hooks were evenly hammered across the flat wheel. Depending on the size of the candles to be made, appropriately sized wicks were attached to the nails. In the early years, the wicks made of linen (and later of cotton) by the women on a drop spindle. Some of the candles could be over a yard long requiring 6 or 8 threads twisted together to provide a proper sized wick.
In a room that was not given to sudden drafts or changes in temperature, or the wax would solidify too soon, hot beeswax that had been heated in a copper pitcher to the right temperature was poured ever so slowly along the wick so that the wax ran down it evenly, requiring a very steady hand. Each candle was made from numerous pouring’s along the length of the wick, time and again until a desired width was obtained. When all the candles had been poured, hopefully while each candle was still slightly warm (or, if cooled too much, one technique was to place the candles under a pierzyna, a homemade goosedown comforter, to warm them again) it was rolled between two wooden planks with just the right pressure to level them into a uniform round appearance. Time consuming and labor intensive!
Artisan in Poland utilizing the pouring method to make candles. You can see more photographs of the tradition of pouring wax to make candles here: izbaskarbow.blogspot.com/2016/01/tradycyjny-wyrob-swiec-z-wosku.html
Unlike today, when most taper candles are about 12 inches long, the gromnicza candles were made much longer, some over a yard long, others shorter but long enough to last through a lifetime of being lit during difficult times and moments. A blessed gromnicza had the power to ward off all evil and misfortunes, and believed to protect against storms and lightening and attacks by wolves. It was lit only during special circumstances but also during processions, a serious illness, life crisis, and in the hands of a dying person or at their bedside to ease their death.
It must be noted, too, that at one time the candle played an important role in in the days when purification of a woman delivered of a child was still a custom not just in Poland but among most of the Slavs. Often forgotten is that Candlemas day celebrates the Purification of Mary after the birth of Christ and that tradition lived on in many countries for centuries.
Forty days after the birth of a child, the mother (considered “unclean”) entered church through a side entrance. In her hand she held a lit candle, a gromnicza. The priest sprinkled her with holy water, whereby she could enter the main part of the church, pray cleansing prayers with the priest in front of the altar and, depending on local custom, walk around the altar with her lit candle. Having been purified, she could now rejoin the rest of the congregation at the mass.
Making of gromnicza 2022 at St. Casimir Church, Buffalo, NY . Photo courtesy of Irene Woszczak.
It was customary to tie green twigs of boxwood or juniper or myrtle (myrtus communis) to the candle with a piece of freshly combed flax, but in later years it was replaced with white or blue ribbons, the color most associated with Mary, to whom the day is dedicated. In the Lublin region, a candle was decorated with koraliki, i.e., coral beads. Once decorated, the candle was taken to church, where it was blessed.
When not being used the candles were kept on the front wall of the room behind holy pictures, much like the Easter palms or placed in a candleholder and kept on the family home altar where it was lit on all the Marian holidays, to honor Mary, and on any occasion where her intercession was wanted and needed.
With the passage of time, the craft of beekeeping declined as did the traditional makers of the candles. Candles began to be manufactured from stearine and paraffin, which were cheaper and even brighter to the eye when lit. But do they smell like honey and wild flowers from the meadow?
It’s not an exaggeration to say there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Polish Christmas carols.
Collected over the centuries, the oldest known text of a Polish church hymn regarding the birth of Christ dates back to 1424 and was a handwritten translation from the Czech by a man named Szczekany of Prague, and begins with the words Zdrów bądz, królo anielski (Be well, King of Angels). In 1522, five Christmas songs written in Polish appear in a book titled Żywot Pana Jezu Krysta(The life of Jesus Christ) printed by Jan Haller and Hieronim Wietora in Kraków. One of the oldest Polish Christmas carols from the 16th century and still sung today is Aniol pasterzom mowil (The Angel Told the Shepherds). The author is unknown. The most well-known that survived from the 17th century is
W żłobie leży (In a manger). The words are credited to the famous preacher Piotr Skarga (1536-1612).
In the 18th and 19th centuries carols emerged from the pens of some of Poland's greatest writers and literary figures, as well as monks, priests, small town schoolteachers, organists and many unknown writers. Among these unknown writers and authors is the creator of the carol that for many individuals, officially opens the Christmas season and is titled Wśród Nocnej Ciszy (In the Night's Stillness)
It is the carol that opens the midnight Christmas Eve mass, called the Pasterka, the Shepherd’s Mass, in honor of the shepherds called to the stable that night.
“In the night’s stillness, voices unfurl
Wake shepherds, the Lord is being born.
As quickly as you can, hurry to Bethlehem
To greet the Lord.”
Postcard published in Warsaw sometime between 1905-1939. It is titled from the lyrics: Wstańce, pasterze, Bóg się wam rodzi...(Wake shepherds, the Lord is being born). Attributed to artist H. Czechowicz
That this carol, and so many others, have survived over the centuries is credited to numerous individuals but the most notable among them was Reverend Michal Marcin Mioduszewski, professor of canon law at the seminary in Kraków. Reverend Mioduszewski was not just a collector of religious songs that were being sung in his time but actively researched old manuscripts during his life time. As a collector and publisher of religious songs, he compiled the biggest collection of Polish Christmas carols for church services in his Pastoralki and Kolędy (Pastorals and Carols) published in 1843. Wśród Nocnej Ciszy first appeared in an Appendix to this collection when it was published again in 1853.
Face page and carol from 1908 edition of Mioduszewski's Pastoralki and Kolędy.
The carol appears in that edition as the song for the Introit of the Christmas Eve mass as it does in this 1908 edition. The purpose of the Introit (from Latin: introitus, "entrance") is to open the celebration, to turn thoughts toward the mystery of the celebration and accompany the procession, if there was to be one. In some churches in Poland, while this entrance carol was being sung, a statue of the Infant Jesus was brought to the manger erected within the church and placed there as a symbolic reminder that Christ is being born “in the night’s stillness.”
For 168 years(!), the faithful in the churches of Poland and Polonia scattered throughout the world, continue to rise from their seats at the opening notes of "Wśród Nocnej Ciszy" at the midnight mass (or first mass of the evening) to welcome, once again, the birth of Christ. It was given to us by an unknown individual from the 18th century, someone whose name remains in obscurity, who will never receive recognition for the joy it brings to the heart year after year - a true Christmas gift handed down through the centuries.
Here is a very old recording of it from 1929 along with b&w images of Poland celebrating Christmas Eve in those years. www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcBqowFY9NY
Wishing you every joy of this holiday season: peace, love and good health. May the new year bring each of you every blessing, and every hope and dream fulfilled.
From the time of the 13th century, the people of Poland began the Advent season with a special early morning mass called roraty. It is a special early morning mass, said before daybreak and devoted specifically to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The name for this mass comes from the Introit, the opening antifon or Latin chant, Rorate Coeli, said at the beginning of the mass. It was the prayer of the prophet Isaiah (45:8) begging the Lord for the arrival of a Savior:
"Let the heavens drop dew from above
and the clouds rain down justice
May the earth open and generate a Savior:
Reveal to us, Lord, Your mercy,
and give your salvation to us:
come, Lord, and do not delay."
In many parts of Poland, an ancient wooden horn called a ligawka, was likened to the archangel's trumpet, to remind the people of Christ’s second coming and the Judgement Day. It often
announced the beginning of advent and called the people to attend this early morning mass.
Ligawka. Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw
The mass is said before dawn, in the dark, as a symbol that the world was in darkness until the arrival of Jesus as Light of the World. A special feature of the mass is the lighting of a special candle decorated with a white or blue ribbon, the colors associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Gwiazda Zaranna, the Morning Star. Traditionally the liturgy began in the dark, the faithful often coming with their own candles or lanterns to light their way.
In this day and age, when many do not have access to churches that still offer this mass, the faithful can still have their own rorata, their own candle that is lit each morning before dawn. It can be their own time of thoughtfulness, reflection and quiet prayer during the Advent season while listening to "Rorate coeli" the Latin chant that opens the mass.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f06qdhO_sEY
In the time before Christianity became firmly established in Poland, there was an important annual ritual conducted by the early pagans to honor their deceased ancestors. It took place in autumn, a time when the pagans firmly believed that their deceased ancestors returned to the world of the living. The deceased souls were to visit the places where they had lived and if they were well received, would bestow prosperity and fertility in the form of a bountiful harvest. To greet the returning souls, food was left on the table, and a door or window was left open to welcome them. Food was also brought to the graves of the dead. One of the most important food items to be placed on the table or brought to the cemetery was bread.
One of the earliest breads made by the pagan Poles and brought to gravesites during this autumn ritual was a round, flat, unleavened bread called podpłomyk. The flat bread was baked on a hot stone that sat over the hot ashes of a fire. It was one of the earliest and most primitive forms of baking bread. One could call it the first “soul” bread as it was meant for departed souls. (My idea of what it may have looked like - today's naan bread- only the unleavened version)
Over time and the strong Christian influence, the pagan autumn ritual eventually became All Saint’s and All Souls' Day. The feasts at the graveyards, much frowned upon by the Catholic Church, were abandoned but the custom baking of podplomyk remained for a long time. The word appears in Latin medieval texts of the 15th century, stating that local priests in Poland were still decrying the pagan ritual of housewives making this flat bread from the same dough as that of their regular bread. With the last scrapings of dough, the housewife still made these small flat breads. Only now, instead of taking it to gravesites, the housewives said a prayer at the time of baking in order to ”lessen the suffering of souls in Purgatory who were in most need of help” and was shared with children and neighbors. It became a different way of honoring those that had died.
Kobiety przy piecu (Women at the stove) 1888 by Polish painter Wojciech Piechowski(1849-1911)
The old pagan practice underwent another transformation over the next centuries. Instead of a flat bread, the women, who now had access to yeast and brick ovens, baked small loaves of bread and because it was baked for the Feast of All Soul’s, which is called Dzien Zaduszki (the day of all souls) in Polish, the bread was also called zaduszki – a different version of soul bread, if you will. And because they were given to the poor and to beggars, the bread was also called dziady, the Polish word for beggars.
Beggars in Kamieniec Podolski now Kamianets-Podilskyi in western Ukraine. From Zygmunt Gloger. Encyklopedia Staropolska
Poland wasn’t the only country in Europe with these lingering practices. The Mexicans made Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead. In England they were called soul cakes and given to children and beggars right around the same time on All Hollow’s Eve, later known as Halloween, but later Christianized to All Soul’s. On this night poor peasants and children called "soulers" would go about town singing and praying for the souls of the dead. They would stop at homes and beg for a "soul cake" and promise in return to pray for the household's deceased family members to be released from purgatory. The refrains sung at the door varied from "a soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.”
In Poland, the zaduszki, the “soul bread” was distributed to the beggars who appeared at the entrances of churches and cemeteries at this time of year. It was believed that the soul of the ancestor could take on the look of a beggar, or someone in need, or someone especially vulnerable, so they were always treated with much respect.
Beggars at cemetery entrance. Illustration by Marian Chodowski from book by Tadeusz Janduła. Ocalić od Zapomnienia
What’s more, in exchange for accepting the bread, the beggar would loudly call out the names of the departed and say prayers for their souls, much like the "soulers" of England. There you have it- different people on different continents all honoring their ancestors in their own particular way but at the core is some form of bread, or it’s later sweetened version as a soul cake or cookie.
Eventually, beggars in Poland stopped traveling the roads and attending cemeteries to pray for the deceased on All Soul’s Day. Instead of giving bread to beggars, the next transition in these ancient customs was that families made a food gift of some sort to the parish priest in exchange for calling out the names of the deceased in the church on All Soul’s Day. This calling out of names of the deceased and asking for their eternal rest on All Souls' Day is called wypominki from the word wypominać, that is, to keep reminding, that the dear departed have not been forgotten. (See blog November 2019) From there, the giving of food to the priest changed into giving a small financial donation.
Which brings us full circle to today’s times. Families in Poland, and Polonia throughout the world, still visit the cemetery at this time of year to honor their dead but instead of food or bread, bring flowers and candles (which, by the way, is a substitute for the bonfires that also took place during this time of year) and instead of bread for the beggars to call out the names of the departed, they give a gift/donation to have a priest call out their names in church.
After all this time, all these centuries, the faint echoes of these very ancient customs are still very much with us.
“Kto żyje w pamięci swych bliskich, żyje wiecznie.” "He who lives in the memory of his closest, lives forever.”
References: Biegeleisen, Henry. U Kolebki, Przed Otlarzem, Nad Mogiła. Nakładem Instytutu Stauropigjanskiego 1929
To Polish Americans, the term placek conjures up the image of a sweet yeast bread with a crumbly topping of flour, butter and sugar baked in a rectangular loaf pan.
Polish ethnographers studying the preparation of food and its consumption among the country folk feel that placek, the name given to a cake made of yeast that was baked for special occassions, is the modern evolution of the ancient kołacz, the special bread baked for weddings. Ethnographer Jan Bystron states, "in certain parts of Poland the kołacz is called placek. This is a baked item made from white wheat flour with cheese and raisins."
In light of the requests I received for the recipe after I posted this photo of the placek I made for St. Casimir's Church (Buffalo, NY) Our Lady's Street Fair, I'm posting it here for those of you who asked (thank you for the compliment!) and for anyone who may be interested.
4 cups plus 4 tablespoons unbleached flour
½ cup golden yellow or dark raisins
½ cup hot water
Two ¼ ounce packages active dry yeast
½ cup warm water
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
½ cup butter (one stick)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅓ cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
1.Bring eggs and flour to room temperature.
2.Soak raisins in the hot water for 30 minutes or until plump. Drain and squeeze raisins lightly to remove excess fluid.
3.Place ½ cup warm water (110º to 115ºF) into a 2 cup measuring glass or bowl. Sprinkle yeast over the water and mix. Add ½ teaspoon of the sugar to the yeast mixture and 4 tablespoons of the flour to make a tin batter. Set aside or 15 to 20 minutes. It should become bubbly and frothy.
4.Scald the milk in a saucepan, remove from heat and add the butter, salt nutmeg and vanilla. Cool to lukewarm (110º to 115ºF.)
5. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and remaining sugar until pale yellow. Add the lukewarm milk mixture and then the yeast mixture.
6.Gradually add the remaining 4 cups of flour, beating well. Add the raisins and mix thoroughly. The dough will be somewhat sticky.
7.Place in a warm area and allow dough to double in bulk about an hour(or sometimes more)
8.Grease and lightly flour 2 9x5 inch or 8x3½ inch loaf pans. Distribute the dough evenly between the pans. Cover and let rise again for 30 minutes.
9.While dough is rising, make the topping. Place dry ingredients in small bowl and cut the butter into the flour, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon until it looks like coarse meal, as if making a pie crust. Or, place ingredients in food processor and pulse together for same effect.
10.Preheat oven to 350ºF. Sprinkle topping evenly over the dough and bake for 30 minutes.
Smacznego! May it be tasty!
Recipe from Polish Country Kitchen Cookbook by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab. Hippocrene Books, Inc.
During Holy Week, on Tuesday April 14, 1394, the Keeper of the Accounts for Queen Jadwiga of Poland (reigned 1384-1399) and her husband, King Władysław Jagiełło (reigned 1386–1434) documented the purchases made for the king and queen’s table for the upcoming Easter holiday:
“Two niecki (long,deep wooden bowls) for holding cheese; 160 cheeses; two graters and payment for bringing it from the market square; 160 cheeses for baked goods (he added in Latin ad tortas – that is, for making tortes); one sack of white flour for the torte’s; 30 miarek (meaning measures, a system based on volume but not specified in the accounts) of fine wheat flour taken on credit from Wacław, called Stokłosa, to be paid on the Green Holidays (Pentecost). The butcher slaughtered 12 pigs and also prepared słonina (rendered fat) called loszijna (from the word łosia, meaning elk) for the king.” The king was an avid hunter. (Photo left: Image of Queen Jadwiga as imagined by artist Jan Matejko)
It seems even kings and queens ran out of money and had to buy on credit! And what’s this about the queen’s kitchen needing the delivery of two graters? Some poor flunky had to trudge up Wawel Hill to the castle kitchen from one of the wooden market stalls in the square…the same square we know today as Rynek Glowny, the Main Square, the largest in Europe…only then it was filled with wooden stalls and merchants from all over Europe and Asia selling their wares – silk, gold, silver, spices and herbs, shoes, pottery and…graters. I can just imagine some cook’s helper waiting for the delivery… maybe needing to grate the horseradish to accompany the pork?
Engraving of Wawel from the north from 1581
And if 160 cheeses seem excessive, it must be remembered that between the queen’s and king’s retinues, family members, clergy, guests, knights, there were often hundreds of individuals who usually sat down to table. It’s clear though that the kitchen was preparing to break the long Lenten fast which was taken very seriously by the King and Queen. Two hundred days were given over to fasting – the period of Advent, the eve before all major holy days, various penitential days, every Friday and of, course, the long period of Lent. Fasting meant one meal a day, consisting of some kind of vegetable, without dairy products or animal fats. Everyone was ready to end Lent.
Later that week, on Good Friday, the keeper of the accounts notes the costs for the queen and her retinue for placki called płaskury (a baked good made from płaskurka, i.e., emmer wheat, sometimes called farro wheat, an ancient grain), bułki (rolls) and obwarzanki(rings of baked yeast dough that can still be bought in the main square in Kraków today).
“On Holy Saturday,” he writes, “on the eve of the Great Night, there was white bread and obwarzanki for the queen and her court” and “payment had to be made for delivery of it from the market square; half an ounce of saffron for the placki and 1200 eggs.” It is a known fact that Queen Jadwiga really liked her obwarzanki. Its purchase from the square for the queen is mentioned frequently throughout the years of the accounts. (Photo: saffron)
“On Easter Sunday, the 19th of April,” the accountant writes,” for white bread, 3 grosze (unit of small money), which was bought yesterday: and today 1 achtel (the equivalent of half a barrel which corresponded to approximately 130-141 liters) of previously brewed mead.” King Jagiełło abstained from alcohol, as did his father before him, which may explain the low amount for such a big crowd. Perhaps drinking wasn’t encouraged.
Historians have not found any source that describes how Easter Sunday was spent at the court of Jadwiga and Jagiełło or what specific dishes were served but we get a general idea from the purchases. "Tort" cakes, mainly cheesecake, were baked with the numerous cheeses using the fine wheat flour and surely with a portion of the 1200 eggs, as were the placek’s(shape unknown), enhanced with what was at the time, very expensive saffron. There was pork served in some manner(maybe whole with an apple in its mouth?) and all washed down with mead.
How fortunate the accountant did not throw away his records when they ceased to be needed and left it to future generations to pour over. I realized that the Easter table of today among Polish Americans is not so different, in essence, from that of the Middle Ages. We still bake something special, with or without saffron. If we can’t find our grater, or maybe it’s broken, we have to get a new one. We eat eggs and some version of pork. We enjoy a honeyed Polish vodka or some other libation of choice.
Tradition continues over the centuries. Wesołego Alleluja! Happy Easter!
Teodor Axentowicz (1859-1938) was a renowned Polish-Armenian painter born in Braşov, Hungary (now Romania). His father’s family had Armenian roots and owned a small property in Ceniów (now Tseniv, Ukraine).(Author note: The Armenians had found sanctuary in Poland in the 14th century).
Axentowicz grew up in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) and after finishing high school he spent four years (1878-1882) studying art at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts and then went on to Paris to the studio of Carlos Duran.
In 1893 Axentowicz went to Kołomyja and Jamno in eastern Ukraine, paying his first visit to the lands of the Hucul (spelling in Polish language, Hutsul in Ukrainian), an ethnographic group of Carpathian highlanders of mixed Ruthenian and Wallachian origin. The region is located in the western part of the Ukraine, in the area of the Eastern Carpathians, at the forks of Prut, Cheremosh and Tisza rivers.
Map of ethnic Carpathian highlanders. Source: Pinterest.
Today the region is located almost entirely in the Ukraine, and to a small extent overlaps with the territory of Romania. These areas were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for centuries. After the first partition of Poland in 1772, they became part of the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) monarchy. In the years 1918–1939 they were once again part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Axentowicz, recognized as an illustrator, graphic artist and a superb portraitist by this time in his career, developed a very keen interest in the life, rituals, and traditions of the distinctive Hucul people. He began garnering attention for his paintings of the Hucul’s while still in Paris. In 1895, he settled in Kraków. Based on his sketches from the region, Axentowicz, continued to return to the subject of the Hucul’s throughout his career. The folk costumes and religious rituals became a recurring theme in Axentowicz’s work, among them, appropriate today, the feast of Candlemas, also known as the feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on February 2.
Teodor Axentowicz. Gromnicza. (Blessed Thunder candle). Oil on canvas. c.1900 Museum of Archdiocese of Katowice
In the Polish folk tradition, the feast of Candlemas was also called Matka Boska Gromniczną, or Gromniczną, both referrring to Mother of God Thunder Candle. The name derives from the candle that was brought to church on this day, solemnly lit and kept for a lifetime as a means of protection. It was believed that this candle protected against storms and thunder, hence the name "gromnica," from the word “grom” meaning thunder. A storm with lightning and thunder was a great threat to thatched huts without lightning rods. One strike of lightning could destroy the achievements of a lifetime so it was with a feeling of helplessness that a family watched the luminous zigzags of lightning against a dark sky. In that helplessness, a candle, blessed on a feast devoted to the Blessed Mother, was reached for and put it lit at the window in the hope of safety and protection. It is a custom that can be dated back to the 9th century.
Teodor Axentowicz. Na Gromnicą . Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie.
Teodor Axentowicz Dziewczyna z Gromnicą. (Girl with Thunder Candle). Date unknown. Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi
Teodor Axentowicz. Na Gromniczną. On Candlemas. Date unkown.
In the paintings, we see children and adults carrying candles to be blessed through a wintery landscape. Axentowicz seems to have more young girls carrying the candles than other individuals. According to custom anyone can carry the candle to the church for blessing, regardless of gender and age, but in practice it was mostly done by girls and women.
Teodor Axentowicz. Na Gromniczną. Powrót z cerkwi na Huculszczyźnie.( On Candlemas. Return from the Orthodox church in Hucul region). C.1910
The Hucul region lay within Poland’s borders from the time of Kazimierz the Great( reigned 1333 to 1370) to World War II except for the time of the Partitions. The people were typically of the Greek Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faith, both of which would celebrate Candlemas but at different times on the calendar.
These paintings are only a few among many of the painting completed by Axentowicz of the custom of bringing a candle to be blessed on the feasts of Candlemas. It is said that it was he who “discovered” and subsequently, uncovered, the Hucul’s to the world through his paintings.
With the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary on February 2nd, also known as Candlemas, the Christmas period in Poland was officially over. Instead of young boys caroling along country roads, the snowy roads began to fill with the sound of jangling of bells from horse-drawn sleighs taking the rich and famous to house parties, fancy dress balls and winter weddings.
Kulig. Juliusz Kossak c.1887
These kuligs, the famous sleigh rides made famous by the Polish aristocracy, rose in popularity in the 16th century and were a large part of Zapusty, or carnival time, that period of overindulgence and fun before the strict fast of Lent. Looking back to a few centuries before the 1600’s, however, this carnival time began soon after the Feast of Three Kings and was much shorter in length.
Completely forgotten now among the older customs and traditions of Poland was a period called przedpoście, or pre-fast, and it was essentially a period of preparing for Lent with another period of fasting and abstinence. This prequel to the forty days of Lent took shape in the times of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604 AD) when the church instituted a three-week period of additional fasting as a way of reminding the faithful of the very serious, and quickly approaching period of Lent, and that they should prepare through increased prayer, fasting, and acts of penance. The last day of feasting and revelry was called Niedziela Zapustna, or Niedziela Starozapustna, meaning the last Sunday of carnival time. In church liturgy it is known as Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before the beginning of Lent. If we look at the calendar that would be today, January 31.
We know this pre-Lenten period was taken very seriously during the reign of Boleslaw the Brave (992-1025) so much so that if someone was caught eating meat on a fast day, their teeth were in danger of being knocked out as punishment! This period of fasting was still in effect in the 14th century at the court of Queen Jadwiga Jagiełło (reigned 1384-1399) and King Jagiełło through the extant records of the Keeper of the Treasury from the years 1388-1417.
In the year 1394, he dates and documents the following events:
On February 2, the day of the Purification, for the queen’s supper: 30 partridges, 4 geese and 3 rabbits.
February 3, Małdrzyk, official servant of the Queen, was sent to Moravia with letters and was given small money for expenses……
March 2, Niedziela Zapustna, the last Sunday of carnival, the queen and king ate with Spytek of Melstzyna, the administrator of the city of Kraków, along with two Mazowian princes and a variety of other princes: 20 pigs, 40 cheeses for placki and pirogów (Author note: that is the spelling used in the accounts and it should also be noted that close to 200 members of the court and visiting guests often sat down to eat for dinner)
March 3, Fresh fish for the queen, as she did not eat meat, and 30 herrings.
A week later, the keeper of the treasury mentions “Week 2 of the fast.” And subsequently on March 15, “Week 3 of the fast.”
Herring was a fish affordable for king and peasant alike and one of the main staples of Lent.
The origin of the pre-fast is not exactly known but assumed to have come from the need to precisely calculate the forty days of Lent by excluding the Sundays and Saturdays which at the time were free from fasting. As a result, the beginning of Lent shifted forward on the calendar. With reforms in the church liturgical calendar in later centuries, the pre-fast period was removed and a greater emphasis placed on Lent itself. With that change, the aristocracy of the 16th century could enjoy their kulig’s a bit longer through the winter months.
Source: Życie domowe Jadwigi i Jagiełły z regestrów skarbowych z lat 1388-1417(Home life of Jadwiga and Jagiełło from the treasurer’s registers from 1388-1420). Aleksander Przeździecki.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.