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.