7 Confusing Polish Customs
Every country has customs that shock and confuse foreigners. Polish people going about their daily business or celebrating special occasions often do things that will make your jaw drop, but are considered perfectly normal here. Culture.pl has started a list of the most surprising Polish habits and invites you to share your culture shocks worthy of outer space. We will then update the list with our readers’ suggestions!
Poland’s most surprising customs usually stem from relics of pagan culture or folk traditions (sometimes combined with religious observances), therefore our own list starts with the pagan roots of Polish culture before moving on to odd eating habits, but feel free to send us anecdotes from any sphere of life.
1. Marzanna – Burning and drowning a straw effigy
Marzanna is the Polish name for a Slavic goddess associated with death, winter and nature. Even though pagan religion was theoretically eradicated from Poland in the early 11th century, Marzanna is still alive thanks to a popular ritual. Every year, on the first day of spring, people would make an effigy, set it on fire, and then drown it in a river. The aim of the ritual is to chase off winter and encourage nature to revive.
The Marzanna doll is traditionally made of straw and white canvas and decorated with colourful ribbons. Her sacrifice is subject to several rules: you can’t touch her while she is in the water (your hand would wither), you can’t look back while coming back from the river (you’d bring illnesses upon you and your relatives). The Catholic church was fighting this ritual even until the early 20th century but never succeeded in stamping it out. The Marzanna tradition is still popular in some parts of Poland even though people no longer believe it really helps spring come sooner.
2. Oczepiny – Racy wedding games
If you ever happen to be at a Polish wedding party and you hear the word oczepiny you can run or stay put, but if you stay, you’ll most probably find yourself involved in a wedding game far outside your comfort zone.
Oczepiny is a common Slavic rite which symbolises the transition of the bride from being a maiden to being a married women. Traditionally the bride had her hair cut or shortened and a cap put on. This is also where the name comes from, as czepiec is Polish for a cap.
From that point, oczepiny has taken a circuitous route to become, nowadays, the moment when the most insane wedding games are organised. It usually starts with the popular throwing of the bride’s bouquet and then… anything can happen. If “carnival” in anthropology means moving the borders of what is socially acceptable and what is not, then oczepiny are a carnival par excellence. You may be asked to pass an orange to the auntie you don’t know without using your hands (imagine the embarrassment), you could be asked to change your gender for a while and dance the rumba or the tango with a person of the same sex, you could be asked to down far too much booze in a very short time, and so on.
Remember: run, or stay at your own peril.
3. Poprawiny – Having a second wedding party after the first
The dictionary says it is a continuation of a wedding party the day after the main event. It is also referred to as a champagne brunch, which couldn’t be more misleading. Rarely is there champagne at a poprawiny and if there is a word in French that describes poprawiny it is déjà vu.
Poprawiny basically means starting the wedding party all over again, in the middle of the day after the wedding party, and sometimes it is even carried on to the third day. There are even legends of week-long wedding parties organised by Gorals – the inhabitants of the Polish Tatra mountains.
4. Christmas – straw under the tablecloth, and an extra plate for an unexpected guest
Celebrating both Christmas and Easter is very important to Poles, and there are a plethora of little habits and traditions to obey. For example, at Christmas you have to put a little bit of straw under the tablecloth and set one extra plate for an unexpected guest. The explanation?
Putting a few blades of straw is what remains of a tradition of decorating the whole table with straw and grains and even putting a sheaf in the corner (which was even practised by noble families living in demesnes). The reason behind it was that Jesus Christ was born in a manger, in a little stable in Bethlehem, and the straw is to symbolise the paucity of the circumstances of his coming to Earth.
An old Polish proverb says ‘Gość w dom, Bóg w dom’, which means that the presence of a guest is God’s blessing. Hospitality is a part of the Polish identity and Poles are determined not to leave anybody alone or hungry on Christmas – this is why they traditionally put an extra plate on the Christmas table. In fact, rarely does any unexpected guest come but if you ever happen to be in Poland and your friends know that you have nobody to spend Christmas evening with, expect several invitations!
5. Śmigus Dyngus – Pouring buckets of water on strangers
Among the Easter code of rituals Śmigus Dyngus may be the most unexpected. What it is nowadays is a free-for-all, all-day water battle played out with water pistols, bottles, water balloons thrown from windows, plastic bags or whatever means are on hand – in some rare instances even fire trucks have been known to join in.
The provenance of this custom is linked with both Christianity, where splashing with water is evocative of the baptism or blessing, and with a traditional folk game between young boys and girls, who celebrated the arrival of spring, the revival of nature’s fertility and, when the opportunity arose, looked into possibility of future bonding.
6. Kanapki – Sliced bread instead of sandwiches
The fundamental question that arises after a few days in Poland is: what is the kanapka everybody is eating and talking about? Be aware that if your Polish friends offer you a sandwich, you might only receive one slice of bread.
Kanapka is the Polish word for most types of snacks that have a slice (or slices) of bread as a base component. It refers to all types of sandwiches but, above all else, to the Poles, it means the beloved open sandwich. And among the surprising eating habits of Poland, the ultra-dominance of the open sandwich on every Poles’ working-day menu is the one that puzzles foreigners the most. Kanapka is the first choice for breakfast, lunch and supper, and doesn’t really differ depending on time of the day.
Is the open sandwich a Polish invention? Not really, and it is much older than it might seem. It derives from a Medieval habit of using a thick slice of bread as a plate. At the end of the meal, the bread-plate was eaten, or given to a servant or a dog. Guess what happens with the uneaten sandwiches nowadays…
7. Foraging – Picking (and eating) mushrooms in the forest
While most foreigners would never dream of risking a possibly lethal case of poisoning by eating something they found in a forest, mushroom picking is a Polish holiday craze. People love it, and because approximately 30% of Poland is covered with beautiful woodland it is one of the most common ways of spending free time outdoors. Poles are eager to wake up in the early morning to pick mushrooms before others, and they teach children the names of all the species of mushrooms as well as acquaint them with techniques of recognising if the mushroom is edible or lethally poisonous. Picking mushrooms is a serious thing in Poland and Polish mushroom dishes are usually world-class delights.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 23rd April, 2015.