The Sleigh Parties of the Old Polish Carnivals
A party that moves from home to home on sleighs sounds like a wild vodka-fuelled bash, but actually it’s how Polish noblemen used to celebrate the Carnival, a month-long celebration before the beginning of Lent.
Historically, New Year’s Eve wasn’t celebrated by Polish noblemen. During the First Republic, which lasted until the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the nobility spent 31st December at home or in church. Party time began in January, after Three Kings’ Day. And once it started, it didn’t last just one day or evening. It lasted for a whole season called the Carnival, which ended on what was known as Devil’s Tuesday, a day occurring just before Ash Wednesday. During this time the nobility would participate in fetes, masked balls and other merrymaking events. The sleigh parties were usually the crowning attractions of the Carnival season.
The Lucky Host
An old Polish sleigh party was a truly spectacular event. It commonly started with a couple of gently born neighbours deciding to go on a sled trip. Together with the grown-up members of their families and numerous servants they would form a joyful sleigh procession and go, uninvited and unannounced, to the nearby homes of their noble neighbours. There they would demand food and drink. The procession typically included musicians that would play along the way for those wishing to dance. The ‘lucky’ host usually didn’t protest because of two reasons. Firstly, the old Polish tradition of hospitality required a nobleman to accommodate even unannounced guests. Secondly, most sleigh party participants simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. So the host usually tried to make the most of the situation and eventually joined in on the fun.
Once there was no food or alcohol left the party moved on. The host, his family and retinue would join the procession, which would head to another nobleman’s home. There the whole routine recurred. A sleigh party could go on for days, growing steadily, moving between homesteads. Especially determined merrymakers could travel through an entire county during such celebrations. Some of the participants would dress up as Jews, Gypsies or peasants, turning their escapades into wandering costume parties. All in all, these celebrations, even if slightly problematic to the hosts (to say the least), were genuinely picturesque. They commonly ended when the sleds arrived at the homes of the initiators, who were usually the poorest of the noble lot and didn’t have any victuals to share.
The King Himself
A famous description of a 17th-century sleigh party involving a visit to the Polish king Jan III Sobieski himself was published in a Polish newspaper in 1827. According to this story the procession in question consisted of 24 horsemen, 10 sleds with musicians, and 107 sleds with merrymakers. It went to several aristocratic homes before going to the king’s palace in Wilanów, where the monarch and his wife gladly accommodated the visitors. The party at the royal palace lasted until late and not only the guests but also the palace servants were invited to help themselves to the king’s personal pantry. Sleigh parties unfortunately no longer take place nowadays, but they are considered a lasting symbol of the legendary Polish hospitality.
Author: Marek Kępa, 4 Jan 2015