Increasingly today, especially among the younger generation, Carnival is seen as an excuse for an intensive burst of partying and night-clubbing, and is becoming ever more commercialized with many stores displaying special selections of goods and garish clothing for the Carnival season.
Old Customs of the Polish Gentry
The traditional way to celebrate Carnival is the kulig, a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the snow-covered countryside. Kulig is an old Polish winter tradition dating back to the days of the gentry. A cavalcade of horse-pulled sleighs and sledges went from one manor house to another, entertained everywhere with hearty meals followed by dances.Kuligs usually began the week before Ash Wednesday and continued right up until midnight of Ash Wednesday, when all good times were supposed to stop. A young nobleman usually organized the kulig, and it began when he told the members of his family to dress in their best clothes and furs and get into their sleighs, which were often in fantastic shapes like dragons and pagodas and pulled by colorfully decorated horses. Then, the party would drive to a neighbor’s house, making a lot of noise to announce their arrival. The unexpected guests and their animals would be given food and drink, and when they had eaten, the music, dancing and drinking began. Kuligs would sometimes last for days, moving from house to house until they arrived back at the house of the person who started the kulig in the first place.
Old Folk Customs
The last 3 days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent are called by a variety of names, including kuse dni, mięsopust, ostatki, and sometimes podkoziołek. While carnival celebrations went on for many days, it was most festive during the last 3 days, which were called in some regions, dni szalone (crazy days).
On Shrove Tuesday, young men dressed up in animal costumes (as a goat, a bear being led on a straw rope, a horse or a stork) and, along with a variety of other masqueraders, they would parade through the village, accompanied by music. A homeowner was asked if the group could enter, and if he agreed, everyone came in. The musicians began to play and the homeowner was required to dance with the masqueraders and he was also expected to offer them something to drink or eat. Before they left, the masqueraders wished him success in his home and with his farm and then they moved on to the next house. They made a lot of noise, blocked everyone’s way, covered them with soot, and demanded that they pay their way out. After the masqueraders made their rounds of the village, they went to a local tavern or someone’s house to eat the food they had been given and to continue to dance and drink. At eleven o’clock at night, the podkoziołek started, in which bachelors would pretend to pay for unmarried women and dance with them. When all the unmarried women had been danced with, everyone, including older married men and women, would join in to dance the “na wytrzymanego,” or the endurance dance, and whoever lasted the longest, outdancing everybody else, would have the best crop in the upcoming year. Sometimes, people would dance until dawn, or someone would bring out a large herring and sing a song of good-bye to meat and carnival time.
On the last Thursday of carnival - Tłusty Czwartek, or Fat Thursday - there was often a comber or babski comber. The flower sellers and tradeswomen of Kraków would dress in strange costumes and make the rounds of taverns and coffee houses, accompanied by a hired musician and dragging along a straw figure named combra. Drinking all the way, the women slowly made their way to the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) in the center of Kraków’s Rynek. Any male who happened to cross their path was accosted, forced to dance with them, and was not let go until he bought his freedom with a round of drinks. Once the women reached the front of the Cloth Hall, the straw figure was torn apart.
The Polish Carnival Season includes Fat Thursday (Polish: Tłusty Czwartek), a day for eating pączki (doughnuts); and Śledziówka (Shrove Tuesday) or Herring Day. The Tuesday before the start of Lent is also often called Ostatki (literally "lasts"), meaning the last day to party before the Lenten season.
Tłusty czwartek (Fat Thursday). Some Americans celebrate Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. In Poland, however, festivities begin almost a week earlier, on Fat Thursday. Poles say that the festivities start earlier to give them more time to enjoy the last days before Lent, which strictly forbids loud parties and meat dishes. In truth, "Tłusty czwartek” started in Poland long ago when Thursday was the traditional day for over-eating before Friday’s fast. The most popular tradition in Poland on Fat Thursday is the making and eating of pączki. A pączek is defined as “a filled baked good in a round shape, fried in fat.” This may sound like an American doughnut, but we shouldn’t mistake a Dunkin doughnut for this traditional Polish pastry. The usual filling for pączeks is plum butter and other marmalades. In recent years, however, the variety of fillings has expanded to liquour, pudding and even whipped cream. Confectioners of the Blikle Café (the most famous café in Warsaw) sell an average of 10,000 pączki on a regular day. On Fat Thursday, they expect to sell about ten times more, estimating that the average Varsovian won’t eat more than 5 pączeks. The average pączek is around 7cm (3 in) and weighs 4.5 dkg. Its caloric value is 220-230 calories, depending on the filling. To burn this amount of calories, you need to walk for 2 hours or run for over a half hour. Assuming that on Fat Thursday the average Pole will eat 2 pączki, Poles will consume over 80 million pączki on this day.
On Tłusty czwartek, Poles stuff themselves with “pączki” while on the following Tuesday, known as Fat Tuesday throughout the world and the last day before the official start of Lent (Ash Wednesday), Poles dance and party to burn off calories and have fun before the lenten season of abstinence.