Rękawka, a Slavic spring festival in Kraków

Rękawka festival in Kraków, Poland. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert

One of the events of the most mysterious roots held in the city of Kraków (Cracow) in Poland is a festival called Rękawka (pronounced ren-kav-kah), organized on the first Tuesday after Easter on the famous Krakus Mound, one of the 5 historical man-made mounds that you can see nowadays in Kraków.

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Wisent (European wood bison) and aurochs (extinct wild ox)

There are two species related to modern cattle that hold a significant importance in Poland. One of them is wisent (Polish: żubr), commonly called an ‘European bison’, which you can see nowadays in the wild in many sites not only in Poland but also in other European countries where it was reintroduced. Second is aurochs (Polish: tur) – an extinct species of European wild ox, ancestral to domesticated cattle.

Below you can read a few basic informations about them and about their relations to Polish geography, history and culture.

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Mysterious trail of castles in the Polish Jurassic Highland

Region of Polish Jurassic Highland
Typical limestone formations in the region of Polish Jura. Photos © Marek Grausz.

The geographical region located between the cities of Kraków and Częstochowa in southern Poland (see the map below) is called the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland or Polish Jura (short for Polish Jurassic Highland). It is famous for a rich ecosystem, and its untouched parts are protected as nature reserves. Here you can see landscapes with white limestone rock formations that were formed milions of years ago in the Jurassic period of Mesozoic era, surrounded by patches of flat meadows and hilly areas, with wild forests preserving a great variety of protected species and plants. Various fossils from the Jurassic period were found here, as well as early human settlements from around 12,000 years ago in many of the region’s attractive cave formations full of flint rocks.

map-of-poland-with-polish-jura

Nowadays the region is a popular destination for nature lovers, and also for castle lovers interested in early Polish history – the region houses over 20 of ancient Polish defensive castles that were protecting Kraków’s northwestern borders at the beginning of the previous millenium.

The castles are connected as a so-called ‘Trail of the Eagle’s Nests‘ (in Polish: Szlak Orlich Gniazd). Nest of an eagle is quite a common symbol from Polish mythology. It is referencing one of the oldest of Polish legends which tells a story about Lech (semi-legendary founder of the early tribe of Polans from around 6th century AD) who chose a location for the tribe’s first capital city after he saw a beautiful sight of a magnificent white eagle flying up from its nest, contrasted with red evening sky (read more about the legend here). In general, an ‘Eagle’s Nest’ is a symbol of the oldest centers of the early Polish state – of the medieval Piast dynasty who started using the image of the white eagle as the Polish coats of arms.

Most of the castles located on the Trail of the Eagle’s Nests are in preserved ruins nowadays. They were destroyed in the past centuries during the many wars Poland went through or simply abandoned, no longer needed as fortresses. Majority of them was built in 14th century during the reign of the king Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir III the Great), but many local tales stress out that the castles were erected over much older defensive structures of the early Polish state (or even of the early proto-Polish Slavic tribe of Vistulans). Each castle on the Trail has its own history and legends, making the whole Trail a unique and mysterious route to discover.

In this article you can read about a few interesting castles to see on the Trail:

  1. Pieskowa Skała – with a legend about a cruel alchemist
  2. Ojców – with a legend about lovers saved by a good king
  3. Ogrodzieniec – with a legend about a ghost of a black dog
  4. Bobolice – with a legend about twin brothers and a treasure protected by a witch

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Andrzejki: feast of love divinations

This is a feast celebrated on the night of 29th/30th November. It’s believed to be a magical night suitable for the love spells, and was celebrated throughout the centuries mostly by the unmarried people who wanted to reveal their future husband or wife.

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Wigilia: Christmas Eve in Poland

The Wigilia supper and remnants of ancient Slavic customs

Preparations for Christmas, celebrated on 25th and 26th December, begin many days before – people collect the most important ingredients, start baking (for example the famous gingerbread dough that has to stay in a fridge for at least a week before being baked), clean the house thoroughly and prepare traditional decorations even weeks before the celebrations.

The most important day of the Christmas in Poland is the evening of 24th December – the Christmas Eve supper called in Polish Wigilia (derived from Latin “vigil” that means wakefulness). It’s the evening when the closest family gathers together for the festive meal and share the gifts, ofter staying by the table as long as until the midnight. The following two days of Christmas have more of a chill-out character in Poland – it’s usually the time of visiting the relatives and friends or just of resting at home.

Preparations and decorations

Traditional decorations prepared for Wigilia, museum of Mazovian countryside in Sierpc, Poland [via Wiano.eu].

Everything that happens on the day of Wigilia is considered to have an impact on the following year. It’s connected to multiple interesting superstitions.

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Mikołajki: St Nicholas Day in Poland

Day of Mikołajki and gifts from Santa Claus

6th December, the St Nicholas Day called in Poland Mikołajki (short for Dzień Świętego Mikołaja), is one of the most important days to the children in Poland. They get gifts from the Santa Claus on the night between the 5th/6th December. He places the presents somewhere close to their beds, with smaller packages hidden for example under the pillow and the bigger ones lying on the floor next to the bed, and those are the first things the children see after waking up in the morning of 6th Dec.

Most of the schools in Poland organize also a special Mikołajki event, when the children share gifts between each other. Weeks earlier they draw cards with each other’s names written on them, and then exchange the small symbolic presents during the schoolday that is closest to the day of Mikołajki (for example if it falls on Sunday like in 2015, the event could be held on any day around that weekend). Such way of exchanging the gifts is even popular among some close student groups at universities, or even (rarely) in some workplaces.

Many people prepare also small gifts for their closest friends, family, and for beloved ones, and gift them randomly on the 6th Dec saying that the Santa had “accidentally left the package in a wrong place”.

In Poland the gifts hidden under the Christmas Tree later in December are believed to be left for example by an Angel (Aniołek) or the Little Child (Dzieciątko, the Baby Jesus) – it depends on the beliefs of a particular region. Even though this part of the Christmas traditions started to be influenced by the Western media already, the Santa Claus in Poland has still his special night exclusively on the 6th Dec.

Mikołajki-in-Poland (1)
Girl in a Opoczno folk costume region during the day of Mikołajki in a nursery school, 1980s in Poland [source].
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Polish legends: Wawel Dragon

polish_legends-wawel_dragon1
Painting by Marian Wawrzeniecki (1863-1943).

Legend from the city of Kraków (Cracow), one of the oldest cities of Poland and its former royal capital – seat of the Polish kings from the Medieval to Renaissance eras. This story tells also about the semi-legendary king Krak (or Krakus), founder of the city of Kraków who might’ve been living in c. 8th century.

This is a popular version of the legend:

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