On carolling and the ritual of exchanging New Year's greetings

Carolling is more than just, as is commonly believed today, singing songs about Christmas. It is a ceremonial exchange of New Year’s greetings having a ancient, often pre-Christian tradition. Carollers are boys or young men who wander around during the Christmas season, which is usually from the second day of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day (26th of December) to the Epiphany (6th of January), and sometimes even to Candlemas (2nd of February). They wander from one house to another, sing carols and enact scenes using a variety of costumes and carollers’ decorations (a star, a nativity scene), as well as exchanging New Year’s greetings. In return, they receive small gifts, called kolęda – carol in Polish (hence the famous Za kolędę dziękujemy, zdrowia, szczęścia winszujemy! [We thank you for your carol and wish you health and good luck!].
New Year’s greetings exchanged by carollers with household members in visited houses were expressed not only in words, through the singing of carols and wishes addressed to each of the residents. They were also expressed through rituals – by the ritual behaviours of the carollers and the symbolic significance of their costumes and props.
The oldest, pre-Christian form of carolling was walking from one house to another with a living animal such as a horse, bull, ram or goat, which were symbols of health, fertility, and male vitality; this form is occasionally cultivated in some villages of Eastern Poland to this day. An equally long tradition has as a practice carollers dressing up as animals, which is evidenced in bans on such masquerades issued by the medieval Church or in references in various materials like in the text by Mikołaj Rej: He wanders, as with a wolf going carolling.

Elaborated by Małgorzata Oleszkiewicz (The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków), © all rights reserved