Prince Zapust & Co.

Carnival does not only mean Rio or Venice. In Poland, people can have an equally colourful time. The end of the carnival season coincides with fancy dress processions and dancing parties – joyful, colourful, musical and… traditional! Ostatki, Mięsopust, Babski Comber, Książę Zapust and Cymper are all a part of the Polish carnival!

Mięsopust, Podmokle Wielkie, 1960, photo by Stanisław Kusza, source: Józef Burszta Digital Archive


Babski Comber

The last period before Lent bears different names in different parts of Poland: Ostatki, Mięsopust and, earlier, Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday, the equivalent of Shrove Tuesday), now mostly associated with the city and the queues of people patiently waiting for their turn to buy a packet of doughnuts. Traditionally, though, it involved parties and games intended for women (the word babski refers to a woman), which helps explain why, in some regions, Fat Thursday was also known as Comber or Babski Comber.

Cymprownicy (Cymper Performers) in Zbąszyń, 2017, photo by E. Grygier


Oskar Kolberg described the festivities in the following words:

On Fat Thursday, maids organise Cumber, or Cumper, during which they pay for the food, vodka and music intended for the local farmhands. In return, the boys help them spin wool on a distaff in the evening
Kolberg, DWOK, Poznańskie Vol. II, p. 123

Aleksander Brückner traced the etymology of the word in German (shampern) and Lusatian (campor), referring to Shrovetide masks and parties. The women’s parties, Babski Comber, have not survived but the word is still in use today. It can also be spelt Cymper or Cymber, but it does not refer to the same type of custom – today’s Comber is associated with fancy dress processions, accompanied by a bagpipe band, organised in western Wielkopolska.

Cymprownicy (Cymper Performers) in Zbąszyń, 2017, photo by E. Grygier


This custom used to be known as Rożen or Chodzenie z Rożnem (Rożen Walking). According to Kolberg, the name originated from the activity of skewering sausages on a roasting spit (rożen), performed by the hosts of the households visited by the fancy dress processions
During Mięsopusty (the Polish name points to the need to give up meat for Lent), the local farmhands would visit households carrying roasting spits, on which the villagers skewered sausages, pork fat etc. Having covered all the households in the village, the farmhands would go to the inn to consume the meat, dance and have a jolly good time, while thanking the hostesses with wishes of abundant, tall flax.
Kolberg, DWOK, Poznańskie Vol. II, p. 189

Mięsopuśnicy (Mięsopust Performers) from Sopotnia Mała, the 1960s, from the private collection of Magdalena Pawlica. See the source of the photograph.


Several songs were sung during the fancy dress processions. One of them uses the following lyrics:

Miysopusty has come and gone
but the maids are still not married
Holy Lent has come now
but no one had looked at the maids
Holy Lent has come now
but no one had looked at the maids
Sung by Maria Rytter, born in Dobrzyca, Pleszew Poviat in 1892, from the Phonographic Collection of the Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences, recording number T2274/16

The lyrics of the songs sung at Mięsopust usually expressed contempt for the Lenten dishes and sometimes heralded the consumption of the Lenten żur, a traditional Polish soup. Similar to the example presented above, numerous such texts expressed sympathy for those whose love was not reciprocated and hopes of marriage dashed. Other texts evaluated the chances of those who did find their match, but there were also songs that expressly described the process of Mięsopust celebrations. I have written more on the modern Cymper festivities in another article.

Książę Zapust (Prince Zapust)

There is an extraordinary prince of the end of the carnival. Well-known in the region of Kraków, Książę (or Prince) Zapust was dressed in a long russet coat and a hat (usually made of paper) attached with a little bell. He enjoyed the company of several sidekicks: a beggar, an ox-headed professor and all kinds of other types, varied and colourful. Upon entering the houses (in the Polish tradition, it was the private buildings, rather than public areas, where the carnival usually took place), Prince Zapust announced his arrival with such words:

I am Zapust, a Prince of Mantua.
I come from a land,
where the dogs bark with their tails,
where the men speak with their shoulders,
and eat with their ears.
There the Sun rises in the west,
and then it sets in the east,
while the chickens give life to the hens.
Everyone speaks backwards,
And the rain goes up towards the sky.

Later, he introduced his companions and collected gifts (usually sausages, bacon and pies).

Killing the Musician

Carnival means singing, music and dancing… while the world is turned topsy-turvy – the men dress like the women and the youth look like the elders. In the region of Kujawy, when the party was over, the musician had to be killed!
In the days of yore, on Tuesday night, the music fell silent and people consumed the last of their meals. At midnight, the musician was led out of the village. He was driven on a barrel and onto the crossroads, where he was beaten with a sackful of ash or a stick. The musician released a black cat from under his jacket – the cat was supposed to symbolise a man’s soul, blackened by the sins committed during the carnival. A similar ritual was to be found in the region of Mazowsze (Mazovia), where the musician was wrapped in straw and haulm and then carried out of the village. In Upper Silesia, on the other hand, one could attend a funeral of the double bass, whereby all the instruments were put in their holders at midnight. They would now be silent, and the only sound to be heard could either come from a Lenten pipe or, sometimes, a clapper.

A procession of the bery (performers) through a village, Łukasz Słotwiński. See the source: Józef Burszta Digital Archive.


Carne Vale!

The carnival tradition in Poland is rich and ancient. Carnivals would be held in both cities (where they were usually associated with sleigh rides) and villages – Mięsopust, Babski Comber, Killing the Musician, Prince Zapust and other, local versions of the world turned topsy-turvy. Village carnival is slightly similar to Christmas carolling, but the carnival characters are different from the Christmas ones – they are more varied and flamboyant. Zygmunt Gloger claimed that the etymology of the word ‘carnival’ comes from Italian (carne vale, literally meaning ‘farewell to meat’, hence the Polish term mięsopust).

Mięsopust, Podmokle Wielkie, 1960, photo by Stanisław Kusza, see the source: Józef Burszta Digital Archive


Carnival is followed by Lent. There is no meat or music. In the region of Pokucie, people would not even burn candles after sunset. Breaching a Lenten ban could put the integrity of Lent at risk. It is not always easy to stick to all the rules, however, and that is why at mid-Lent and on Saint Joseph’s Day (19 March), fasting was lifted and people were allowed to have some fun. Thus, in line with the folk tradition, one had to persevere until the fourth Sunday of Lent and Saint Joseph’s Day, when fun and games were allowed, if only for a brief spell.

Tanzber in Sambrowice, photo by Robert Garstka. See the source of the photograph.


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