Devils, bears and Death ring in the New Year in Poland

by Stanislaw WASZAK
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Colourful and loud, the festival, with its time-honoured traditions, brings together inhabitants of villages nestled in the foothills of Poland's southern Beskid mountain range

Mountain men disguised as devils, the Grim Reaper, horses and bears ring-in the New Year with a cacophony of drums, whistles, shouts and catchy melodies in a time-honoured tradition still popular in Poland's mountains.

For centuries, men have crisscrossed snowy villages nestled in the foothills of Poland's southern Beskid range around the New Year to wish neighbours happiness and prosperity in return for gifts of food or small sums of money.

Similar folk customs marking the winter solstice are practised in neighbouring countries and can be traced back to pagan times.

For the last half-century lively troupes of characters have flocked to the Beskidy village of Milowka for the colourful and loud "Dziady Zywieckie" festival that ranks as part of Poland's intangible cultural heritage.

"All this uproar, characters dressed in very bright colours, the noises, bells and whistles, cracking whips are meant to chase away spirits who want to descend to Earth," festival organiser Andrzej Maciejowski told AFP.

"The characters represent people and imaginary entities known to rural folk in days gone by: otherworldly beings, devils and the Grim Reaper, as well as ethnic minorities like Jews or Roma and old professions like peddlers or healers," he added.

Bears and horses play a leading role in the custom signalling that spring and new life are on their way.

Men parading as lively horses symbolise vigour while others, posing as bears, bear the power to "fertilise the Earth so that it bears more fruit than last year," adds Maciejowski.

Cracking whips open the joyful if chaotic festivities before the Grim Reaper makes an appearance followed by troupes of horses and bears dancing wildly to symbolise new life.

- Circle of life -

"In popular tradition, death as represented by the Grim Reaper is never final, but rather marks the passage to a new and higher stage of life," explains ethnographer Barbara Rosiek.

During the noisy procession through the village and in the courtyards of cosy old log cabins, the groups hail the eternal circle of life marked by order or disorder in nature.

Horses run, devils bicker and taunt onlookers to whom peddlers also display their merchandise promising marvels, sometimes in a grumpy manner.

Amid the din, the Grim Reaper cuts a calm figure, waving his scythe at onlookers.

"Death wants to take people's lives but even the devils prevent it. Death only scares people," says Szymon Sikora, 28, a truck driver dressed up as the Grim Reaper in a terrifying mask and with a large scythe in hand.

Dressed up as a peddler, Robert Brzusnia, 45, has taken part in the festival for nearly all his life.

"I've participated... for 40 years. My father did too," he said.

"All December, the guys meet in their free time to prepare their masks and costumes, and to rehearse," says Maciejowski, who cannot contain his amusement.

"Bells tinkle and whips crack loudly. In short, the tradition is alive and well."

Colourful and loud, the festival, with its time-honoured traditions, brings together inhabitants of villages nestled in the foothills of Poland's southern Beskid mountain range

Similar folk customs marking the winter solstice can be traced back to pagan times�

Amid the din, the Grim Reaper cuts a calm figure as he waves his scythe at onlookers, although popular tradition has it that death merely marks the passage to "a new and higher stage of life," says ethnographer Barbara Rosiek

Participants "represent people and imaginary entities known to rural folk in days gone by; otherworldly beings, devils and the Grim Reaper," says organiser Andrzej Maciejowski