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Carnival in old Wrocław

How was the carnival celebrated in the old Wrocław? Did the carnival games of our ancestors differ from those of today? You can read about the history of the carnival in our city in this text written by Grzegorz Sobel from the Department for Scientific Documentation of Cultural Heritage of the University Library in Wrocław. The University Library also invites everyone to visit an exhibition on the history of carnival in Wrocław in the Library building at ul. Joliot-Curie.

The tradition of carnival in Wrocław goes back to the Middle Ages and its essence was revelry, music, feasting, drinking, dressing up and clowning. Traces of these practices and customs can be found in the sculptural decoration of the upper frieze of the southern elevation of the Town Hall from around 1500, where we can find scenes from the life of the burghers – a fight between men, a woman being transported in a wheelbarrow (a ritual of dishonour), or a group of musicians entertaining the audience. The culmination of the carnival in the city were the so-called carnival games, i.e. theatrical performances in the streets showing scenes taken from life, usually in a comic dimension. The actors were followed by crowds of costume clowns and the whole procession was led by a jester. Since modern times the carnival has been marked by balls and social gatherings. Dancing, music and tables laden with food. The parties, usually organised in redoubts, became the domain of the elite and the bourgeoisie. The 19th century brought carnival masquerades organised on slides, i.e. on city canals, with music played outdoors. The symbol of the Wrocław carnival was the doughnut. The classic Wrocław doughnut was stuffed with jam and spiced with cinnamon.

During the carnival, the daily press often wrote about doughnuts and, after all, the great appetite the whole city had for them. In 1868, the Breslauer Zeitung wrote: “And the time of their reign has come. For many people, as the old adage goes, it is a delicacy above delicacies for the appetite. But in reality, the crown has just been placed on the work of ruining our stomachs that began with the carnival. In this fist-sized lump of dough, baked brown, there is a cunning trap similar to a bomb. At first it melts away carelessly […], but once it’s barely drenched, it begins to squeeze us like an unbearable mortgage and reminds us without any particular difficulty of the mood of Ash Wednesday, especially when accompanied by the obligatory Szczecin rum punch’.

The 19th century also saw the spread of carnival balls and dances in Wrocław, not just in fancy dress. But what would be a party without a table laden with food and drink? Carnivals were not successful without good food and drink. No one would dare invite anyone to dance before announcing that food and drink would be provided. So the restaurant owners, tenants of redoubts and casinos who organised balls offered a free dinner for the rent of the hall. It was also common to give a bottle of wine free of charge to every tenth masquerader, just to invite the guests to the party! Sometimes the dance would end with a hail of sweets to the delight of the dancing couples. At midnight, the fun would stop and people would traditionally sit down to dinner. Yes, dinner because midnight meals were not called suppers at carnival balls. The most popular dishes were roast hams with sauerkraut, roast geese, boiled pork knuckles with horseradish, sausages in Polish sauce. Punches and grog, Rhine wines and beers were drunk without restraint. The best punches were of course made with Szczecin rum. Obligatory!

And so the carnival feasts and parties continued until Shrove Tuesday with the only difference in the menu being that the meal was finished with roast fish to remind us of the approaching Ash Wednesday and the imminent fast. But as long as the carnival lasted, guests were invited to join in the fun.

And how were carnivals honoured when there was no dancing until dawn? Basically, people ate and drank, meeting and sitting for hours in taverns, beer halls, cafés and restaurants and even in kashmes, which were the lowest category establishments in our city, scaring off “decent” people with the criminal past of their “waiters”. But not everyone was able to enter the doors of the first charge of Wrocław gastronomy – Hansen, Kissling or Liebich… Let’s have a look at the menu of one of Wrocław’s pubs behind the St. Mary Magdalene Church, announcing its carnival menu in 1888. It contains the following menu:

Queen’s soup,
Veal tricassé,
Zander in butter,
Roast goose with sauerkraut,
Rice pudding with coffee for dessert,

What would be the Wroclaw carnival without sweet treats?  Oh, they were eaten without restraint… For who at that time worried about their diet before going to Kłodzko or Karkonosze spas for a cure? Doughnuts were undoubtedly the king of the carnival, but sękacze and faworki were also popular. The latter were bought by weight and served as an addition to coffee in almost every Wrocław house. During the carnival balls and dances the Polonaise was a must for the citizens of Wrocław. However, a ball without the polonaise would be a failure in Wrocław. Similarly, without doughnuts, which piled up on the tables were often the target of the last steps of the dance. What a sweet ending! Whoever was lucky could find a gold coin in one.

Beer was not to be missed during the carnival – in fact, Wrocław used to be called “the city of beer”. It used to be that during the carnival days the amount of beer poured in Piwnica Świdnicka (Świdnicka Cellar) was the measure of how much the inhabitants participated in the games. We could talk about the satisfaction of guests at one or another party, we could say that this or that party was visited by a lot of people but for the people of Wrocław, only the amount of drunk beer was a measurable indicator of the mood during all social events. For example, when the carnival began in 1886, on 3 January over 12 thousand mugs of beer were poured in Świdnicka Cellar – a result which today restaurants can only dream about. That’s how they used to party!

Finally, let’s take a peek into the salons to see how the city’s elite used to party. In 1892, members of several local associations met in the Old Stock Exchange building on Solny Square for a carnival ball. Among them members of the bicycle society. But let’s not laugh! In those days, riding a bicycle was an elite activity. On the occasion of this ball, several rhyming pieces were published in an elegant cover, referring to Wrocław’s table culture during the carnival and beyond. It should be noted that the anonymous author of one of these rhymes, quoted below, did not wield a pen like Goethe, but nevertheless preserved the unique atmosphere of the old party.

Author of the text: Grzegorz Sobel, Department for Scientific Documentation of Cultural Heritage of BUWr

THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY IN WROCŁAW ALSO INVITES TO AN EXHIBITION DEVOTED TO CARNIVAL

Using magazines, books, documents of social life, music and knick-knacks that librarians have made available to us, we want to recall and illustrate how people used to party. How imaginative and grand balls were, what people wore, what were the fashion trends, what they ate and drank and where did they get their inspiration from. You can see the exhibition in display cases at the Local Lending Unit, level 1 and the Main Reading Room, level 3, during the opening hours of the University Library. The exhibition was prepared by Anna Górska and Anna Szczotka-Sobiecka from BUWr.

Published by: Maria Kozan

20 Jan 2022

last modification: 27 Jan 2022