Why Sleighs Have Bells
by Jadwiga Dziegielewska
Christmas Day is a great holiday, as well as the beginning of carnival season in Poland. The season goes on from Christmas to the beginning of Lent.
Religion prohibited people from enjoying certain foods, or any play activities during Advent—a penitential season beginning four Sundays before Christmas. Now, they reward themselves for all the pleasures they missed. The carnival is a time of feasting and is filled with play, pleasure and all manners of extravagance.
One of the latter is kulig, which is a festive sleigh ride. When snow comes, the sleighs are pulled out of the barns. For every day use, farmers used a sort of "cargo" sleigh, rather plain and made of a flat top on runners with supporting sides. Besides using these for work, villagers would use them for a good kulig as well.
The horses would pull the sleighs at a fast gallop and dogs would accompany the riders by running ahead, behind or chasing the sleigh and raving with happy barks. Children would jump from the sleigh into a deep bank of snow and make snowballs to throw at each other. Even making a snowman was great fun for the children and the parents as well. The whole company would then ride back singing to the music of the sleigh bells. Everyone would come back to a warm home and sit around the table to have a hot meal and, at the same time, laughing and bantering about what it means to have a kulig. It is a healthy recreation, which gives so much joy to all.
The sleigh bells also deserve special attention. Sleighs go through the snow so noiselessly, that in case someone was walking, they would not be aware of the vehicle approaching from behind. Therefore, it was mandatory, by law, that everyone driving a sled used bells. The bells role for a sled is like a horn in a car—they are used as a warning.
Also, the bells have all kinds of sounds. The best were cast brass; they had a loud resonant voice heard for long distances, yet they had a variety of sounds. The bells were not only warning signals, but a personal label. For instance, when the landlord of an estate was returning home after a long trip, his dog would recognize the bells’ sound from a distance, even among many others. The dog’s yelping and barking alerted the whole family. The dog was never wrong. For regular riding, one bell was used as a necessity; for such a special occasion as kulig, two or more bells were used.
Carnival is the time when people relieve themselves from the pressures of work and spend some pleasurable moments with their family and friends. The time is reserved to tighten the bonds of friendship and to maintain contact with loved ones. It was used to the fullest.
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