On the trail of the Jukace, Poland’s magical New Year marauders

The Jukace — otherwise known as the Forefathers — are heralds of the ancient Slavic-pagan masquerade, Gody Żywieckie. Unique to the Polish city of Żywiec, they bring happiness, health, and good fortune, filling New Year’s Day with the clang of cowbells and the gunshot-like crack of their whips.

It is an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve in the small city of Żywiec, nestled at the base of the Beskid Mountains in southern Poland. Under the din of thumping music and raucous laughter, a group of young men gathers outside the train station in the city’s Zabłocie district. Their faces are hidden behind crude masks cut from rabbit furs and sheep skins; they wear track suits trimmed in fringe, sewn from colourful, patterned fabrics. Conical hats known as ciakas, adorned with pompoms, tassels, and ribbons, sit atop their heads, while cowbells of various sizes hang heavily from thick leather belts around their waists. Bull whips, wrapped in coloured tape to match their suits, rest at their sides. Before them stands the more conservatively dressed Mayor of Żywiec who, after a short speech, grants his symbolic permission for the group to leave Zabłocie and enter the city proper. These are the Jukace, the Forefathers: heralds of the ancient Slavic-pagan masquerade, Gody Żywieckie, and bringers of happiness, health, and good fortune. For three centuries, the Jukace have filled New Year’s Day in Żywiec with the clang of their cowbells, shouts of well-wishes, and the gunshot-like crack of their whips. They will run for upwards of 20 hours, moving as a group from party to party, house to house, ringing in the New Year with their mirthful cacophony, blessing revellers in exchange for sweets, drinks, and gifts of money. The Jukace’s only respite from running will be at 4:30, when they stop to attend Mass at Saint Florian Catholic Church.

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Mateusz Supłat has been running with the Jukace for 12 years. “The first time I [ran] I was 13,” he says. “I still remember the feeling after 14 hours of running; I could barely make it home, but I was really happy.” Gody Żywieckie has been celebrated in towns throughout the Beskids for centuries, honouring the region’s traditional pagan roots with intricate folklore pantomimes and characters representative of animals and nature spirits. The Jukace, however, are only seen in Żywiec. The city’s unique interpretation of Gody Żywieckie blends elements of paganism with strong local pride, and the Jukace harken back to a myth that has persisted in the city since the 17th century. Legend has it that in 1655, when the Swedish Empire invaded, Polish King Jan II Kazimierz Waza took refuge in Żywiec. As the Swedish army advanced on the city, quick-thinking shepherds in Zabłocie donned tall hats and masks and charged at the soldiers, whips cracking like rapid gunfire. The soldiers, frightened by the monstrous-looking shepherds, retreated, and the king was able to escape. “In return,” says Supłat, “[the shepherds] were supposed to get a very expensive piece of red cloth. That is why the [Kasjer, leader of the Jukace] is always dressed in red.”

Whether or not the legend is true has done little to dampen the heroism of the Jukace. As custom dictates that only bachelors from Zabłocie are allowed to participate, youth is the lifeblood of the Jukace. This has proven to be the greatest strength of Żywiec’s Gody Żywieckie. While similar traditions fade from other parts of the region as the ageing populations that sustain them pass on, the Jukace receive new recruits every year, with boys as young as eight lining up to start their training. To become a Jukac is a great honour, and one that demands strict discipline from its participants.

“Someone who wants to be a Jukac must be strong and tough because you have to run a lot, and you have to do it in heavy clothes and heavy bells,” says Supłat. “He also can’t be shy.” Training begins each year in October. Along with physical endurance, the role requires participants to memorise and recite a plethora of “wishes” — blessings, mostly written in rhyme, that have been passed down through generations of Jukacs. “We test all the new guys,” says Supłat. “Sometimes it’s really stressful. We test someone and if he can’t make wishes, he can’t crack the whip — he can’t run.” The Jukace operate like an organisation, governed by a stringent set of rules and a complex numerical ranking system. Around 50 men run each year; out of that number, roughly half are first and second-year novices who must work their way up through the Jukace’s hierarchy.

Past iterations of the Jukace from the 1962
Past iterations of the Jukace from the 1962
Past iterations of the Jukace
Past iterations of the Jukace

Novices start their journey as a Babka, or as a Chimney Sweep. The crone-like Babka, wrapped in shawls, lips ablaze in bright red lipstick, is the personification of the previous year. The broom in her hand symbolically sweeps away the memories and misfortunes of the past, while the baby swaddled in her arms is a metaphor for the birth of spring. The Chimney Sweep, meanwhile, is considered a symbol of good luck. The act of cleaning soot from the fireplace on New Year’s Day is an ancient ritual meant to bless a household.

Beginners who impress are then promoted to become devils, the foil to the heroic Jukace. The devils represent nature’s darkness, but despite the character’s nefarious symbolism, to play him is a rite of passage. “When I first played the Devil, I was like ‘Finally, I can have bells!’”, Supłat remembers. “You can jump around and everyone can hear you.” For young Jukac hopefuls, the opportunity to demonstrate their noise-making abilities is crucial to becoming one of the respected Dziady — Grandfathers — and donning the iconic mask and ciaka, and wielding the prized bull whip.

The top eight positions in the Jukace’s hierarchy are the most coveted. “When December starts, we have a meeting,” explains Supłat. “We have to write down who is running this year, and after that we select the new Kasjer.” Elected by a committee of runners from a pool of dedicated, experienced candidates, the Kasjer is the lead Jukac, denoted by a prominent “Number 1” badge and vibrant, all-red costume in honour of King Jan Kazimierz’s legendary gift. The Kasjer becomes the face of the organisation, granting interviews, attending fundraisers, hosting fundraisers such as community clean-ups and blood drives, and posing for publicity shots. He appoints two helpers, and the trio form the most easily recognisable Jukacs: his second-in-command dressed entirely in black, his third-in-command entirely in white. The helpers in turn select five veteran Dziady to become Poganiacze — Shepherds — to serve as supervisors during the festivities, an extremely important role among the Jukace.

With roles assigned, wishes memorised, and physical skills mastered, there is only one thing left for Jukacs to do in preparation for New Year’s: make their costumes. Żywiec’s seamstresses are kept busy all winter-long sewing the Jukac’s flamboyant track suits, while the young men spend days crafting, shaping, painting, and decorating their ciakas. Masks, too, must be cut perfectly to match its wearer’s face. Despite the impressive organisational skills of the Jukace, there are, of course, exceptions. Supłat recalls, laughing, “Always, year after year, one week before the first of January, there are the phone calls: ‘Do you have tape? Do you have numbers? I didn’t finish my costume — help me, help me!’”

After four hours of running and celebrating, the Jukace quietly file into Saint Florian Catholic Church and take their seats in the first few rows of pews, their masks and ciakas lying neatly in the aisles. At the service’s conclusion, they race from the building, bursting into the pre-dawn darkness like an ethereal pæan. Spectators waiting outside are both delighted and terrified; several find themselves suddenly trapped in a strange, dance-like embrace with Jukacs, whips encircling their waists as the Jukacs jump up and down and serenade them with wishes. As the sun rises, the Jukace run en masse into the surrounding neighbourhoods, cracking their whips in front of darkened houses to rouse everyone inside from their sleep.

A member of the Jukace visits the home of New Year's revellers

A member of the Jukace visits the home of New Year's revellers

“Some older guys who know the tradition very well — they’ll open the window and watch you crack the whip for five minutes before inviting you in,” laughs Supłat. “If you are a devil, or a chimney sweep, or a babka, hosts will ask for wishes. So, a kid will recite wishes, and the host will keep asking for more.” After testing the Jukacs, if the host is impressed with their pageantry, he will invite them inside and offer them food, money, and — to the delight of older, exhausted Jukacs — shots of vodka. For many hosts, former Jukacs themselves, sharing their stories and memories of running with younger generations is the greatest New Year’s blessing of them all. “It is touching when you go to someone to make wishes and he shows you his Number 1 badge hanging on his Christmas tree because he was the Kasjer 30 years ago,” says Supłat.

By noon, as the Jukace make their way back towards the train station where they started their run nearly 13 hours earlier, the streets of Żywiec are filled with people eager to dance with them and receive their blessings. “When I put my mask on, I feel like a different character,” says Supłat. “The feeling when you walk in the middle of the road — shooting a three-meter whip, people around you who are happy to see you, cheering — is unforgettable.”

Dziady charge, whips aloft, snapping the cold air. The Kasjer and his helpers mug for the cameras. Devils jingle through the crowds, pulling pranks and causing mischief. Chimney Sweeps lean their tiny ladders against buildings and cheer into open windows, while Babkas sweep the road ahead free of last year’s worries. And above the joyful noise of the afternoon, Jukace cry at the top of their lungs: “Szczęścia zdrowia i słodyczy, noworoczny Jukac życzy!” “Happiness, health and sweetness, New Year’s Jukac wishes!”

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