There is a wonderful tradition in my village to take children on sleigh rides every year. No one gets paid for it, the villagers simply organize on a Sunday to harness up their workhorses and dress up their wagons all with smiles on their face. This is village life and there’s a beauty to living here I have not found in larger populations in such a raw form. There is no pressure to participate and everyone takes care of one another. It’s pure community happiness.
Something I noticed about small places like this is that no one is really an outcast and people find support even if they have the most debilitating problems; health issues, alcoholism, gambling, and even being a grouch. The reason for this is that everyone knows each other intimately. For example, if there is even a hint that someone is down on their luck, they are invited over for dinner by their neighbors where positive conversation gives them a feeling of belonging. I’ve seen it myself, and in fact I have experienced it myself when I first arrived and my house didn’t even have running water. All my neighbors almost demanded that I accept their offers of kindness.
After living in cities all over the world, I often found it challenging to discover connections with neighbors because metropolitan life is so fast paced. People move in and out before you figure out what the noise is behind the wall of your apartment. Yet, this desire to connect is something I feel on a deep personal level; to learn about my neighbors and offer support to help them reach their goals. I never knew why but guessed it was so because of the way I was raised. However, I am beginning to recognize that the naivete of trusting strangers in my youth, which I continue now even after so many “lessons,” is something we all possess and strive for. We are communal creatures and there is a real feeling of euphoria that overcomes us when we see someone we care for succeed.
This sense of togetherness lives here, and yesterday I experienced it surfacing vibrantly when everyone got together for the annual sleigh rides.
So, this is a rural village and as such the residents still own work horses and wagons with a variety of simple configurations. One such configuration converts the wagon into benches that can carry passengers. In addition, the villagers are proud of their horses and decorate them with bells, colored tassels, studded belts, and other ornaments. On this day, over 15 wagons were brought together in front of the church and the owners all dressed in smiles waiting for children who were inside. There was a caroling competition being held by the priest who gave out chocolates and other candy as prizes as children sang traditional songs.
The collection of wagons, horses, and smiling adults outside built an air of anticipation. Soon, the children spilled outdoors, chocolate and candy in hand, and loaded into the wagons. We rode through the village, next to the river, and into a forest where the Górale highlanders constructed a large fire, traditionally known as a “watra.” Suddenly, boxes of kielbasa and bread were produced and I found myself in a sea of laughing kids waving around long skewers tipped with kielbasas, aiming to jam into a tight circle around the fire to roast their prize. The men fed tended to the sweaty horses, feeding them bags of hay slung around their necks, and the women tried to keep up with producing plates, painting them with mustard and ketchup, and corralling the wildly orbiting youth to one area. And at the center of it all, the priest glowed with a bright smile, looking at the joy everyone created together.
The entire day was beautiful, even though there was barely any snow and the clouds blanketed the sky. No one needed to be there to clean up, babysit, harness horses and build wagons, etc. Yet every person had a smile on their face and the children sang all the way home. There is pure joy in togetherness and community, and it gives me monumental optimism to experience this tradition personally.