Krakow’s Festival of Stick Leaning is an annual event rarely mentioned in the tourist guides. Each year, as winter reaches its peak, the head of every household braves the frigid night air to perform the Leaning of the Stick. The stick is taken down from its resting place, often above the family stove, and decorated with festive red and white hazard tape. At midnight the stick is leant against the outside wall of the family house or apartment building and the stick-leaning orison is recited “I lean this stick at the appropriate angle as it has been leant before and will be leant again.”
The height of Stick-Leaning season in the heart of Krakow
The origins of stick leaning are a contentious subject. The proximity of the Festival of Stick Leaning to Ash Wednesday and the advent of Lent* have led many scholars to believe it has Christian roots. Some theologians claim that Abraham leant his shepherd’s crook against a big rock just before setting about his son with a knife, while other assert the leaning of the stick is a reference to Jesus taking a breather on the way up a hill. More recently a number of secular historians have pointed to similarities between the modern tradition and instances at pre-Christian archeological sites of things leaning against other things.
Not everyone can afford the red-and-white decoration, and some disapprove of it altogether
For now, the Festival of Stick Leaning has escaped the attention of Krakow’s tourist hordes and it has retained its charming local character. How long this will continue remains to be seen.
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Okay, I lied about the Festival of Stick Leaning. In fact the leant sticks are there to warn pedestrians about huge icicles hanging off the rafters and, therefore, that it’s best to keep to the road-side of the pavement. They’re an admirably abstract semiotic case study.
The real reason for the Festival of Stick Leaning
To a local, a stick leaning against a building is an almost subconscious signifier that it’s wise to keep away. To a non-local it’s an invitation to think “Oh look, I wonder why somebody left that stick there” just before getting a couple of metric tons of snow and ice in the back of the neck. Very occasionally you might come across a hapless fellow tourist sprawled on the pavement with an icicle spear sticking out of their back and think to yourself “My god there’s a fellow tourist with a… hang on, what’s that stick doing there leaning against the wall?” followed by a low rumbling noise and 40 kilos of spear-shaped ice heading in your general direction.
Once, a long time ago, I saw a hastily hand-written sign saying “UWAGA SOPLE!” pinned to the outside of a building “Hmm” I thought to myself “I know ‘UWAGA!’ means ‘LOOK OUT!’ but I wonder what I should be looking out for. From which direction can I expect this peril? Will it chase me? Can it smell fear? Should I bribe somebody at this point?” And then I got bored and walked off. The encounter pretty much sums up my entire experience of Poland.
*leant: British English speakers only invited to enjoy this pun