Celebrated around March 21st (first day of spring) or on the 4th Sunday of the Lents before Easter, the custom of burning of Marzanna symbolizes the departure of winter and is rooted in pre-Christian Slavic rites that were performed to summon the spring. Originally it was celebrated during the spring equinox as a religious feast of the Slavic pagans, and it survived over the last thousand years despite the huge impact of Christianity and countless efforts of erasing that custom from the Polish countryside.
Many Polish people still prepare an effigy symbolizing the Slavic goddess Marzanna for this event. Marzanna was a goddess who personified winter – the ‘death state’ or ‘sleep state’ of the Mother Earth during the wintertime. As the ritual effigy, Marzanna is also gaining other meanings related to various states of passing away (general death or sickness and other unfortunate events, usually connected to the tough and grim wintertime). During the rite she is meant to be drowned, and sometimes she’s also set on fire before being thrown into the water. In a symbolical meaning this rite was an act of sending the winter away in order to prepare the nature for a spring rebirth.
Such effigy of Marzanna is made of straw and shaped into a humanoid form (usually on a construction of sticks or branches). In the past some parts of an old chochoł were often used for that purpose, which was a straw covering prepared for the wintertime for the delicate bushes or trees (but also had a mythological meaning). The effigy is usually ‘dressed’ in old clothes or decorated with plants, often receiving accessories like a braid, korale (red coral necklace), wianek (wreath) or a headscarf.
The effigy of Marzanna is held up in a procession to a riverside (or to a lake in case no river can be located nearby). It is sometimes burnt first, and always ends up thrown to the water. Regardless of the place of burning, it was extremely important to throw all the parts of Marzanna to water, seen as a cleansing force (rivers were the best for it as full of a ‘living’ water) – this includes also all the ashes remaining after the effigy in case of burning her. The procession is sometimes still adorned with singing or reciting old verses, such as “Marzanna, Marzanna, swim across the seas. Let flowers bloom, and fields turn green”.
Nowadays the custom is very popular for example among children – many kindergartens and primary schools organize events of ‘Drowning of Marzanna’ around the end of March, when whole gropus prepare their own colorful effigies and take a walk to a nearest river in order to drown them. The custom is still practiced among regular people, and bigger events are sometimes organized in cities or towns for example by various ethnography organizations or reenactment groups. The events sometimes include small competitions for the biggest or the prettiest effigy.
Other known names of Marzanna in Poland: Morena / Morana / Śmiercicha / Śmiertka / Śmierztka. There’s also a male equivalent popular in some parts of the region of Silesia called Marzaniok. The names are derived from the words: old-Polish mor / mór (plague or sickness), mara / mora / zmora (evil spirit, nightmare) or śmierć (death).