Out of all religious holidays in Poland the Corpus Christi, movable feast that falls in June on 11th day after Pentecost (called Green Week in Poland), remains one of the most important and colorful feasts celebrated by the Polish people during the late spring. Outside of the religious (Catholic) sphere that day has also deep undertones coming entirely from rural customs and rites of pagan roots that survived in the Polish countryside over past centuries almost unchanged. Just as in the case of the Pentecost, the rural traditions link both of these holidays to pre-Christian celebrations of full-spring, and are connected to many other customs of old-Slavic origins.
On the Polish countryside all kinds of religious feasts were extremely colorful and set in richly decorated backgrounds. During them not only the religious context, but also deeply rooted folk rituals were playing an important role. They are connected to many magical folk customs, derived from old Slavic beliefs in magic and the power of nature.
During that day Polish people, sometimes still dressed in festive folk costumes, come out from churches in colorful processions to pray in front of 4 altars prepared earlier in the open air, under the ‘dome of the sky’, which are decorated with fresh greenery and flowers. Participants are holding up religious sculptures, banners or paintings, often under decorative baldachins, and the youngest ones throw fresh flowers in front of the whole procession.
The Corpus Christi altars are prepared only by the most important families in local communities, and in the past people were sometimes even fighting to gain that honor. The open-air altars haven’t changed much over the past decades – they are always green, adorned with birch trees, flowers, herbs, wreaths and garlands, ribbons, and sometimes also with folk fabrics or carpets.
Extremely important on that day are birch twigs – I wrote more about them in my earlier article describing the so-called Green Week (link here). The birch twigs were used for many various kinds of treatments in the folk medicine and their importance has no match among other trees in the Polish beliefs. It was the most important green element decorating the altars for Corpus Christi. Until nowadays many Polish people take home a few blessed birch twigs to protect their houses from diseases. Often whole birch trees are put next to the altars just so there is enough twigs to be taken home by the people after the prayers.
Types of the greenery used for decorations was often extremely important and connected to old Slavic symbolism. For example, the twigs, flowers and wreaths that decorate the altars are believed to gain protective features. After the prayers they are collected from the altars and taken home to protect the property. The birch twigs were for example plugged into fields as a protection from diseases and pests, or put below roofs as a protection against fire.
Other important elements decorating the altars are wreaths and garlands. However, contrary to the custom of using the birch tree, tradition of preparing and taking home self-woven wreaths is fading away.
In the Polish folk traditions wreaths are present during the most important moments of human life – at birth, wedding, death. They are said to use the magical power of herbs, and are primarily a symbol of universal love. The wreaths for Corpus Christi are prepared only with the most significats herbs and flowers and branches of trees that are believed to protect from lightnings. The wreaths were often decorating the churches for another 8 days after Corpus Christi before being taken home, or are blessed during a special mass at the end of the ‘Octave’.
One of the most important herbs used that day was wormwood, called a divine tree (boże drzewko) in the Polish folk beliefs. Other herbs and flowers used for preparing the wreaths were for example thyme, rosemary, mint, lovage, coltsfoot, forget-me-nots, camomile, daisies, and many others. An old Polish saying is telling that during that day every herb wants to be blessed.
According to the folk beliefs the blessed wreaths had healing properties – parts of it were used in various other rites during a following year. For example, the thyme was used for incensing cattle (believed to protect the cattle from diseases), lovage was used for sore throat, whole burnt wreaths were believed to disperse thick clouds, and hazel twigs were protecting against lightnings and thunders. The decorative wreaths are sometimes blessed in churches with 4 sheets of paper with gospels written on them, and those pieces of paper are later burried in 4 corners of the land to protect the future crops from the hail.
In many regions of Poland the bouquets and herbal wreaths blessed that day were later hung above windows or doors of cottages and above gates of barns and stables as a protection. Inside homes, they were decorating for example holy images hanging above home altars. Sometimes they wereburried in 4 corners of crop fields as a protection against pests and crows. In other regions, they were burried under foundations of newly built houses to ensure their safety and future prosperity. During the first sowing a wreath blessed during Corpus Christi was placed under the first furrow. During the later harvest season one was put into a barn along with the first sheaf of grain. Later, herbs from the wreath were burnt to incense a bowl used for kneading the bread dough. If someone was suspected to be a victim of magical spells, dry herbs from the blessed wreaths or bouquets were used to incense a house in a cleansing rite.
To read more in Polish check also the linked articles:
- Boże Ciało, święto o długiej tradycji
- Boże Ciało w tradycji i symbolice
- Polska Tradycja: Boże Ciało
- Boże Ciało a etnobotanika: kwiaty, wieńce i brzozowe gałązki
- Zielone Świątki i Stado – celebracja pełni wiosny