Polish folk culture cultivates bread and grains in a special manner, rooted in old-Slavic beliefs and agrarian mythology syncretized with Christianity in Poland over the centuries.
The great importance is still noticeable even from a linguistic point of view. The Polish word zboża (also: zboże), describing all types of domesticated cereals, has the same root as the adjective boży meaning divine and of the God.
SYMBOLISM OF BREAD IN POLISH CULTURE
Bread is the most common product made of the ‘sacred’ grains and an important symbol of life and general abundance in Poland. It is also one of the most basic daily food products here – most of Poles couldn’t imagine a breakfast or an evening meal without a slice of bread. The lack of a ‘daily bread’ (a popular Polish term of ‘chleb powszedni’) signified hunger and death. Symbolic wishes for the ‘daily bread’ appear in almost all kinds of old Polish prayers. Still nowadays, throwing away an old bread is a sin bringing bad luck and hunger according to many of Polish people.
In the Slavic and Polish folk mythology, sky was sometimes compared to a bake mold, and the Earth itself to a bread. Activated leaven (zaczyn) for a bread dough was seen as a sacred substance. Some regional folk legends say that people were created out of the bread dough, and in those regions it was absolutely forbidden to shape the bread in any forms resembling humans or animals.
Bread is considered one of the most sacred foods in Poland and in the whole Slavic cultural sphere. Loaf of bread is present in majority of old festive rituals, for example the famous welcoming of guests with bread and salt or in a form of a symbolic thin waffle during the rite of sharing good wishes before Polish celebrations of Christmas Eve.
Bread was accompanying the Polish people throughout the life: it was gifted to a newborn’s family (see for example the ‘puppet’ bread from Podegrodzie), blessed before a wedding, put under foundations of a future house, it was the first thing brought into a newly built house to ensure prosperity, and it was believed to be a good offering for the souls of deceased. Bread was baked for all kinds of festivities throughout the year, for example in some regions of Poland like Kurpie the people baked small breads in shape of animals that were bringing good luck, protecting from illness and from misfortune.
In the old days baking of bread was an important rite itself full of many symbolic elements. Polish people from the countryside used to bake the bread at home once a week before Sunday – they baked lots of loaves at once for the whole family, and stored them in a special place to keep them fresh for a whole week.
Polish ‘daily’ bread was most often formed in a round shape. Breads baked for rites and festivities were very often decorated with various symbolic elements shaped with the dough on top of the crust, like the examples on pictures below. Poland has dozens of various regional types of breads in various forms, for example elongated, braided, twisted or shaped like a wreath.
An old custom was to decorate the daily bread with a cross or other simple symbol on its top before baking. The symbol had to be made by pressing down the dull side of a knife (it was a bad omen to use the sharp side on the unbaked bread).
The first loaf taken out of the oven during the baking day was the most important. It was a bad luck to cut it with a knife – the ‘first loaf’ could’ve been only broken by hands because cutting it would also ‘cut off’ the good fortune and thefore the family might struggle to bake enough bread in the future.
It was common to make a sign of a cross with a knife in the air over the bread before cutting it for a meal. When the bread or any bread crumb fell accidentally on the floor, the Polish people were picking it up and kissing as a sign of respect and gratefullness. Old bread was never thrown away to the trash – it was either used as food for the farm animals or burnt in a cleansing fire.
Bread was connected to numerous other superstitions and fortune tellings. For example, if two breads got connected inside an oven and baked together as one loaf, it meant that a married couple in that house will grow old together in happiness and prosperity. During the baking, it was forbidden for the cook to sit down or else the breads would not grow properly. It was forbidden to use wood from a tree that was hit by a lightning to bake a bread – people believed that it would ‘influence’ the bread in a wrong way. If a bread got baked with a huge and deep crack in its crust, it meant that someone living in the house would die soon.
RITUALS CONNECTED TO THE HARVEST SEASON
To be able to prepare a bread, it was of course important to grow the grains and make the flour first. Poland traditionally cultivates cereals like wheat, rye, oat, barley, buckwheat, proso, and others. In the Polish folk culture the whole process of plowing, sowing and harvesting was connected to many customs of a ritual manner, and it was the most important time of the year to ensure food on the table for the whole next 12 months. Season of harvest played a great importance in the Polish ritual year, and still nowadays is finished with large countryside feasts called dożynki (harvest festival organized around the end of August and the beginning of September when the crops are already collected from the fields – I will describe the dożynki in a separate post).
Most of the old customs connected to the process of harvesting died out due to the agricultural modernization of the countryside. However, many elements are still alive in the most remote parts of the Polish rural regions, and some are recreated by ethnography organizations in many of open-air countryside museums across Poland.
One of such places is the open-air ethnography museum in Maurzyce that hosts an annual event showing how the process of harvest looked like a century ago. Just like some of other ethnography skansens in Poland, this museum still cultivates a small field of wheat and makes its own flour used in later presentations of traditional baking. The recreated process of harvest sticks to details known from old ethnography resources and remembered by the oldest of local people.
Work during the harvest season was beginning very early in the morning when the burning Sun wasn’t up yet. People were going out to the fields singing harvest-themed songs which accompanied them also during the day. The workers were wearing simple clothes made of linen, a great ‘breathing’ material, and covered their heads with straw hats or linen headscarves.
Crops were cut with sickles and scythes. Even when the modern machinery started entering the Polish fields, there was still a prevailing custom: at the beginning of each harvest a symbolic ‘first sheaf‘ was cut from a field with a hand sickle just like in the old days. That symbolic sheaf was later stored in the house and taken out for the celebrations of Christmas (see my article: Christmas Eve in Poland). Old types of sickles have an important symbolic meaning in Poland – even the name of August (sierpień) when most of the harvest work is done comes from the word sickle (sierp).
The movement of the tools used for reaping was always carried out in a synchronized motion. According to the 19th-century Polish ethnographer Oskar Kolberg, the cutting process was truly a sacred ceremony: always performed in a direction epitomizing the movement of the Sun – its daily routine and the order of life – relating the direction of the sunrise with the beginning of each action and the direction of the sunset with each action’s finish.
A longer break from the work was organized around the midday when the Sun was at its highest – it was important to stay away from the heated fields and from the demons called południce (midday ladies). At the end of a workday people were binding sheaves and building characteristic ‘stygi’ (haystacks).
To make the process faster, it was common for neighbouring farmers to help each other in order to finish work on the individual fields one by one in a bigger group of workers. In the evenings when the daily share of work was finished, the field’s owner was organizing a fresh meal for everyone which was sometimes celebrated with integrational singing or dances. Whole season of harvest lasted for around two months – whole July and August when Poland has the summer break from schools.
People from Polish villages still bestow great respect on the ‘gifts of the Earth’. When the crops mature, some of Polish farmers are going into their fields to rip an ear of a stem, carefully threshing it in the hands to take off the husks, and they taste the grains almost in a ritual manner – just like their grandparents did. That act, although so simple, has something of an ancient miracle play. The people are aware that even though a lot of work still awaits them, the grains waving in the wind will soon turn into aromatic loaves of bread, the essential part of the daily meals in Poland and an important symbol of the Polish rural culture.
Polish sources for further reading:
- Zofia Rokossowska “Chleb”, w: “Wisła”, t.13, 1899
- Irena Kubiak “Chleb w tradycji ludowej”, 1981
- Andrzej Szyjewski “Religia Słowian”, 2003
- “Etnografia Lubelszczyzny – ludowe wierzenia o chlebie”
- “Etnografia Lubelszczyzny – cykl roczny w życiu wsi – lipiec”
- “O symbolice chleba w kulturze ludowej”
- “Chleb w tradycji ludowej”
- “Jak drzewiej o chlebie pisano”
- “Żniwa i tradycje z nimi związane”