Wreaths and other hair ornaments made of flowers and herbs are an essential part of many of the Polish rural customs. Athough most of the customs became almost extinct on the course of the 20th-century modernization of the society, and are preserved mostly in local ethnography museums, there are still certain festivals bearing remnants to the pre-Christian Slavic rites still alive within the Polish culture nowadays. The bridal flower crowns are among the customs that faded away – but can be still spotted around, for example on reenactments of the traditional weddings by various ethnography organizations, in art and culture (including e.g. theatre or cinema), or on some rather rare occasions of weddings when the bride decides to wear a traditional Polish garment instead of the modern white dress.
This post is going to be more of a gallery with examples of the traditional flower crowns of the brides wearing the traditional Polish folk costumes, but of course I’m not leaving it here without at least a bit of the essential informations about this custom for you. Before I start, keep also in mind that the custom shared a lot of common elements coming from the same old Slavic roots – these are the elements I’ll try to describe – but naturally had a lot of regional flavours and differences.
The flower crowns were a ceremonial garment. The whole rite for the bride started usually a day or two before the wedding when she met with the dearest women important in her life: the closest family, aunts, cousins, friends, and the most important – the bridesmaids. In some regions the custom was strict in one matter: the women gathered for the night had to be unmarried, or else they would bring misfortune for the future bride. That time is connected to many Polish mythological tales and superstitions. If the bride was unhappy or met with unfortunate circumstances during the fragile days just before the wedding, she could even die or committ suicide and the belief was she turns into a vicious demon, for example the południca (transl. noonwraith or midday lady).
It was then, during a truly feminine evening which essentially was the first rite of a farewell to the bride, when the flower crown was created. The women were making predictions and divinations, singing old melancholic songs, and weaving the crown for the bride and the wreaths for the bridesmaids. The flowers in the crown and the wreaths symbolize a blooming youth and spring-like bursts of fertility (powerul rebirth but also fragility of the youth and of the health, like the short span of the flowers’ life). Upon the influence of Christianity over the centuries, these crowns started symbolizing also virginity, however in reality a virgin bride was rather rare in the traditional Polish rural culture. For the bride the complex symbolism of the flower crown could be summed up as a symbol of a blessed rite of passage, a crowning of a fragile in-between time when she’s about to change her whole life.
Originally, the headpieces were decorated with natural flowers and herbs, ideally fresh. Many versions from regions like Silesia, Greater Poland or some areas of northern Poland use evergreen in the bridal headpieces, either instead or alongside the flowers. Some historical examples show also traces of sewn textile flowers (those could’ve been headpieces passed down from generation to generation). With the spread of the manufactured materials in the late 19th century, a lot of elements for the crowns and wreaths were eventually made of blotting paper. The 19th and 20th-century crowns were often adorned also with other elements made from textiles, for example manufactured ribbons. We don’t know how their original forms looked like due to scarcity of historical ethnographic resurces.
In some areas the symbolic crowns were also coming in other forms: additional decorative ones were made from various flowers, herbs or crops, and they symbolized various aspects of abundance and fertility. Sometimes, the bride’s mother or godmother was also baking a crown-shaped bread or cake for the bride on that evening, which was gifted to her on the day of the wedding.
The flower crown was put on the bride’s head most often during the so-called rite of blessing (błogosławieństwo), a custom during which the parents are saying a symbolic goodbye and the bride thanks them for the upbringing. The rite happens at the bride’s home, just before she departs for the wedding ceremony. The short blessing itself is still an important part of the Polish weddings even today.
The flower crown was decorating the bride’s head for the whole day of the wedding, up until midnight. Then, the last rite of a farewell was happening (still organized in some instances of the rural weddings in Poland) called oczepiny. During this rite the bride was carried to a smaller and quieter room, usually by the oldest women in the family (nowadays it usually happens in a simplified form and in the main hall where all the guests are feasting). There, the flower crown was eventually unfastened and taken off. The bride’s hair was combed, parted and pinned up in a married woman’s style. Then, her hair was covered with a czepiec (a married woman’s cap), finalizing the whole sequence of the symbolic rites of the passage and starting a new position in the female part of the community.
As a curiosity for you: in some of the oldest-known versions of the oczepiny rite the bride’s hair was cut short as a symbol of the woman’s lost childhood and of becoming part of a new community – it was a ‘female’ version of the old Slavic rite called in Polish postrzyżyny (first haircut, a rite for a young boy aged around 7-10 when his hair is cut short and the father or a father-figure takes control of his upbringing in the place of a mother and thus the boy entered a ‘new’ community in a new stage of life).
Below you can see good examples of recreated authentic forms of the symbolic flower crowns from various regions of Poland. Some of them are theatrical costumes, prepared for a popular play ‘Wesele’ (‘The Wedding’ by Stanisław Wyspiański), an iconic Polish drama which takes place during a wedding in a village of Bronowice near Kraków. The regional Krakovian versions of the flower crown are maybe one of the best-preserved form nowadays thanks to that drama. Many shapes and forms from other regions around Poland are revived by local folklore ensembles.
Not all of the regions had elaborate ‘crowns’. It was often also a relatively smaller wreath of flowers, or long ribbons with flowers or herbs attached to it.
Some examples from Polish museums:
Examples of Polish brides and bridesmaids on illustrations and paintings: