This custom was a part of Slavic spring celebrations, appearing during various festivals and rituals throughout the spring season in Poland and in many other Slavic countries. Gaik usually appears as a small tree or a branch (most often a local type of a conifer tree, or a birch tree) decorated with colorful ribbons and other adornments, depending on the occasion (for example trinkets, flowers and bells, or colorful pisanki made on emptied eggshells hanging from the branches). Gaik is known under many different regional names in Poland, and you can find it under numerous names such as: gaj, goik, gaiczek, maj, maik, mojik, sad, nowe lato, nowe latko, turzyce.
Depending on the region, gaik was appearing on many different occasions. It was very often carried in a procession for the celebrations of the spring equinox: the rite of burning and drowning of Marzanna. It appeared as a form of a theatrical rite: after burning and/or drowning of Marzanna (a symbolic funeral of the old winter goddess), the following appearance of a gaik symbolized the first arrival or birth of the spring. Gaik was carried back to the village, announcing the new season and the rebirth of the nature.
Gaik was very often appearing also during the Green Week, during Easter or at the beginning of May, as an important symbolic effigy-like accessory representing the spring. In some regions, it was appearing even as late as the summer solstice, accompanying the events that culminated on the Kupala Night.
Gaik was usually carried by young girls and boys who sung cheerful songs, and sometimes danced around the ‘effigy’. For carrying the gaik in a procession, the kids were getting gifts from the community, for example small money, obwarzanki (ring-shaped breads) or colorful pisanki made from cooked eggs.
For example, the region of Śląsk Cieszyński (Cieszyn Silesia) in south-western Poland celebrated “zielony gaik” (green gaik), organized on the Easter Monday. The gaik, decorated with pisanki and ribbons, was carried to the village by girls dressed in festive clothing who visited every house in the community. They sung for example:
Daj Pan Bóg dobry dzień pod wasze okienko,
Przyszłyśmy powitać was miła gaździnko,
Gaiczek zielony, pięknie przystrojony
May God give you a good day, here to your windows
we came to greet you, dear hostess
[with] a green gaik, beautifully adorned
Gaik was appearing on the Easter Monday in many other regions, for example Ziemia Opoczyńska (Opoczno Land) in central Poland, where boys carried a decorated tree or a sphere made from bent hazel branches with a red apple put on a stick inside the sphere. They carried also baskets for the gifts, and sung for example:
Nasz gaiczek z boru idzie,
przypatrujcie mu się ludzie,
wszyscy ludzie, wszyscy goście.
jak on idzie po lipowym moście.
Our gaik comes from the old forest,
look at it, people,
all the people, all the guests,
how it walks over a linden bridge.
Another example could be a procession organized in Ziemia Łęczycka (Łęczyca Land) in central Poland. There, the gaik had to be carried by girls, and it appeared during both Easter Monday as well as the Green Week. In that region the gaik was often adorned with a small doll in a bridal dress, and the girls carrying it sung wishes of wellness and luck for each household they entered. They were becoming ‘dyngus’ gifts, including cakes, cheese and eggs.
Such examples come from all over Poland.
Another form of gaik appearing in some regions of Poland were trees or large tree branches (particularly those of a birch tree, a common symbol of spring, fertility, and rebirth) decorated with similar adornments such as ribbons and (more rarely) eggs and bells. They were connected directly to forms of birch adornments prepared for the Green Week which you can see in my older article here.
The common Polish custom of preparing the so-called Easter palms (palmy wielkanocne) for the Easter Sunday is direclty connected to the gaik that in turn stems from much older pre-Christian spring rituals. In fact, in some regions of Poland the Easter palms still resemble the form of the gaik.
Etymologically speaking, the word gaik in the Polish language is a diminutive form of the word gaj meaning a grove. It comes directly from proto-Slavic word *gajь, from *gojь / *gòjiti meaning: to live, to grow, to heal, to take care, to afforest.
The custom originates most likely in pagan rites of designating a forest area for a sacred grove. In the old-Polish language there existed a verb “gaić”, that was used as a term for enclosing an area of a forest to determine the extent of a grove. The sacred groves used to be fenced or marked with ribbons and other adornments, and it was forbidden to enter the sacred area by unauthorized people from outside of the community. The verb was later used to describe process of planting a young forest, and some documents from Renaissance era show that it was also a term for paying for the use of forested lands.
Gaik reenacted in Pawłów, south-central Poland (direct link)
Gaik reenacted in Bobrowniki, district Łowicz, central Poland (direct link)
My sources and references (in Polish):
- Barbara Ogrodowska: “Zwyczaje, obrzędy i tradycje w Polsce”, Wyd. Werbinum, Warszawa 2001.
- Gaik; from Encyklopedia Staropolska / Wikisource
- Gaik; in naludowo.pl
- Wielkanocne “chodzenie z gaikiem” odkryte na nowo we wsi Podgórze; in dzieje.pl
- Gaik (święto); in Wikipedia
- Gaik zielony; in Wikipedia
- Gaj (las); in Wikipedia
See also (in English):
- My article about the Green Week in Poland
- Green Week in Wikipedia
- Russian feast of Semik in: The Russian Folk Theatre by Elizabeth A. Warner (Google Books link)
- Russian feast of Semik in: Encyclopedia of Russian & Slavic Myth and Legend by Mike Dixon-Kennedy (Google Books link)
- Ukrainian feast of Rosalia (Rusallia, Troitsia, Zeleni sviata) in encyclopediaofukraine.com