Dożynki is an annual harvest festival celebrated in Poland around the turn of August and September that dates back maybe even to the ancient times. To majority of acclaimed historic Polish folklorists, researchers, and poets, such as Oskar Kolberg, Zygmunt Gloger, Ignacy Krasicki, Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, and numerous others, it’s been more than clear that dożynki hold many remnants of a pre-Christian feast of fertility and crops, dedicated to gods of prolificacy, celebrated in rural communities over the centuries ever since the pagan times and eventually syncretized with Christianity.
You might’ve already heard about that festival under the name of dozhinki (how it is very often spelled in the English language). Remnants of that mysterious Slavic festival survived in all Slavic countries under many similar names in local forms of harvest festivities. In Poland it’s been known also under names of wyżynki, obżynki (these two along with the name of dożynki are related to the word żeniec – old Polish word for a reaper), okrężne (from okrężny – roundabout, coming from a custom of ritual encircling of the crop fields), wieńcowe, wieńczyny (from wieniec – wreath or garland), and other regional names that could also be used separately to describe certain parts or rituals performed during that festival.
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.
August 15th – the day of the Assumption of Mary – is commonly celebrated in Poland as a day dedicated to the Divine Mother of Herbs (Matka Boska Zielna). It’s one of the many holidays of the Christian Holy Mother which resulted in a process of syncretism with much older beliefs rooted in the old-Slavic Faith.
The name of that day and the Holy Mother’s title as the Goddess of Herbs comes entirely from the Polish folklore. It is one of old customs that never got erased but were adopted by the Polish Catholic Church and reinterpreted through the Christian doctrine (see also for example: Gromnica – Thunder Candle and the Divine Mother of the Thunder Candle / with the Wolves). The tradition of celebrating the Divine Mother of Herbs got eventually linked with the day of the Assumption of Mary. Nowadays, due to lack of a proper education about the pre-Christian beliefs in Poland, some of Polish people themselves would even argue about that day being rooted entirely in Christianity. Here in this article I will show you simply how this feast looks like, and how it is and was interpreted in the Polish countryside.
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.
The celebrations of midsummer are among the most interesting and oldest annual festivities in Poland. Nowadays it known mostly as Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night) due to the influence of Christianity, but in the Polish folk culture few other much older names survived over time, such as Kupalnocka or Noc Kupały (Kupala Night), Sobótki ([Feast of] Bonfires) or Wianki ([Feast of] Wreaths). Their roots go back to ancient Slavic festivals of the summer solstice, of love and fertility, combined with rites and magical practices where the main focus was put on the cleansing forces of fire and water. It was believed that the night of summer solstice is when the nature’s strenght is at its fullest, when all the land is penetrated by a powerful boost of fresh energy influencing the upcoming harvest and also people’s fertility and love life, when the fern blooms with elusive flowers, when certain herbs gain magical powers of healing or of boosting the fertility, and so on. There are plenty of intriguing elements in the Polish celebrations of midsummer that can be traced back to ancient Slavic practices and beliefs.
Below you’ll read about the major elements and mythological forces important in the Polish celebrations of midsummer:
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.
The feast of Green Week (Zielone Świątki) is celebrated in Poland around mid-May towards early June – it’s syncretized with the movable celebrations of Pentecost that starts 50 days after Easter. These festivities show many elements of pre-Christian Slavic spring rituals.
Green Week is connected to Slavic rituals of celebrating the full spring and the reborn greenery (the nature fully reborn after winter) after all the tree branches had already turned green. Its core nature is a form of maintenance of the rhythm of the nature, with magical practices of purifying the surroundings from demons or evil spirits that might have an effect on the further process of growth towards the end of spring. Goal of these rituals was designed to boost nature’s fertility, the ability to grow, and to prepare the soil, crops and livestock for the upcoming summer season and the later (expectantly abundant) harvest.
Tradition of preparing the decorative and colorful ‘Easter palms’ for the blessing in churches on the Palm Sunday (last Sunday of the Lents before Easter) is an old and very important custom in Poland.
If you haven’t heard of the gromnice (thunder candles) yet, please read this article first.
In the Polish rural beliefs and legends connected to the wintertime the Holy Mother is often described as a ‘Maiden protecting from wolves‘. She’s also taking care of these animals so that they don’t attack the human settlements.
Milk and dairy were one of the most important food products for people living in the rural areas of Poland, and therefore various customs involving cattle and barns were performed throughout the year. They are connected to various pre-Christian Slavic rites, and contain many magical elements that were meant to protect the valuable cattle for example from diseases or sorcery. The celebrations were usually held individually in each farm in a village.