Star symbolism and Christmas gift-bringers from Polish folklore

Poland: Gwiazdor (Star-Man or Man from the Stars) and Gwiazdka (Star-Woman or Little Star)
Gwiazdor and Gwiazdka on an illustration published by weneda.net

Today I’d like to introduce you to two mysterious characters from Polish folklore, and to a few other elements related to pre-Christian Slavic celebrations of the winter solstice and the later season of carnival. Informations about them survived in local folk customs, to be precise in Christmas rites called in Polish kolędowanie or kolęda (known in English as Slavic caroling).

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Quick overview of folk costumes from Poland (warning: picture-heavy)

The beauty of folk costume. Just like in other parts of the world, in the old days the folk clothing was one of the main elements of Polish rural culture inscribed into the rich patterns of festivities and rituals. These costumes were considered elegant, and were worn only for special occasions: religious celebrations, seasonal festivities, important life events like weddings. They were a cultural manifest of the origins in a small regional level. People could tell each other apart on the basis on small differences in the clothing. Clothing of some regions might be similar to an unskilled eye, but the tiny details like patterns of embroidery or colors and width of the striped fabrics were telling precisely from which town or village did the piece of clothing come. They differed in details important to the locals, and the details of patterns were often passed down from generation to generation. This way the locals in some regions were even able to tell a family from which a person wearing a costume came from.

Some of you who follow me for a long time might already know that I run a side project polishcostumes.tumblr.com. It’s an educational gallery where I collect modern photos and archival materials about traditional clothing from all regions of Poland found around the Internet. I invite you to visit the link later (it’s linked also at the bottom of this article) in case you want to browse through more images and discover more examples Polish folk clothing, or to see old photographs and drawings or details like closeups of embroidery. I prepared there also a list of regions where all the names of the places are organized in an alphabetical order. So far I gathered there photographs and drawings of over 80 regional types of Polish folk clothing.

Here in this article I want to present some of the regions as a simple list with photographs, in order to show you a great variety of the folk costumes in Poland. All the names are linked to proper tags in my gallery of Polish folk costumes where you can see more examples from the region.

Short side notes to keep in your mind: most of the types of costumes shown below have many subtypes, especially those that are defined by larger geographical regions. The pictures show only the most ‘typical’ examples. The regions have many also many types characteristic for different age groups or worn during different seasons of the year. I made myself a limit of maximum 2 pictures per type, and it’s often hard to show everything on them. The list doesn’t show also all the regions / types of the Polish costumes yet. I plan to keep updating it over time to add other regions and hopefully create a complete list of the clothing one day. I prepared the list below in an alphabetical order, the best way for me to check and update it in the future.

(picture-heavy gallery ahead!)

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Pająki – protective decorations made of straw

Poland: protective ornament called 'pająki' (spiders).
Poland: protective ornament called ‘pająki’ (spiders). Source of the image: zywapracownia.pl

One of many traditional elements of interior decoration in the Polish villages of the past was an elaborate geometric ornament hanging down from the ceiling. It is called ‘pająk‘ (plural form: ‘pająki‘) and a literal translation of the name is a ‘spider‘. In some places of Poland it was also called a ‘kierec’ (name native to region of Kurpie in northeastern Poland), or – jokingly – a ‘żyrandol’ (chandelier). In the 19th century when ethnography as a systematic study arrived into the Polish lands and the Polish rural customs were first described in precise details, the presence of pająki was documented in all ethnically Polish lands.

Pająki are made with the use of dry straw collected from the fields during the harvest season. They were usually prepared during late autumn for Christmas, but they were also hanged in the room for the arrival of spring and for the celebrations of Easter. Originally, they were connected to old Slavic rituals performed for the winter solstice and the spring equinox and were meant to help in protecting the inhabitants of the cottage during the hard season of the year that is winter (more about it below).

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Day of the Divine Mother of Herbs

Poland: Day of the Divine Mother of the Herbs. A lost painting by Witold Pruszkowski (1846-1896).
Poland: Day of the Divine Mother of the Herbs. A lost painting by Witold Pruszkowski (1846-1896).

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.

Poland: on the day of the Divine Mother of Herbs
On the day of the Divine Mother of Herbs – an old postcard, via najednejnodze.wordpress.com

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Old-Slavic symbolism of bread and harvest rituals in Poland

Bread in Poland
Harvest festival in Lublin, Poland. Photo © Małgorzata Genca.

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.

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Drawing protective symbols with sand in Poland

Poland: old tradition of drawing protective symbols with sand
Archival photo, region of Kujawy in Poland. From magazine “Gadki z chatki”.

Drawing protective or decorative symbols with sand is an old custom from the rural parts of Poland, first described by ethnographers in 19th century. In Polish it’s usually called ‘sypanie piaskiem’ (what translates simply to ‘pouring of sand’). It used to be common to many regions located in the modern-day central Poland. This tradition started disappearing first due to changes of construction materials inside cottages and their surroudings (explained below). Later it died out almost completely during the secular communist rule and the rapid industrialization of the Polish countryside after World War 2.

The co-called ‘sand carpets’ were prepared for religious feasts, most notably for Easter but also for other religious spring feasts, of which many bear traces to pre-Christian Slavic beliefs (read for example: the Green Week or the Polish celebrations of Corpus Christi).

Originally the ‘sand carpets’ decorated only interiors of rural cottages. The custom was surviving for the longest time in those villages that were still using a klepisko (an old type of a hard earthen floor inside houses). Sand poured on such a klepisko was behaving differently and staying longer than on the modern types of hard floors.

Poland: old tradition of drawing protective symbols with sand
Exhibition in ethnography museum in Toruń. Photo via wiano.eu

Then, the modernized materials started entering Polish countryside, notably during the era of the industrial revolution in 19th century. People started building cottages with the hard floors, much quicker to maintain over the year than the old klepisko type of floor. Sand poured on the new hard floors was swept away easily even with a small blow of draft air – the rural people most likely didn’t feel it works and looks correctly this way and the custom started dying out slowly.

However, in some regions the people started ‘going outside’ with the custom. Many symbols started appearing on the ground and paths in front of cottages.

sand-symbols-in-poland02
An exhibition organized in cultural centre in Toruń.
sand-symbols-in-poland04
Archival photo taken in Kujawy, 1972, from the collections of Museum of Kujawy and Dobrzyń Lands.

The custom survived the longest in the region of Kujawy (north-central Poland) where the people were nourishing this old tradition even after the World War 2. Before disappearing, drawing of the sand symbols was noted to be alive also in regions around Kielce, Opoczno, Rawa Mazowiecka and Łowicz, all in central parts of Poland.

The symbols had a temporary character and were made usually only for a day. Those poured inside cottages were prepared in the morning, and were carefully swept away in the evening after the main festive meal. Sometimes the symbols could’ve stayed on the floor overnight, and the ethnographers were noting that the most decorative elements were often ‘drawn’ close to the beds.

Poland: old tradition of drawing protective symbols with sand
Contemporary competition in the region of Kujawy. Photo via wloclaweknews.pl

Nowadays many ethnography organizations in the mentioned region of Kujawy are reviving the old custom. Events with competitions for the most beautiful designs decorating paths and streets with the sand symbols are held, and they become only more and more popular. They are promoted under a name of ‘Kujawskie sypanie piaskiem’ (transl. ‘Kuyavian pouring of sand’). The same motifs that used to be ‘drawn’ with the sand in this region are also appearing in the regional embroidery, and many motifs created during the contemporary competitions are inspired by the local embroidery and other crafts. They include for example symmetrical flowery forms that are remnants of the symbol of a tree of life.

Below under the cut you can see a gallery of the conteporary competitions organized primarily in town of Przedecz (located in the region of Kujawy) – lots of pictures showing the patterns.

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Celebrations of Midsummer in Polish art

I’ve been collecting various images depicting the Polish celebrations of Midsummer – called in Polish Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night), Kupalnocka / Noc Kupały (Kupala Night), Sobótki or Wianki – for quite a long time now. Here’s a little gallery with some of my favourite pieces: old paintings, woodcuts, litographs and sketches in various art styles from around late-19th and early-20th centuries. Enjoy!

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Midsummer celebrations in Poland

Midsummer in Poland
‘Noc Świętojańska’ performance prepared by Częstochowa Song and Dance Ensemble.

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:

  1. Fire
  2. Water
  3. Floating wreaths
  4. Fern flower
  5. Witches and evil spirits
  6. Protective herbs
  7. Summary

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Wianki (wreaths) in Polish folk beliefs connected to summer solstice

Symbolism of wianki (wreaths) in Poland

Wianek (plural form: wianki) means a wreath in the Polish language. According to the old-Slavic tradition, wreaths were an important symbol connected to numerous rites and festivals – it was a representation of blooming youth, vitality and virginity. Only young girls and the unmarried women (particularly those who haven’t bore a child yet) were allowed to wear them. They were woven out of local flowers, herbs and plants, often those of magical (e.g. protective) meaning.

Wreaths are extremely important during the Slavic celebrations of the summer solstice, a feast of pre-Christian origins that in Poland holds many names, for example Noc Kupały, Kupalnocka, Sobótki (after a word for Slavic ritual bonfires), Wianki (annual festival held for example in Kraków, called literally ‘Wreaths’) or the Christianized version: Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night), Świętojanki, etc.

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Colorful processions in folk costumes: Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) in Poland

The religious festivity of Corpus Christi (in Polish: Boże Ciało) remains one of the most important events in the Polish rural culture when processions of people dressed in traditional regional clothing appear on the streets. As a supplement to my previous post describing old Slavic folk rites and beliefs that were syncretized with these holidays in Poland (you can read it here), I want to show you photos from various places in Poland where the tradition of putting on folk costumes for the Corpus Christi procession is still alive.

(picture-heavy post after the cut)

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