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.
Siuda Baba, a person appearing on the Easter Monday in only a few villages in southern Poland, is a great example of how bits of the informations about the old religions and customs were carried on by rural communities over the long centuries and how they survived in a form of local folklore traditions.
In the old times there were no Christmas trees in the Polish houses. They became widespread only in the first half of the 20th century, but were not in use in most of the rural households of the central, southern or eastern Poland as late as before the World War 2. At first, the decorated Christmas trees started coming to the Polish houses around the late 18th century, first appearing in the houses of protestants, and then being adopted by the Polish townspeople and the upper classes. Eventually, the Christmas Trees came with so-called ‘commercialization’ of Christmas in the 20th century – just like in the other countries celebrating the holidays around the world. What did the Polish people prepare to decorate their houses before that?
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).
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.
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.
This day, also called Lany Poniedziałek (Wet Monday) or just Dyngus, is an ancient pagan tradition celebrated in Poland on the Easter Monday, nowadays intertwined with the Christian celebrations of Easter.
It has its roots in old Slavic traditions of throwing water on people in rites meaning to purify them for the arrival of spring. On that day, groups of boys (often in festive clothing) were throwing water on the girls or even soak them completely in nearby rivers and lakes. Naturally, the girls were getting their ‘revenge’ in a similar way.
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.