Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations
Dozynki or Harvest Holiday announces the ending of summer and the abundance of autumn. The symbolic wieniec, or harvest wreath, is made of wheat and rye and decorated with flowers, ribbons and fruits. The wreath is blessed at the church on August 15, the traditional Catholic Holy Day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The wreath is worn by a young girl who parades through the streets, then offers the owner of a farm the headdress as a symbol of prosperity. Villagers revel in the parade and celebrate with a feast and traditional Polish dancing.
The Polish Feast of Greenery celebrates the bountiful harvest of autumn. Farmers bring bouquets of herbs, vegetables and corn interwoven with flowers. The sprays are blessed by the priest, then brought back to the home and kept until the same day next year.
All Saints Day is a traditional, somber, Holy Day in the Catholic Church. The origins are Pagan in nature. The ability to conjure up wayward souls has been replaced by a solemn visit to the cemetery. Candles, representing eternal light are lit in the church, streets and homes. Mourners bring candles, decorate graves with autumn flowers and at dusk celebrate the mass among the graves.
St. Andrew’s Night is celebrated on November 30. During this Pagan celebration, single girls pour hot, melted wax into a bowl of cold water. The hardened wax is then held up to the light. The shadow produced from the newly formed, waxy figure is said to foretell the girl’s marriage prospects. If the wax melts into a shape that resembles a man, she is said to marry within a year.
Another St. Andrew’s tradition includes young girls tossing their shoes into the middle of the floor. The owner of first shoe over the threshold is said to be the first to be married. Fortune-telling, singing and eating are part of this centuries-old tradition.
St. Nicholas Day, December 6 is akin to the Western celebration of Christmas. The children of Poland excitedly wait for a visit from St. Nicholas. Donned in a purple and gold robe, bishop’s hat, and carrying a staff, St. Nicholas hands out sweets and blessings to children who have been good throughout the year. Swishes, cut from the trees, are dispensed to those who have been naughty.
Wigilia, or Christmas Eve dinner, is a sacred holy feast. The day has significance many centuries before Christ’s birth. Wigilia is closely related to the Winter Solstice. Mystical symbolism is an important element of the holiday.
Boughs from fir trees are brought into the house to decorate the ceiling and table. The family and farm animals are sprinkled with water from the nearest stream. It is believed that only on this day, the water holds mystical and medicinal powers.
Before the meal, the family kneels on the floor and recants their thanksgiving of the past year. After the prayer, the group shares the oplatek (communion wafer) and exchanges wishes for the following year. The meal is meatless, and an uneven number of dishes are served. Thirteen, representing the attendants at the Last Supper, is the preferable number of delicacies presented on this most holy night.
Feast of the Three Kings – January 6. In keeping with Catholic culture, Polish families have a piece of chalk blessed by the priest. With the white stick the initials KMB (for the Three Wise Men, Kaspar, Melchior and Baltazer) and a cross are written on the front door. A young boy carries a star throughout the village while revelers carry palms preserved from Palm Sunday and blessed candles from Candlemas Day. The villagers sing carols and visit neighbors, oftentimes receiving gifts of sweets and traditional Christmas foods.
Wesele – the Wedding. The celebration of matrimony relies heavily upon older, traditional customs. Many Polish weddings incorporate Western themes and decorations into their celebration. The engagement period, or zrekowiny, is celebrated by tying the hands of the couple to be wed. In front of many witnesses, the two are literally united by a white scarf. The sign of the cross is made over their hands and a loaf of bread, for prosperity, is placed underneath. After the ceremony, the bread is broken and shared with family and friends.
At the church, the mother of the bride blesses the couple with holy water as they are encircled by the wedding guests. The wedding blessing is more important than the ceremony itself. If the mother has passed away, the wedding party stops at the cemetery and receives a blessing from a “stand-in" in front of the grave.
The wedding ceremony is a traditional Roman Catholic High Mass, with flowers and music. Leaving the church, the bride sprinkles hay upon unwed guests in hopes that they will soon find a life-time partner. The newlyweds and guests arrive at the dom weselny, or wedding home. Again, the couple is blessed and holy water is sprinkled upon them. After the traditional customs of departure, the parties begin. The couple and guests enjoy a Westernized reception including a feast, vodka and wine, and dancing.