The harvest season was of utmost importance in agricultural customs throughout Europe. Although this crowning season of the entire year’s work is widespread among all areas, the Polish harvest tradition is one of sublime acknowledgement.
To the Polish peasant, the harvest was a celebration of what was brought to fruition, a sowing and a reaping, yet at the same time it signaled the beginning of a lot of really tough work.
Leading up to the harvest, the women began baking bread so that the harvesters could be properly fed through the enormous exertion that was coming up during the harvest. Meals would be prepared far in advance for the workers to take to the fields. There was much preparation and fanfare leading up to the harvest season.
There were also elaborate rituals and customs they would do to ensure the harvest went well. They believed there were both unlucky and lucky days to begin such an important work as the harvest. For example, they believed that it was highly unlucky to begin the harvest on a Monday or Friday. The first cut of the scythe should be done on a Saturday, a day blessed.
The harvest celebrations of Poland had a variety of names. It was called Okrezny by the Mazowians, Obzynck in Galicia, and Wieniec in Poznan. The most common name, however, was Dozynki, and this name is still widely used today for the harvest festival.
A universal custom was for the reapers to bless themselves before beginning their work. In some villages, the custom was to have the scythes blessed before the harvest and the field blessed before the first cut of the grain. The first day was full of celebrations, so it was not unusual for the farmers to wear their best clothes and for maidens to decorate their hair with flowers.
Regardless of the weather, the reapers would work from the first light of day to sundown. There was a saying “kto w zniwa patrzy chloda, nacierpi w zimie glodu,” which meant “who looks for coolness during harvest, will suffer hunger during winter.”
The first stalks of grain to be harvested were considered sacred and it was obligatory to leave a handful of uncut stalks remaining in the field. On the last day, the final wheat field was to be cut, the lead woman harvester, or Lady of the Harvest, picked a spot on the field where the final stalks could be seen. The area was left untouched by the reapers until later in the evening when everyone would return, cutting a little from each side until only a few stalks were left.
It was customary to take the last handful of rye or wheat, add some flowers, and tie them together into a bouquet, which was then attached to the scythe of the most senior reaper. This bouquet and scythe was then taken to the man who owned the fields that the peasants had just harvested.
Sometimes the last ears or sheaves were made into the shape of a person and called baba (old woman) or pszenna baba (wheat woman), or dziad (old man). The bundle would be tied into a shape of a person and then dressed in traditional clothing. In some areas, the baba was made very large and heavy as a sort of charm to ensure a large and heavy crop in the next harvest.
The wagons carrying the harvest were also decorated with greenery, ribbons, and flowers. Sometimes they would put sticks in the spokes of the wagon to make a boisterous rattling noise on their trip to the barn. The ending season of the harvest was a triumphant achievement for the farmers of Poland. After much planning and hard work, the farmers could rest knowing the grains were now safely stored away.
The zenith of the Dozynki Celebration was the presentation of the wreath, or wieniec, to the landowner. It would be crafted meticulously from the best grain, and it was formed into the shape of a dome-shaped crown. Flowers, ribbons, hazelnuts, and fruit from the mountain ash tree also adorned the crown. Nowadays, this custom generally falls around the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (August 15) and the wreath is taken to church to be blessed.
To wear the wreath was considered a great honor. Generally, a young girl, involved in the harvesting, was bestowed with the honor. In Krakow, the chosen maiden wore the wreath on her head while sitting on the wagon as she was taken to the church; she would be followed by other young maidens wearing flowers in their hair.
The wreath, arriving only once a year, was treasured and given much care. It was hung in a prominent place, such as above the door of the main entrance or living room as a symbol of prosperity.
Songs were also a part of the dozynki tradition, and one that was universal throughout Poland had the refrain of:
Yield, we carry yield
from all sides.
We carry the harvest
from all directions.
Nowadays, the ancient pre-Christian harvest celebration has been mostly assimilated into the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Poland, it is also called Blessed Mother of the Herbs or Our Lady of the Herbs, Matka Boska Zielna. The Polish people have been closely linked to the earth and her bounty for thousands of years, and their close communion with nature is revealed in their ancient customs. Every tree, every flower, and every herb took on special meaning in their celebratory rituals. Plants were so important to the people of Poland, which is why they are such a vital element in their folk songs, legends, beliefs, and superstitions.
On the festival for the Lady of the Herbs, the women gathered whatever plants and greenery grew in their regional area. Sometimes they would gather up the flowers and herbs they especially loved. Some of the herbs that they would gather up included hyssop, lavender, and chamomile. They’d gather up garden herbs and those growing in the wild, such as peony (piwonia), sage (szalwia), thyme (macierzanka), mugwort (bylica), melissa (mellisy), henbane (lulek), and hemp.
The blessing of the herbs on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother was, and still is, a Slavic custom. It is not universally incorporated in church rituals. However, since the harvest festival and the feast of the mother occurs around the same time, the people of Poland would take a few spikes of grain and include it with their herbs. The herbs would be gathered and then blessed, and after that they would be used in endless ways. Sometimes the women would crumble some of the herbs and flowers into the seed mixture when going out to the fields for the first sowing. Other times, the herbs and plants were woven into a wreath and hung near or over sacred pictures on the wall. Most importantly, though, the women would gather up and bless specific herbs and plants that were used for healing purposes. In times past, the blessed, dried plants were stored away on a special shelf for when someone became sick or injured.
Whether the harvest celebration occurred during pre-Christian times or the present, one thing is for certain: the agricultural customs and traditions of the people of Poland have carried on from generation to generation.