WARSAW—The rituals may have changed over the centuries, but the Polish midsummer celebration known as “Sobótka” is still a time to people to gather and enjoy the warmth of the season with family and friends.
The night of merrymaking—also known as St. John’s Night or “Noc Świętojańska—is still observed in parts of Poland and some Polish communities in the United States. It has its roots in magical pagan rituals that honored two important elements: Fire and Water. It is also a feast celebrating the Sun as a source of light and warmth on the longest day of the year, usually June 23.
The name Sobótka was not common all over Poland. In Central Poland’s Mazowsze region and in Eastern Poland—as well as in Ukraine—midsummer was known under a name of “Kupałnocka” or “Kupala.”
The ancient tradition is to burn bonfires, bathe in open waters at sunset, and sing and dance until midnight.
Young maidens dressed in white, with wreaths of yellow and white wild flowers upon their heads would set afloat candled wreaths on the rivers, in hopes that a fitting mate would find the wreath when fishing and fall in love with them. The rite is known as “Rzucanie Wianków” (throwing of wreaths). In Slavic tradition the wianek is a symbol of unmarried state—maidenhood.
The maidens would throw herbs to the fire, in hopes that it would protect them from evil. To demonstrate their agility, the young men would jump over fires.
At midnight the search for the elusive fern’s flower would begin as the “unmarried” ran into forest.
If you found the flower of fern, the wishes of life may be fulfilled. A lucky man returning with the flower would wear the flowered wreath of his engaged on his head.
Girls wearing wreaths of flowers prepare for St. John’s Night, a centuries-old Polish
celebration of the Summer solstice. This event, sponsored by the Polish American Association of Washington, D.C., was held at the Reflecting Pool at the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
—photo: Richard Poremski
In Slavic religion, Kupala is the goddess of herbs, sorcery, sex, and midsummer. She is also the Water Mother, associated with trees, herbs, and flowers. Her celebration falls upon the Summer solstice in June.
After Poland embraced Christianity in 966, its ancient traditions were replaced with Catholic ones. In the 14th century, the bishop of Poznan banned celebrations held on the eves of holy days. However the pagan rituals were often linked to Catholic feast days. Respectful of the Church, the celebration was moved ahead to the night of St. John the Baptist—June 24th being Sobótka, his feast day.
In some regions, such as Kraków and Kielce in South Poland, festivities take place a few weeks earlier. This time was called “Zielone Świątki” (Whitsunday feast), and was later also incorporated with Pentecost. In 1468 King Kazimierz Jagiello—on demand of the abbot of St. Cross Monastery—banned pagan festivities taking place in Łysa Gora (Bald Mountain), a place where, legend has it, witches’ sabbats took place.
Poet Jan Kochanowski, who participated in these festivities in his youth, wrote a description of the night in his “Piesń o Sobótce.” Today, the celebrations known as Wianki include music, dancing, fireworks, boat parades and lighting bonfires.
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