Monday, March 26, 2012

Palm Sunday in a country with no palms

87/365: Palm Sunday
I thought about posting a tutorial, but it would take all year.

In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday is the last Sunday before Easter. It commemorates the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and people greeted him by waving palm fronds and crying out 'Hosanna!'. A remembrance of that day is still practiced in most Christian faiths by bringing palm fronds to houses of worship.

But there is a slight problem. We do not have palm trees in Poland.

We do, however, have extremely rich folk traditions which date back to pre-Christian times, and which have largely survived in the Catholic custom. Such a tradition has evolved from the colourful Slavic decoration of twigs and branches in anticipation of Spring to the Christian weaving of palms.

Traditional Kurpian Palms
Łyse, in the Kurpie region.

Two places are particularly well worth visiting in Poland for Palm Sunday: the village of Łyse in the Northeastern region of Kurpie, and the village of Lipnica Murowana, just Southwest of Cracow.

Only there will you find such elaborate palms made out of crepe paper and dried flowers, so tall that they cannot be carried upright.

Łyse, in the Green Kurpie

The village of Łyse holds a contest for the tallest and most beautiful palm. People from all over the region work hard for the fourty days of Lent to make their entries.

Palm Sunday
Contest-winning palms set up around the old church in Łyse.

The day begins with a mass and a procession and is then occasion for a market where the locals sell their handmade wares- palms, painted eggs, lacework, pottery, carvings, as well as regional food such as honey, bread, meats and beer.

Kurpian woman
You can buy handmade palms and little dough goats and deer. For luck.

Palms and forest
Łyse is in the Green Kurpie Forest, a lovely area.

Selling palms by the road

But be not mistaken. These palms are not only a testament to the rich folklore of Kurpie, but also a sign of religious devotion. Palm Sunday does not mark the beginning of a feast, nor is it a festival, but is the first day of the week in which the Christian God was killed by the very people who first greeted him with such joy. These amazing palms are first and foremost an offering to Jesus and a hope that believers may be strong enough not to betray him again and again as his first followers did, and modern Christians have no doubt done many times in their lives.

Biking to church

Lipnica Murowana, Lesser Poland

A slightly different type of palm can be found in Lipnica Murowana, a small village in the southern mountains. They are less stocky than Kurpian palms, with different patterns, and show more green twigs, boxwood and dried flowers than their northern counterparts. And most of all, they are much, much taller.

107/365: Palm Sunday in Lipnica Murowana
These are the short ones.

Here comes the Palm
This is the tall one.

Palm Sunday in Lipnica Murowana

Firemen and Palms

Everyone wants to see

Like Łyse, Lipnica Murowana has its procession, market, and festivities. And like Łyse, it holds its own contest for the best Palm Sunday palm.

There are several categories, but the one that has everyone biting their nails is the Contest for the Tallest Palm.

This gets VERY competitive. And there are rules that make it all extremely exciting. For starters, no nails or other metal elements can be used in making the palms- only wood, willow, reeds, green branches and paper flowers are allowed.

Raising the Palm

In the photo above, the second-tallest palm of 2011 is raised, with great care and caution.

Palm Sunday in Lipnica Murowana

Wires, ropes and lines from synthetic materials are also forbidden. In order to qualify in the contest, the palm has to stand upright without breaking, it has to be raised with no help from machines (hence the men in the trees guiding the lines, and those on the ground, pushing with special long forks), and the author must be able to wrap his hands around the trunk.

Raising the Palm in Lipnica Murowana

The palm in the photo above is the first prize winner of 2011, at 36.4 metres- that's almost 120 feet! I heard someone say the whole thing weighed about 600 lbs. It took about a dozen men half an hour to get it upright.

Palm Sunday

Here are some of the shorter palms, arranged around the statue of St. Szymon:

Palm Sunday in Lipnica Murowana

And for a height comparison, this is me with the palms I bought. They were made by local schoolchildren:

Me in Lipnica

As an aside and a link to pre-Christian Poland, to which we owe a great deal of these colourful customes, it's worth taking note of the little wooden gothic church of St. Leonard which stands in Lipnica by the Uszwica river. If you go inside and walk around behind the altar, you will find that it is suspended on a worn, wooden pillar.

St. Leonard's church in Lipnica Murowana

This pillar is supposedly a Slavic Pagan totem which once represented Svetovid, a four-faced god. Though the building as we see it now was built in the 15th century, the first church on this site was originally built in the early 12th century, in a Pagan holy grove. Instead of being destroyed, the sacred statue was used as a support for the altar. Poland had only been Christian for a few hundred years, and the old Slavic faith was still very much present. But here as everywhere, the new religion replaced the old one- albeit with an unusual amount of respect.

Pagan to Christian
The old religion and the new.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Drowning the Marzanna

Marzanna is an ancient pagan Slavic goddess, and one of her domains is Winter. On the vernal equinox which falls on March 21st, we make an effigy of her, set it on fire and then drown it in the river so that Spring will come.

80/365: The Marzanna
My Marzanna from last year

So, where does this tradition come from?

Slavic Pagans, of course.

Although Christianity in Poland has worked hard for the last thousand years to assimilate and conceal the multitude of wonderful pagan traditions within its Catholic celebrations, the drowning of the Marzanna persists despite many attempts to eradicate it. In fact it's traditional for pre-school children to make the effigy in class and then have a little field trip to drown her. Sometimes, older children will cut out paper numbers- symbolising their bad grades- and throw them in the water as well.

Your typical Marzanna should be made of straw, and dressed in white- or, as they do it in some regions, wound out of rags and wearing a colourful maiden's dress. The puppet would be paraded through the village so that she might draw out misery, hunger, sickness, and all the evils of the cold seasons out of every house. Once that duty was fulfilled, she would be set on fire and dropped into the water- and woe be unto those who looked back at her on their way home. Even torn to shreds, the goddess could still take vengeance with a curse.

The burning of Judas which was meant to replace it somehow never really caught on...and I am glad. Marzanna must die as the Winter cedes to Spring, but she will return next season to live again. Her burning is a symbol of the natural order, while tormenting a straw effigy of Judas only serves to translate guilt into angry righteousness.

Another ancient tradition would have us greet Jaryła, the god of Spring and fertility, with dances and rituals. Slavic religion persists in several modern-day faith groups, but so far my attempts to get in touch with them have been fruitless, so alas I can't give you an account of anything more authentic than the secularised drowning of Marzanna.

So. I haven't done this in a while, for lack of good company, but last year I found two friends who thought it was a great idea. We made our Marzanna from wood, rags and hay, so she should decompose well. The Ner river is pretty dirty already, but there was no need to contribute to the pollution.

Kasia, Piotrek, and Marzanna
Hello, Spring, goodbye, Winter!

Burning the Marzanna
You do have to set her on fire before you drown her.

As a bonus, here's a rather lovely video of the traditional drowning, shot last year by some Poles in...Glasgow. ;) Apparently they're doing it again this year, on March 25th. If you're in Glasgow, go join in the fun!

Meta information:

Wikipedia entry on Slavic Paganism:

COSMOPOLIS- the authors of the Drowning Marzanna video:

Literary source: Polskie Obrzędy i Zwyczaje, Dr. Barbara Ogrodowska