In Poland festivals called Dożynki were celebrated as early as the 16th century. Traditionally, farmers would celebrate the year’s labour with a holiday, after the crops (mainly grain) had been harvested. Land Owners would organise festivals to reward their labourers and to celebrate bountiful crops. The festivals usually involved eating, drinking, dancing and other forms of merriment.
There were old pagan elements included in the celebrations, including traces of ancient rituals and sacrifices made to fertility deities. One of these ritual practices was connected with the last handful of uncut grain. It would be left on the field for some time after the harvest to retain continuity and fertility of future crops. Eventually it would be reaped in a very solemn manner by the finest harvester and passed over to the most efficient of the women for processing.
Harvest celebration began with the weaving of a wreath in the form of a crown from the grain left on the field and decorated with bunches of rowan berries, nuts, flowers and ribbons. Farmers also put live or artificial chickens, ducklings or goslings into their wreaths to provide for future abundant crops and healthy offspring.
A procession was formed with the wreath being carried by the finest female reaper followed by rest of the solemnly dressed harvesters some carrying flowers, other scythes and sickles on their shoulders. The wreath was taken into the church to be blessed before the procession moved on to the host of the harvest festival manor house. Harvesters sang about the hardships of their work, wished for future crops to be plentiful and the hope of fun and treats to come. The harvest wreath was kept in a barn until the next sowing.
The festivals traditions are several centuries old and little has changed. It is still a celebration of the farmers’ work and at the same time it has also become a religious festival, a thanksgiving to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary for the successful harvest of the crops.
Sadly as times change, this tradition fell by the wayside but in 1980 the harvest festival tradition was restored. Once again colourful processions are being organised and wreaths are being placed in churches.
The most popular is the pilgrimage to Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, the place of Holy Mary. This has become the largest Polish harvest festival and pilgrimage. Thousands of people and delegations of farmers from all over Poland participate in the celebration. People dress in traditional costume, carrying beautiful wreaths and loaves of bread baked from the flour from the current harvest. Apart from its religious aspect, it is also a time for fun, singing, dancing, for eating and for drinking. It is still an important part of Polish folklore, bringing the past to the present and consolidating the old with the new and thriving in an atmosphere of optimism and joy.