The biggest annual farmers’ holiday is celebrated as the crowning achievement of their labour and held after all important field work has ended, and crops, especially grain crops, have been gathered.
It was celebrated in Poland probably as early as the 16th century. In Polish the fest is called “Dożynki.” Polish land proprietors organised harvest festivals for their labourers. It was connected with dancing, eating and was kind of a prize for a good performance of their harvest job. The harvest was a reward for the farmer’s efforts. Human existence depended to a great extent on the quantity and quality of the crops gathered.
There were also old, archaic and pagan elements present in harvest celebrations which are nowadays explained as traces of ancient rituals and sacrifices made to fertility deities. Among the rituals there were practices and habits e.g. connected with the last handful of uncut grain. It was left on the field for some time after the harvest to retain continuity of grain vegetation and fertility. It was reaped in a very solemn way by the best harvester and then passed over to the most efficient of woman harvesters.
Harvest celebration began with weaving of a wreath of the grain left on the field, bunches of rowan berries, nuts, flowers and ribbons. Harvest wreaths were usually in the shape of a crown or a circle. In the past farmers also put live (or artificial) chickens, ducklings or goslings into their wreaths to provide for future abundant crops and healthy offspring. The wreath was carried by the best woman reaper with the help of other labourers. They led the procession of solemnly dressed harvesters carrying the cleaned and decorated wreath, with flowers, scythes and sickles on their shoulders. Then the wreath was taken into the church to be blessed and the procession set off for the mansion house of the estate or the household of the field’s proprietor – the host of the harvest festival. Harvesters sang about hardship of their work, about crops and concern for future harvests as well as about wishes for good crops and hope for fun and the treats they deserved. The harvest wreath was kept in a barn until the next sowing.
As we can see, the Polish harvest festival habits are several centuries old and little has changed. It is still a festival of farmers’ work and at the same time it has also become a religious festival and thanksgiving to God and Blessed Virgin Mary for successful harvest and crops gathered. After 1980 parish harvest festival tradition was restored. Colourful processions with wreaths being placed in churches along with other crops of the soil are still organised. Farmers’ pilgrimages to the places of worship have become a new tradition.
The most popular is the pilgrimage to Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, the place of Holy Mary. It is the place of the most celebrated and the biggest Polish harvest festival and pilgrimage. Plenty of people and delegations of farmers from all over Poland participate in the celebration. Everybody is dressed in traditional costume, carrying beautiful wreaths and loaves of bread baked from the present harvest flour. Apart from its religious aspect, it is also a time for joy, for fun, dancing and singing, for eating and 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.