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FEATURE | AUGUST 2015

 

Celebrating the Polish Harvest

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The celebration of the harvest or dożynki in Poland dates back to ancient pre-Christian times when Slavic tribes celebrated the fertility and abundance of the earth with special harvest festivities. Throughout Polish history, dożynki has been the time to express gratitude for the abundance of the harvest and appreciation for the labor and toil that brought it from the fertile earth.

by Dave Motak

Since I was a child, I had always wanted to attend an authentic dożynki — Polish harvest festival. When I was living in Poland during my younger years I never was able. So, last year, I decided to organize a cultural tour to Poland to coincide with the National Harvest Festival hosted by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski in the resort town of Spała, west of Warsaw. Having produced numerous cultural tours to Poland, I was surprised to find that no one has ever offered a tour that featured this colorful national folk event, so I did my research and, working with Chopin Tours from Toronto, Jack Samuels and I produced the Polish Harvest Tour last September.

Our itinerary focused on eastern and southern Poland with stops in Warsaw, Lublin, Zamość, Sanok, Zakopane and Kraków, a stay at the magnificent Renaissance palace of the Kraciski family in Krasiczyn, as well as a day trip to the picturesque city of Lwów in western Ukraine. There were 25 people in our group, including several members of the Polish Cultural Council. For the “grande finale” of our cultural excursion, we made arrangements for our group to stay at the beautifully restored Odrowązów Palace and Resort Spa in Chlewiska, in central Poland. Odrowązów was restored as an initiative of the Mazowsze Provincial government and is one of the most luxurious resorts in Poland.

The celebration of the harvest or dożynki in Poland dates back to ancient pre-Christian times when Slavic tribes celebrated the fertility and abundance of the earth with special harvest festivities. Throughout Polish history, dożynki has been the time to express gratitude for the abundance of the harvest and appreciation for the labor and toil that brought it from the fertile earth. Traditionally, the lord of the manor would welcome his villagers to his home for a harvest celebration that would include Mass, feasting and merriment. It was customary for the local farmers to present their lord with a large loaf of bread which he would reverently kiss. The farmers would also create a large ornate wieniec or crown incorporating a variety of grains, flowers, nuts, fruits, and adorned with colored paper or ribbon. Still made today, these structures are immense, often 10 feet or more in height, are carried during processions and are blessed during the harvest mass. Sections of these creations are then stored in barns over the winter. In an effort to ensure fertility and abundance, pieces of the grain from the previous year’s wieniec are incorporated with the fresh grain that is planted in the spring. Even though dożynki is today a Christian tradition, it is still common practice to place a large stone slab in the bottom of the wieniec, which replicates the stone altars used by our pagan Slav forefathers.

The Dożynki Prezydenckie (Presidential Harvest Festival) was established 80 years ago as a national event hosted by the first President of Poland Ignacy Mościcki at his presidential retreat in Spała from 1927 to 1938. This was the first time that delegations from villages and provinces throughout Poland came together to celebrate the harvest; prior to that time it was more of a local or regional event. During the communist era, when the communist party used folk art and culture to promote its political agenda, the national dożynki festival was moved to a large stadium in Warsaw and assumed a very political nature. Instead of the celebration of mass, communist officials presided over a heavily orchestrated ceremonial reception of delegations from various parts of rural Poland. After the return of democracy to Poland, dożynki was moved back to Spała, reassuming its original, more homespun character.

As I am a member of an international committee established by the Polish Parliament (Sejm), I was fortunate to secure personal printed invitations from President and Mrs. Komorowski for each person on our tour to be their special guests at the Dożynki National Harvest Festival. The morning of the festival, our group traveled to Spała aboard a vintage steam locomotive. There were numerous representative groups from every region of Poland, each dressed in their local folk attire. An outdoor mass, attended by President and Mrs. Komorowski and members of the Polish government, began the day’s activities. To enter the VIP section, which is where our group’s seats were reserved, we had to pass extensive security screening, much like at major airports. With the international situation with Russia a constant worry, the Poles were taking no chances. There were also police and secret service everywhere.

The presence of security did not hamper the festive nature of the event, however. There were hundreds of people dressed in colorful costumes and displays of folk crafts and regional foods. After the mass, a parade proceeded through the streets of Spała comprised of many quaint horse-drawn carriages, marching bands and colorful folk groups, each carrying (or pulling) a large wieniec constructed from the fruits of their labor. An honor guard of ułani, or Polish Calvary on horseback escorted the presidential couple in their carriage, which presented a scene reminiscent of old Poland. The dożynki events included the presentation of the traditional large loaf of harvest bread to President Komorowski who ceremonially kissed it. This was followed by speeches by members of the Polish government as well as performances from various folk ensembles, including the Łany Student Ensemble of the Poznań University of Life Sciences. The various wieniec creations were also brought to the stage by delegations dressed in regional folk attire. President Komorowski’s staff thought of everything and were perfect hosts. In addition to being offered beverages, when the clouds above threatened rain, they distributed “Presidential Umbrellas” to our group. Although not needed, these were wonderful souvenirs of the event. After the ceremony our group was invited to attend a special private reception hosted by President and Mrs. Komorowski.

Participating in this event helped us appreciate the abundance of the Polish harvest, to witness first-hand how our Polish heritage is kept alive through the colorful traditions and ceremonies of our ancestors, and to take pride in how Poland has now become a progressive and prosperous nation.

For more photos of our dożynki experience, please visit www.janddtours.net.

 

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