A long, long time ago in Poland there was a shrub that was considered to be magical and secretive. It was often seen at burial and internment sites. Bouquets were made of it and placed on graves and tombs. It protected the living from powerful spirits looking to do wrong and also gave peace to the deceased.
Besides Poland, European bladdernut (Staphylea pinnata), was also a familiar shrub among other ancient Slavs, Celts and Germanic tribes. The Polish name for it, kłokoczka, is derived from word klekotania, from the characteristic klek, klek noise made from the seed pods of the plant rattling in the wind, the sound of which in those early pagan years was connected with frightening away evil powers. This feature caused it to be planted on burial graves and mounds, a place always connected with the spirit world. It was believed to protect against evil powers, vampires, demons, water spirits. It was also used during exorcisms, magical practices and occultism.
The meaning and practices associated with bladdernut changed considerably with the influence of the church and the growth of Christianity but many of the very early pagan beliefs remained alive in the form of folk customs and traditions. The shrub, seen growing near a home or a within the boundaries of a farmyard, guaranteeing the absence of dangerous spirits, remained in folk belief for a very long time but also became intermingled with the new Christian faith.
The shrub became known as a holy shrub. Christians began to carve religious figures out of the thicker branches to adorn churches and roadside shrines. The branches with leaves and flowers were was added to Easter palms and became part of the wreathes made on the feast of Corpus Christi. Bouquets of bladdernut were also brought to church Our Lady of the Herbs(Feast of Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary-August 15) to be blessed. The blessed and dried plant was scattered on fields of growing crops to ensure the harvest and protect the land from natural disasters.
Crosses carved from branches of bladdernut were nailed above the door of a home or inserted at the various corners of fields. These were generally made before Easter and the crosses nailed near the door of the house after the Resurrection mass. These customs existed in the regions around Kraków, Rzeszów and Low Beskid (Beskid Niski) region. The thicker branches were crafted into pipes, recorders, cigarette holders and wooden plungers for butter churns, believing that plungers made out of bladdernut made good butter. The Hucul (western Ukraine and Romania) maidens made bracelets and necklaces out of it. Oil was produced from the seeds and used in primitive lighting devices to illuminate a room. It's most important use, however, came from the clusters of drooping white flowers that developed into bladder-like pods that held shiny brown seeds. A hole was made on two sides of the roundish seeds and threaded together with thin wire or twine to make rosaries. Hence, it's other name, kłokoczka paciorkowa, i.e., bladdernut, the rosary plant. The shrub was cultivated in monastery gardens where monks made rosaries for personal and public use, and where the leaves were burnt as a form of incense.
The rosary shrub is found in southern and eastern Poland as well as in Slovakia. It likes shady places among clumps of trees. It flowers from May to June and can grow 15 feet high and taller. It is currently on the list of protected plant species in Poland. It can be bought in various nurseries in the U.S. and UK.
More details about the feast of Corpus Christi or the Feast of Our Lady of the Herbs can be found in my book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore.
In the early years, a Polish country cottage could not boast of having a such a luxury as a window. This was something available to castles and palaces already in the 14th century in Poland but humble cottages had to wait until the 18th century, before glass and a window became the "eye" of the house to the street. The window was mostly located at the front of the house, on the gable end, facing the street and the earliest form of window decorations were the decorative exterior shutters on either side of the window. They were either carved in some interesting manner or painted. The next major form of decorating the windows in the peasant's cottage were clay pots blooming with flowers, predominantly, geraniums.
I haven't been able to locate a documented source of what one particular event led to the making of lacey, white tissue paper valances that became the norm for most humble Polish cottage windows. Perhaps it was the sight of true Venetian lace by a servant that gave such servant the inspiration to copy it on something cheap and available such as white tissue paper. Some Polish folk art historians indicate that the paper curtains were another form of wycinanki, the folk art of cutting on paper.
It is documented, however, by Polish folk historian Jan Dekowski, that tissue paper valances appeared in the village of Jasień, near Rawa Mazowiecki around 1910 and lasted right up until 1958. The rectangular valances were made from white tissue paper with the use of sheep shears to cut notches and circles to create a lacy effect. In this region the valance was made of two or three parts, depending on the available paper. Each part was made separately and then joined together using glue or thread. In other areas, such as Kurpie and Łowicz regions, the tissue paper was folded accordion style to fit the width of the window and then cut to achieve the desired effect. The curtains were hung on a string, a painted strip of thin wood or a rough rod whittled from a tree branch. There were also curtains just for the upper corners made from tissue paper folded into triangles. This look was something like two open fans in the top corners of the window.
In the Podlasie region, rectangular paper cutout curtains also became popular after the first World War. They decorated not only windows, but also shelves on sideboards and the frames of holy paintings.(see March 2019 blog))
In addition to sheep shears, knives were used to make them. Skillful hands could cut them into complex plant-geometric or animal shapes. Another technique was to use a chisel with different blade shapes.
Paper curtains were eventually replaced by curtains made of thread. The first curtains made of thread were made from flax, spun into a linen thread. These resembled something close to fishing nets. The even-spaced woven net was then stretched onto a frame of some kind and a design such as roses or branches with leaves were filled in using a single needle. You can see this interesting technique here
These types of curtains made of thread became widespread in the Polish countryside in the 1930s and were popular primarily in Greater Poland, Mazowsze and Silesia, where to this day stories still circulate about the time-consuming starching and stretching of curtains made of linen thread. A special frame with dozens of nails nailed to wooden slats served for their stretching. Thanks to this treatment, the fabric, which would shrink and change shape during washing, was returned to its original form. ( I so remember my mother using these curtain stretchers when I was growing up here in the United States. Each spring, in preparation for Easter, my mother would take down the heavy winter drapes and replace them with white lace, cotton curtains, heavily starched and stretched out on the stretchers. They took up the whole front room). These type of thread curtains disappeared when nylon was discovered and began to be used to make curtains which became readily available in local shops.
Everything changes but we can still admire the lengths our ancestors (and our mothers and grandmothers) went to beautify their homes with the means available at the time.
When I travel through Poland, especially the small towns and villages, I don't see paper curtains in the windows except for the cottages in the skansens, the restored villages that depict life in previous centuries. What I do notice is that house after house, today's Polish housewives still prefer to hang white, lacey curtains in their windows.
Photos by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Dekowski, Jan. Wnętrze Chaty Jasieńskie.j Pracy i Materialy Muzeum Archeologicznego i Etnograficznego #2 1958
It's interesting to read how spring cleaning, now pretty much considered an antiquated ritual, was at one time an important aspect of life in Poland as part of the preparation for Easter.
The impending arrival of spring and Easter Sunday, both rich with the meaning of rebirth and renewal, also meant that it was time to refresh and renew the interior of their cottages. The walls, darkened with soot and smoke from wood fires and kerosene lamps, were whitewashed, windows were cleaned and holy pictures redecorated, the latter chiefly done by the women of the house.
Pictures on walls, specifically, holy pictures, in a Polish country cottage became more commonplace towards the end of the 19th century. By the time of World War I, a country cottage could boast a least a few holy pictures and many more than that, depending on finances. They were bought on pilgrimage or church feast days or from itinerant peddlers who made the rounds of villages. The pictures were hung near the ceiling in a row on the wall opposite the entryway.
They were secured to the wall with the help of a piece of wood that ran along the length wall at ceiling level that would cause the top of the picture to tilt forward into the room. If that wall ran out of room to accommodate all the pictures, the remainder were hung on the nearby wall with a window.
By the late 1930's, there was an increased tendency to place the holy pictures not so much in a row but in a more radom fashion. If, for instance, a family owned two large pictures, one was hung above the headboard of the bed(usually located in a corner against the wall) with the other one on the next wall at the same height. Smaller holy pictures were placed at the sides of both pictures..(Sierpc photo)
Some images were decorated with chains made from a combination of crepe paper and straw or ribbons and used as garlands below the picture, attached three quarters or halfway down the frame and fastened to the side of the frame with flowers or to the wall.
For the people living at the juncture of the Wisła and San rivers, known as Lasowiacy, the larger and most cherished religious pictures during high holy days were decorated in a variety of ways. Interestingly enough, in this region spruce and fir branches were used chiefly for Easter and less so during the Christmas season. The branches were tucked behind the holy pictures, nailed around them or between them.
The holy pictures were also decorated with artificial flowers, and not just in this small region of Poland, but throughout all of southern Poland. Folk art historians claim that artificial flowers made an appearance in country cottages right around the same time as wycinanki, colorful paper cut outs, due to the arrival of glossy colored paper in the 1850's. The flowers were made from a combination of stiff paper as well as crepe paper, a commodity readily available by the 18th and 19th century.
The flowers themselves were made from the softer, more malleable crepe paper, and attached to thin branches covered with green crepe paper. The stiff paper was used to made into green leaves. The most frequent types of flowers made by the Lasowiacy were roses, chrysanthemums and the tiny, daisy-like flowers of chamomile.
Other regions made poppies, daisies, bluebottle, forget-me-nots and cornflower (bachelor's button). The flowers were then attached to the frames in a variety of ways, either around or under the pictures.
Some images were decorated with chains made from a combination of crepe paper and straw or ribbons and used as garlands below the picture, attached three quarters or halfway down the frame and fastened to the side of the frame with flowers or to the wall. The following photos depict the variety of ways the Lasowiacy decorated their holy pictures.
. As can be seen by the illustration to the left curtains made from tissue paper in white, rose, yellow or light blue colors were made to decorate the holy pictures. The paper curtain was glued to the top and half way along the length of the picture a thin ribbon was used to pull back the paper curtain as one would on a window curtain and paper flowers added.
In remote villages, colorful paper and tissue flowers were used by the women folk of Poland for a long time to beautify their home at Easter. When artificial flowers, both silk and plastic, readily became available in the marketplace, they began to replace the labor intensive method of making their own. The age-old art form was almost lost but if You Tube is any indication, it seems to be making a revival in Poland.
I've always loved red poppies as a flower and used silk ones to decorate my image of Our Lady of Częstochowa found at the top of the blog
Photos by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab at skansens in Łowicz and Sierpc in Poland.
Next blog: Decorating Interior of Polish County Cottage Part 2 Paper curtains
Aleksander Jackowski, Polska Sztuka Ludowa. Warsawa 2002.
Zdobnictwo Wnętrz Wiejskich na Terenie Wideł Wisły i Dolnego Sanu. Polska Sztuka Ludowa. 1973 XXVII nr.3 (illustrations)
This is another entry from the month of February from the diary of Marianna Malinowska Jasiecka Marianna in the years 1890-1914 compiled by Janina Fedorowicz and Joanna Konopinska. It describes the custom of women getting together during the long, cold (and often tedious) winter nights to strip feathers. The women got together at each other's homes to help each other strip the down off the quill of feathers obtained from ducks, geese and chickens in order to make pillows and comforters. Done alone, it was an onerous task. Done together it was a social event lightened with talk, music and food. These get-togethers lasted only until the beginning of Lent when all such social activities ended.
Polwica, February 1895
Besides the domestic help, a few women and girls from the manor farm and from the village have come to strip feathers. Sometimes there's twenty people who gather together. The feathers from ducks and geese and the better feathers from chickens are stored in white bags in the attic. We've brought them down to the room designated for stripping and so as not to mix the different types of feathers, the contents of each bag is placed on separate tables. The best down is obtained from geese and these are later made into pillows. The kołdry and pierzyny (feather quilts) are made from mixed down. The feathers that aren't stripped that is, the worst ones mixed with chicken feathers are cut with scissors instead and made into spodków----or as some call it, a feather bed, which is placed on the mattress to make it soft and warm. Recently I've been hearing some talk that sleeping on feather beds is not healthy. Even my girls refused to sleep on the feather bed the last time they were home during winter recess saying that nobody slept on them at school. I can see I'm old fashioned since I sleep on a feather bed from November to April. Michael does the same.
Stripping feathers generally starts in country cottages right after the feast of Three Kings and lasts until the middle of February. Here it will probably last till the end of the month. After supper, around 7pm the women start arriving and take seats on long benches and work until 9 or 10 in the evening while at the same time sharing news, gossip from the entire neighborhood and even legends. One of the favored themes are tales about unusual happenings, about spirits. It happens at times that some of the local young men stop by to see the girls and play on the harmonic or fiddle, everyone sings and its very merry...these evenings have a charm all their own. Outside it is cold and snowing, a frequent storm and darkness with the wind howling beyond the windows and we sit in warmth with kerosene lamps lighting the interior and the roll of pleasant conversation. At the end of the work, Bejmowa(servant) brings out coffee made from grain with milk and large chunks of freshly baked sweet bread and offers it to everyone.
Stripping feathers is a bit of a fashion show. On such a night the girls and younger women dress up to show each other their clothes, explain how to embroider a particular motif for an apron or ruffle, how to crochet a scarf or trim stockings that are knitted from wool. I always wonder when they have time to crochet and embroider. The country woman is always overburdened with work in the house and field, has a passle of children. Where does she find the time for something like hand work. But the women manage to do so and often very nicely. Mama encourages the girls to knit, believing that it is an indispensible skill in the life of even the most well to do women. So even small Jadzia knows how to make wool socks and knows some basic crochet work.
I have loved reading diaries since I was in elementary school. I still read children's diaries, teen and adult ones and I especially enjoy diaries kept by Polish women.
The book "Marianna i Róże" (Marianna and Roses) was written by a female descendant of Marianna Malinowska Jasiecka. It is based on a compilation of family documents, historical facts and the contents of a diary kept by Marianna Malinowska Jasiecka that was found in an old chest.
The diary begins in April of 1892 at a time when Poland was partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria and Poland as a country ceased to exist on the maps of Europe. Marianna was considered gentry, married to a man with a significant amount of property, had servants and enough free time to keep a diary. She lived in a manor house in Polwica in Wielkopolska(Greater Poland). Her entries are filled with her day-to-day life as wife and mother, her family history and genealogy, what life was like under Prussian rule but also includes the yearly customs and traditions of the times. Here is an excerpt for Candlemas, celebrated on February 2.
Polwica, February 1895
In the morning we went to our parish church in Śniecisk. Everyone had a large blessed candle called a gromnica, decorated with a white ribbon and a sprig of myrtle (author note:myrtus communis). The "gromnica" or blessed candle is lit when expecting the priest to come "na kolęda"( author note:Christmas visit by the parish priest) or to visit the sick as well as during a storm and definitely when someone was dying or next to the already deceased individual. There still exists among the village people a superstition that if someone manages to bring their lit candle from church to their home, then no one from that family will die that year. As a result everyone tries to get home with their candle still lit. Depending on the weather, it's not always easy. It's amusing how people walking along the road are protecting the faint glimmers of light with their scarves or coat so it doesn't go out. The candles are kept near holy pictures or, as is with us, in special candleholders. The candle is lit during storms to distance away the thunder and placed in the hands of the dying so that they can have an easy death and can more easily find the gates of heaven by the light of the blessed candle. That is why the holy day is cherished and solemnly observed.
My next blog will share another entry from Marianna's diary depicting the stripping of feathers for making pillows and a pierzyna (down quilt).
Google photo/ Young Polish girls with their gromnica (thunder candle) Date unknown.
The Feast of Three Kings (January 6) was at one time called Małe Boze Narodzenia, i.e., Little Christmas, in Poland because gifts were often given to children on this day in honor of the Three Kings who brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Infant Jesus. The Feast Day was a very popular motif in Polish paintings, sculpture, stained glass and folk art.
This first image is by Polish artist Teodor Baltazar Stachowicz(1800-1873) titled Pokłon Trzech Króli - Adoration of the Magi (circa 1820's). The artist himself was born on the feast day.
This bas-relief shown below originally comes from the well known St. Mary's Church(Kosciół Mariacki) in Kraków and is dated to the years 1460-1470. It comes from the workshop of Jakub of Sącz, also known as the Master of the Holy Trinity Triptych. After being located in various churches in Kraków it finally found a permanent home at the Archdiocesan Museum in the name of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła also in Kraków.
Artist Józef Mehoffer(1869-1946) practiced a variety of arts, but excelled in stained glass windows that can be found in structures throughout Kraków. He found international acclaim for designing the 13 stained glass windows of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Fribourg, Switzerland. The work took 40 years to complete and is now felt to be the most important collection of religious Art Nouveau in stained-glass windows. Among the 13 windows is the Homage of the Thee Kings.
Decorative paper cutting in Poland is called wycinanki, meaning "cutting out" and was widespread as a peasant craft in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The paper cuttings were often used to adorn the interior walls and ceiling beams of peasant cottages. The various types of cutouts and the subject matter can range from birds and animals to country and religious scenes. Here is a beautiful example of a tribute to the Three Kings from the Kurpie region of Poland.
A Polish proverb for the Feast of Three Kings:
" W święto Trzech Króli człek się w kożuch tuli"
On the feast of Three Kings man cuddles in his sheepskin coat.
The sharing of the oplatek on Christmas Eve is the most cherished of all Polish Christmas customs. On the eve of Christ's birth, gathered together at the table where they are about to share the evening meal, the people of Poland and their descendants scattered all over the world, first offer each other a thin piece of unleavened bread called opłatek and give each other the gift of spoken words. The custom predates Christmas trees and the presents found beneath it by centuries. Instead, bread is shared and the words said are a gift in verbal form.
And because the words said to one another at the time of sharing the oplatek are a gift, just as we would spend time searching the store for that perfect thing, so should we try to say the best possible words for that person: words of encouragement or praise about their current life or about their future goals or intentions; words of love and caring; words of reconciliation and forgiveness; words that the person can tuck in their hearts and keep there for a long time afterward. All it requires to bestow this gift is to give some careful thought to what we say.
At some social gatherings, it's happened that we find ourselves exchanging the opłatek with someone we don't know very well or not at all, but it is still an opportunity to gift another person with our words.
In the spirit of sharing opłatek I'd like to offer my word gift: May you prosper in all ways: spiritually, intellectually, creatively, materially; may whatever quest you are engaged in meet with success: may you and yours remain or return to good health:
Niech czas Bożego Narodzenia upłynie w atmosfersze radośći i miłosci, a Nowy Rok spełni wszystkie marzenie
May the Christmas season pass in an atmosphere of happiness and love and the New Year fulfill all your dreams.
Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia i szczęsliwego Nowego Roku.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Feast of St. Lucy: Św. Łucji December 13.
During the ancient times of the Julian calendar, December 13 was celebrated as the winter solstice, the official beginning of winter, marked by being the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year. From then on, the days slowly become longer and the nights shorter. In 1582, when Pope Gregory the XIII changed the calendar to what we now know as the Gregorian calendar, the date of the winter solstice was changed to December 23.
In today's times we recognize December 13 as the feast of St. Lucy, a third century martyr, who dedicated her virginity to God and died a terrible death when she refused to marry. Remnants of the old Julian calendar still remain in some old Polish proverbs, passed on orally through the generations, as in :
" Swięta Łucja dnia przyrzuca. "The day(light) arrives with St. Lucy.
"Święto Łuci noc króci." St. Lucy shortens the night.
Perhaps the ancient celebration of the return of longer days, of light and increased sun, critical for bringing life back to trees and plants necessary for life accounts for this particular Polish custom:
On the day before the feast of St. Lucy, the girls place a branch of a cherry tree in a bottle filled with water and keep it in the window up to Christmas day. If the branch is covered in blossoms by this day, she will shortly marry. If not, she will remain single for a while yet.( Stanislaw Ciszewski. Lud Rolniczo-górniczy z okolic Sławkowa Powiecie Olkuskim. Kraków.1887) For others not looking for marriage prognostications, the blooms signify good luck and prosperity.
The success and failure of crops were (and still are!) so weather dependent that the day was also used to foretell future weather such as in the proverb:
"Święta Łucja głosi, jaką pogodę styczeń przynosi." St. Lucy announces what the weather will be in January.
The twelve days, beginning with the Feast of St. Lucy on December 13 until December 24, were carefully noted for each of those twelve days predicted what the weather will be throughout the upcoming twelve months of the year.
The feast day also officially marked the beginning of preparation for Christmas in earnest.
Today, December 2nd, marks the beginning of Advent season for 2019. In Polish tradition there is a beautiful custom surrounding Advent called roraty. It is a special early morning mass, before daybreak, devoted specifically to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The special name for this mass comes from the Introit, the opening antifon or Latin chant, Rorate Coeli, at the beginning of the mass. It was the prayer of the prophet Isaiah(45:8) begging the Lord for the arrival of a Savior.
The mass is said before dawn, in the dark, as a symbol that the world was in darkness until the arrival of Jesus as Light of the World. A special feature of the mass is the lighting of a special candle decorated with a white or blue ribbon, the colors associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Gwiazda Zaranna, the Morning Star. Traditionally the liturgy began in the dark, the faithful often coming with their own candles to light their way.
In this day and age, when many do not have access to churches that still offer this mass, the faithful can still have their own rorata, their own candle that is lit each morning before dawn. It can be their own time of thoughtfulness, reflection and quiet prayer during the Advent season while listening to Rorate coeli the Latin chant that opens the mass.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.