There was a time in Poland when St. Valentine's Day was associated more with issues of health than with matters of the heart. In ancient Polish church tradition, St. Valentine was the patron saint of those individuals suffering from nervous problems, paraplegia and mental illness but this 3rd century saint was to have a special care for those suffering from epilepsy. The Polish word for epilepsy was padaczka, from the word padać, meaning, to fall down. The illness was called "choroba Św. Walentego," or St. Walentine's illness.
For a very long time feast day celebrations for St. Valentine in Poland were fairly common with special church processions that brought individuals, many on crutches, to church from the entire surrounding areas. An important part of the feast day were votive offerings of wax figures formed by hand in the shape of arms, hands, jaws. Some were made in the shape of a heart, but most importantly in the shape of a ball or circle. Some even resembled human form but this shape was discouraged by the church. The beeswax used to shape the figures was considered something noble and pure, as valuable as gold and in some situations an acceptable exchange for those precious ores. In the Middle Ages, beeswax was used to make candles for church altars and in making votive offerings of supplication and thanksgiving. In the 15th century people made and brought their own wax figures made of beeswax to church with the intention that the offerings would heal their affliction. This was especially true in the Kurpie region, a forested region well noted for its bees and beekeeping tradition and where the St. Valentine healing tradition held on for the longest time in the parish of Krzynowłodze Wielka.
Holding a lit candle and their votive offerings in the shape of their affliction in their hands, or held in place to their head with scarves (if designated to relieve headaches), the faithful processed around the altar of the church three times, touching the altar or gathering dust from the wood of the altar and rubbing it on the hurting part of their bodies - the lids of their eyes, teeth, ears, hands, legs. Mothers with sick children would rub the child they were carrying in their arms after touching the altar. Some individuals rubbed their entire body against the back of the altar. At the same time they would pray for health for themselves and for those closest to them: for a return to wellness; peaceful sleep for the nervous; for the constantly crying child; the cessation of continuous headaches and buzzing in the head; and most importantly, relief from epilepsy. The votives brought by the individuals were left with the church. It was their offering, their votive offering, in the hopes that their request for health would be granted.
In later years, when people no longer kept their own bees and were unable to make their own wax votive offerings, the church - usually a church warden - began making them and lent them to individuals for use during services in exchange for a small fee or even a small food gift, such as a few eggs. The wax votive was always returned at the conclusion of the services. It remained an offering, an appeal to have their prayer answered.
By the 1800's the custom began dying out and by 1945 it remained chiefly in the church of Krzynowłodze Wielka in the Kurpie Region which had gained a reputation of helping individuals regain their health.
Up until a few years ago there was a small film on You Tube that depicted this very old custom from the church at Krznowłodze Wielki but sadly, that too has disappeared. There is little left to remind us that St. Valentine once had another purpose in the lives of the people of Poland.
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.