polish greetings

Polish Traditions: Kupala Night

Mixing Pagan & Christian and Polish Traditions

As in many other European countries, in Poland the arrival of summer is celebrated on St John’s Day. On the night of 21-22 June, the summer solstice, the ancient Slavs celebrated Kupala Night, a festival of vitality and fertility. After being taken over by Christianity, the festival was called Midsummer Night, which – in a modified form – is still celebrated today.

What is the Kupala Night?

The common origin of this holiday is not known. There are many theories. Some say it was named after the sun god Kupala. Other theories say that from the Russian word for bath, which the Christians used to refer to the rites of Saint John the Baptist.
Kupala Night is primarily dedicated to the elements of water and fire, which have purifying powers. It is also a celebration of love, fertility, the sun and the moon. In Lithuania, there is a song (“The Moon married the Sun”), which tells how, on the first spring after the creation of the world, the Moon married the Sun. However, when the Sun, after a sleepless wedding night, got up and rose above the horizon, the Moon left it and cheated on it with the Dawn. Since then, the two celestial bodies have been enemies, constantly fighting and competing with each other – most notably during the summer solstice, when the night is at its shortest and the day at its longest.

A festival of love in June in Poland?

Much more than Valentine’s Day, which is widely held to be a dubious cultural borrowing, Kupala Night symbolises love in Poland. The night of Kupala was a chance to win a sweetheart. The young women wove garlands of flowers and magic herbs, attached burning bows to them and, in a collective ceremony with singing and dancing, entrusted the garlands to the waters of rivers and streams. Below, the boys waited, who – either in secret agreement with the girls or counting on luck – tried to catch the garlands. Anyone who succeeded would return to the celebrating bunch to identify the owner of the caught catch. In this way, the matched youngsters were able to pair off without offending custom and without being exposed to malicious comments or ridicule. On that night, they were even allowed to move away from the community together and walk alone in the forest.
On the night of Kupala, various divinations, very often connected with love, were also performed to help find out the future.

Customs and Traditions

The festivities began on the eve of the summer solstice (20 June) and lasted for four days. Fires lit with two pieces of wood were built on the hills to strengthen the participants in the rituals and to ensure fertility for the fields and animals. Around the fires, people danced and sang; jumping over the fire cleansed and protected from bad energy.
In some regions it was believed that until the Kupala festival one could not bathe in rivers, streams or lakes during the day, while bathing after dark or before sunrise cured various ailments, as water was then a healing element belonging to the moon.
The festival was so deeply rooted in the traditions of the Slavs that the church authorities incorporated the pagan custom into the Christian calendar – Kupala Night is today known as Midsummer Night (celebrations take place on St John’s Day, 24 June).

What does Midsummer Night’s Eve look like now?

Nowadays, the customs associated with Kupala Night and Midsummer Night are increasingly being ‘dusted off’ during various events organised in cities, towns and villages, but they have lost their original magical meaning and are simply an opportunity to have fun. It is still believed that the first bathing in lakes or rivers should take place after St John’s Day, i.e., after 24 June.

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