10 May 2020
Our ancestors’ lives followed the rhythm of family customs. We have been celebrating the Kraków Family Festival in recent years – let’s not forget the tradition this year!
May in Kraków belongs to families! Until now, we used to celebrate the Kraków Family Festival in the great outdoors with a picnic for kids and their parents. This year we are still having fun, but staying in our own homes. As part of the festivities, we are recalling the lives of local families around a century ago, and looking back at their customs which are slowly becoming forgotten.
Fortunately, their fascinating traditions were documented by Seweryn Udziela, ethnographer and populariser of folk culture of Małopolska, presented in the album Cracovians, first published in 1924. “The ordinary daily lives of all families are occasionally punctuated by events which break the mundanity and turn our minds elsewhere. […] Such events, which shake the family to the very core, are frequently marked by various rituals rooted in ancient traditions,” wrote the author. The most important were those that went beyond daily duties and responsibilities, and included christenings engagements, weddings. Some traditions have survived until the present day, but today they are practiced in simplified or different ways, while some have been entirely forgotten…
Birth and christening
It all started when a brand-new baby announced its arrival with a primal scream. Various events of the day were treated as omens of a sort, foretelling the future of the latest family member. As well as keeping a close eye on any such portents, families didn’t hesitate to intervene in them to ensure the best of luck for their offspring. Immediately after the birth, they hung herbs in the windows and placed sprigs under the new mother’s pillow to protect her baby against mischievous fairies. The baby was taken to be christened as soon as possible, since the baptism was seen as the best possible protection against evil. Parents were careful in their choice of godparents – after all the baby could “inherit” their personalities! The godmother made the baby’s christening gown herself to make sure their clothes lasted well in the future. Godparents offered their blessings and small sums of money, and threw coins into the baby’s first bath after the christening so that the child would never be short of money. The christening was followed by a feast for assorted family members, friends and neighbours, and great fun was had by all to ensure the child would have a happy and long life.
Young people usually met at church or at their work in the field. If both families were satisfied with the choice, the future groom and the matchmaker visited the girl’s family with a bottle of vodka and called to the father with songs. The village elder offered drinks to the girl’s parents and later to her herself – if she accepted the drink and handed the empty glass to the young man, it meant she accepted his proposal. The couple sat together at the table, and the elder tied their hands together with a kerchief over a loaf of bread, asking if they both agreed to be married. All this happened in the company of family and neighbours. Later in the evening, the young couple chose their groom and maid of honour, and decided on the order of the wedding ceremony.
The wedding was undoubtedly the greatest celebration in a family’s life. The event usually involved the couple’s extended families and the entire village. A few days before the main event, the homes of the bride and groom were bustling with all members of the household whitewashing walls, scrubbing floors, baking celebratory breads and cakes, roasting meats and preparing the wedding feast. On the eve of the wedding, grooms mounted horses decked with ribbons and bells and rode to the homes of the bridesmaids to extend an official invitation. At sunset, musicians assembled at the bride’s home and the entire company gathered there to celebrate with singing and dancing until the early hours.
On the day of the wedding, the bride was called on by her maids again, who helped her dress, combed her hair and braided it into plaits, which they pinned around her head or let fall down her back. They also placed a garland of fresh or dried flowers, decorated with ribbons, on her head. Finally, the bridegroom clad in his finery arrived with his grooms and guests. The couple knelt in front of the bride’s parents, who blessed them by marking the sign of the cross above their heads. The gesture was repeated by the bridegroom’s parents and other guests. The mother of the bride fed the young couple pieces of sugar and bread into which she’d pressed coins to ensure a sweet life with plenty of food and no shortage of money. She also sprinkled them with holy water. The village elder arranged the trip to the church: the first coach carried the musicians, the second the young couple with their grooms and maids, with the parents and other guests following behind, singing joyful songs along the way. The bride was led into the church by the grooms, and the bridegroom by the bridesmaids. The couple raced each other to the altar, each hoping to get the upper hand as the priest bound their wrists with his stole to ensure taking the lead in marriage. It was improper to smile during the ceremony, because it foretold future discord, while the bride’s tears heralded a happy marriage. If the bride glanced at one of her maids three times at church, the girl was said to find a husband within the same year. After the ceremony, the wedding party took the carts back to the bride’s parents’ home for a wedding feast with plenty of food, drink and songs for all. Dancing ran into the early hours; the following morning, the bride removed her wedding garland and replaced it with a bonnet – the attribute of a wife. The celebrations culminated with the bride being carried to the groom’s home.
The vision of rural life encapsulated in Seweryn Udziela’s Cracovians is filled with divinations and magical rites to bring security, prosperity and health. They were rooted in a devotion to traditions and practicing rites known for generations, and a great enthusiasm for celebrations. The ethnologist wrote: “Cracovian peoples are lively and cheerful, and they are keen to take joy in happy days and even those when something bothers or concerns them – so they can forget the troubles and ailments of their mundane lives.” (am)
The text is based on Seweryn Udziela’s Cracovians (Bona Publishing House, Kraków 2012).