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Why do we sink Marzanna

21.03.2013 Poland

Marzanna. Photo: Magic Madzik, CC-BY 2.0

Although the weather outside is far from warm, 21 March in Poland is officially recognized as the first day of spring. Folk custom has it that on that day Marzanna should be sunk. It is a tradition dating back to pagan times when the onset of spring was a magical time. Today, it has taken on the form of  a playful event enjoyed mostly by children.

Marzanna is a doll made of hay, cloth and paper. She is dressed in colourful clothes, a headscarf and stuck on a long pole. She leads a more or less ceremonial procession of people who throw the puppet doll into a river or a pond, and in some regions burn it. A popular verse chanted during this ceremony is “Farewell Marzanna, Marzanna, the winter maiden,  make way for spring!”

Marzanna’s dresses differ from region to region. In the south, she is adorned with a beaded necklace and in the north – with an amber one. In Silesia, she wears a wedding dress and a maidenhead. In that part of Poland, Marzanna is traditionally accompanied by a boy – Marzaniok. In all regions of Poland processions led by a puppet doll would go through a village from door to door and later shred  the effigy  to pieces or sink it in a remote place.

Palenie Marzanny. Fot. Ratomir Wilkowski. Lic. CC-BY 3.0
Burning of Marzanna. Photo: Ratomir Wilkowski, CC-BY 3.0

The folk pastime originates in an ancient ritual that has its roots in Slavic mythology.  The medieval Polish historian Jan Długosz wrote that Marzanna was an old Polish goddess and that the tradition of sinking her came from destroying figures of ancient gods after Poland became a Christian country. Other researchers would say that the puppet doll symbolised the plague, or death and illnesses in general that are associated with winter and hard times. The sinking of Marzanna symbolised the end of food shortages and was supposed to ensure a bumper crop in the coming season. For many years, the procession was held on the fourth Sunday of Lent and it was not until the 20th century that the date 21 March was fixed.

After the sinking of Marzanna, the procession would rush back home, without looking back, out of fear of provoking the world of spirits. The sunk puppet doll was not be looked at or touched. Those who disobeyed this ban could expect a curse or even death.

Marzanna. Fot. Magic Madzik. Lic. CC-BY 2.0
Marzanna. Photo: Magic Madzik, CC-BY 2.0

The ritual of destroying Marzanna was usually accompanied by the custom of going around the village with a gaik – a green pine tree branch decorated with ribbons symbolising spring. Gaik would be brought into a village by young girls who would be rewarded for the good news they brought to villagers  by small amounts of money or a meal.

The pagan custom was an eyesore for the Catholic Church, which as early as in the Middle Ages tried to ban pre-Christian cults. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Catholic alternative to the sinking of Marzanna was the throwing of the puppet of Judas from a church tower on the Wednesday before Easter. Regrettably for Catholic priests, people stuck to the tradition of sinking Marzanna.

Now children and young people sink Marzanna for fun while they enjoy their day off school. For this reason, the first day of spring is traditionally called the Truant’s Day, when students are not forced to stay indoors.

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