St. John's Night; Midsummer - Pagan and Christian Tradition

Midsummer in Poland, Sobótka

The name "Sobótka" originated from Saturday (Polish "sobota"). During an early summer, usually on Saturdays people gather at a fire, jumping through the fire, sing songs, dance and having lots of fun. There was also some magic involved in these rituals. This was probably originally a feast celebrating a Sun as a source of light and warmth. This ceremony took place around the shortest night of the year. The name " Sobótka " was not common all over Poland. In Mazowsze (near Warsaw) and in Eastern Poland as well as in Ukraine midsummer was known under a name of "Kupalnocka" or "Kupala".

Read about the wreaths of flowers and herbs wore by Polish maidens during midsummer in the article Wreaths of Flowers and Herbs read about Wianki ceremony and see beautiful pictures of Polish maidens in the article Ceremony of Wianki. in Washington, D.C.. Below is one of the photographs from this event:

Maiden Mary Szpak of Boston, Mass. at Wianki ceremony in D.C.
photographs by Richard P. Poremski, contact the author by e-mail

The pagan ceremonies of late Spring and beginning of summer are very entangled with Catholic Church traditions. As I wrote in the article about Pagan Traditions of Christmas, when the Church could not get rid of pagan traditions it simply incorporated it into religious feasts.

First, church was trying to ban pagan traditions. For instance a bishop of Posen (Poznan), XIV Century, banned all night dances organized in any Saturdays and eves of the feast days in summer. The monks even organized processions against it and the people who took parts in the ceremonies were threaten with blasphemy.

Then the midsummer feast was moved 2-3 days later into the night of St. John the Baptist (23-24 June) and the cult of fire was changed into the celebration of the light of the bible. Now, the shortest night during the year is called "Noc Swietojanska" (St. John's Eve). It is also said that the fern's flower (kwiat paproci) may be found only in this (shortest) night. According to legend, whoever finds this mysterious fern will soon find great treasures.

In some regions (for instance Kraków and Kielce area in South Poland) the biggest festivities took place 1-2 weeks earlier. This time was called "Zielone Swiatki" (Whitsunday feast) and was later also incorporated with Pentecost. In 1468 Polish king, Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk (Casimir Jagiello) on demand of the abbot of St. Cross Monastery (Klasztor Swietokrzyski) banned pagan festivities which were taking place in Lysa Gora (Bold Mountain). By the way, Lysa Góra is a legendary place where witches' sabbats took place.

Many celebrations include music and dancing, fireworks, boat parades and lighting bonfires. In some regions women were celebrating the shortest night separately from men. Women were throwing herbs to the fire - hoping that it would protect them from evil. Single women make wreaths from herbs and float them down the river hoping that their future husband would find it and fall in love with them. It was called "Throwing of wreaths" (Rzucanie Wiankow). Men were jumping through the fire to test their strength and courage.

Even today the traditional candle-lit wreaths are floated on the Vistula in Krakow on night of, 23-24 June, St. John the Baptist feast - together with fireworks and bonfires to commemorate the holiday.


Zygmunt Gloger, "Encyclopedia Staropolska"

written by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn, (article #110)

Check pagan ceremony of Spring: Sinking of Marzanna and the selection of Polish pagan traditions .

Check this very interesting book devoted to Polish folk traditions:
Song, Dance, and Customs of Peasant Poland, by Sula Benet

Check also Singing Back The Sun: A Dictionary of Old Polish Customs and Beliefs
by Okana

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