Andrzejki - A Night of Fortune Telling
During the long, chilly night of 29 November, Polish people get together for Andrzejki, the eve of St. Andrew’s Day. This is the one night of the year where fortune-telling is especially celebrated. It’s a night of magic, spirituality, mischief, fortunes, and mysticism – despite its now more tame and watered-down interpretation of the pagan tradition.
How Pagan Became Catholic
At a quick glance, it seems quite surprising, given Poland’s long Catholic tradition, for such festivities to be encouraged… and fall on the eve of a Catholic saint’s feast day, no less! Yet with some quick historical context, the traditions make sense.
Poland first prince, Mieszko I, converted to Roman Catholicism in the year 966. It’s this date that is regarded as the inception of the Kingdom of Poland. Mieszko I was a Slavic pagan, as were all the people of his time living in Central Europe. Their lives revolved around the harvest; the cyclical nature of the seasons maintained order in their lives and structured their work and holidays. The end of November signaled the end of harvest and the beginning of winter – a good time to wind down from the autumn work and prepare for the year ahead.
The tradition of fortune telling during Andrzejki most likely stems from worship of the god Freyr: the god of fertility, prosperity, virility, and sunshine. There’s also evidence that they could derive from the Greek word “andros” (man), and would relate to the male name Andreas, or Andrew (Dziura 158). What we now celebrate in Poland as a bit of fun, was a more serious ritual of matchmaking and magic for the women in Polish society. It’s nearly impossible to trace the original rituals associated with Andrzejki, but today there are a few common games we play that have been passed down from our grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
Let the Games Begin
The first, and most popular, involves pouring hot wax through a keyhole into a basin of water. To interpret your fortune, take the hardened wax out of the water and hold it up against a candle-lit wall to cast a shadow – whatever shape it takes gives a clue as to your future. A baby might signify a future pregnancy; a heart, love.
The second game was traditionally played to figure out which girl would get married first. Starting at the back corner of the farthest room in the house, line up one shoe from each girl – heel to toe – and walk them over to the front door, taking each last shoe in line and placing it first in the sequence. Whoever’s shoe is first to cross the threshold is the first to get married in the group. From which direction this bachelor would come was also no surprise – it was enough to go outside and listen from which direction a dog barked.
Traditionally, these rituals that we now consider games were most serious. They involved calling on the help of deceased ancestors to help predict the future; later, girls would pray to Saint Andrew before bed so that their future husbands would appear in their dreams that night. (Dziura 158, 159). It was not unusual to invoke powers from beyond throughout the year.
Other rituals involved counting the stakes in a fence in a “he loves me, he loves me not” fashion, except this was to determine if a future husband would be a “bachelor” (ideal) or “widower” (… less than ideal). Some traditions involved a dog predicting the future: each woman would bake a cake and place it on the floor of the room they were gathered in. They would unleash a dog to eat the cakes and the order in which he ate them would be the order in which the women would marry (Dziura 160)
So what does this have to do with the Catholic St. Andrew?
Although Mieszko I accepted Christianity, the early unified kingdom did not suddenly become Christian overnight – so incredibly ingrained were their Slavic pagan traditions, that the Catholic Church had to vie for their attention, and had to offer something appealing in return for their worship. The Church was forced to make concessions, and frequently celebrated their holy days around the time of pagan feasts and festivals in the hope that they would make Christianity more palpable for the pagan Slavs and they would absorb these new Christian beliefs.
It must have worked because a few hundred years later, Catholicism is the dominant religion in Poland, although in recent years, a new interest in Slavic paganism has been emerging. It’s not enough to overtake Christianity, but thanks to Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the Witcher book series (the basis of the television series), and the video games developed by Polish studio CD Projekt Red, Slavic paganism has attracted the public’s attention. Maybe it’s due for a renaissance?
Oh, and if you’re wondering what my fortune read as a schoolgirl pouring hot wax through a keyhole… I never could interpret it. My boot never crossed the threshold first. Maybe that means my future is shrouded in mystery or, as the early pagan rituals most certainly intended, hope for the future.
Dziura, Małgorzata. 4 Pory Roku: O Pracy i Świętowaniu Na Ziemi Przemyskiej. Muzeum Narodowe Ziemi Przemyskiej w Przemyślu, 2019, 158-160.
All photo credit: Henryk Niestrój