The Coming of Spring in Poland: Marzanna and Prima Aprilis

It’s slowly getting lighter outside, the days are getting longer, and the cold weather is becoming less frequent and harsh. Spring is officially on its way! To celebrate the coming of the new season and everything it traditionally symbolizes – rebirth and renewal as well as optimism and joy, Poles take part in two popular traditions: the burning or drowning of Marzanna and prima aprilis.

The Burning or Drowning of Marzanna

Marzanna is the goddess of death and winter, but also of rebirth, in the Slavic pagan pantheon. She’s pictured here in a drawing by Zofia Stryjeńska, the famous Polish Art Deco painter who was inspired by Slavic mythology.

To welcome spring after a long winter, pagan tradition dictates the burning or drowning of an effigy of Marzanna. Sometimes she is simply referred to as Śmierć (death) or Zima (winter).

Although drowning and burning seem like violent means to an end, this tradition can be interpreted in a much more positive way: both fire and water are symbolic of cleansing, which makes sense as spring is often associated with a deep clean after winter and a celebration of fresh, new life.

Beginning in the 19th century, the burning or drowning (or a combination of the two) of Marzanna morphed into more of a game than a serious ritual and it is still continued today in this fashion. It is now mostly something schoolchildren do in class on the first day of spring, around the time of the vernal equinox, 21 March.

Some smaller towns still hold a traditional town-wide ceremony to burn or drown the Marzanna doll, which is usually made of hay, covered in a white sheet, and decorated.

They process with the doll around the town, visiting each house. They raise her high in the air, as if sacrificing her, before plunging her into a local stream or river or setting her ablaze. This tradition is usually accompanied by song and dance.

The ritual was meant to speed up the arrival of spring and bring prosperity after a long and dark winter. Back when the seasons heavily dictated the lives of country people, such a ritual was important. The burning or drowning of Marzanna was a way to ensure a bountiful harvest and fertility in the coming year and was one of a series of springtime rituals with its roots in paganism (another popular one is the decoration of pisanki, or traditional Polish Easter eggs).

A drawing of Marzanna, the Slavic goddess of death, winter, and rebirth, drawn by Zofia Stryjeńska, 1934

If you’re interested in making your own Marzanna, the below video shows you how. Then you’ll be ready to burn or drown your Marzanna, just as the group of schoolchildren in the video below.

And, if you’re eager to add a song to the ritual, I’ve translated the lyrics to the first verse and chorus below:

Spring is drawing near,
winter doesn’t want to go away
It’s still frigid in the evenings
and snow is still falling

Marzanna, Marzanna,
you winter lady,
Today we’ll drown you
Because we don’t want any more winter

Prima Aprilis

The first of April is celebrated in many countries around the World as April Fools’ Day. In Poland, this holiday takes the latin name “prima aprilis” which translates to 1 April. On this day, laughter and jokes are very much encouraged and it’s not uncommon to see Polish publications, media outlets, and news networks play along.

The tradition came to Poland most likely through Germany and France in the 16th century, but its roots may reach back to ancient Roman times. The celebration then was called Hilaria (latin for “joyful”), and it was celebrated to honor the goddess Cybele, who was a maternal Earth goddess, protector of nature and fertility. On this day, which fell right after the vernal equinox when the days first grew longer than the night, Romans would dress up in costumes and masks and celebrate the turning of the season. It was a day to relieve stress and tension; Romans were even permitted to mock authority.

Still another theory as to the origin of the holiday states that since April’s weather is unpredictable, prima aprilis celebrates the month’s capricious mood. Every Polish child learns a rhyme in school that that reminds them of April’s fickle nature:

kwiecień plecień, bo przeplata
trochę zimy, trochę lata

(April is a weaver, because it intertwines
a little bit of winter, a little bit of summer)

For a joke of a holiday, prima aprilis is taken quite seriously in Poland. In fact, when the Polish alliance with Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, was signed on 1 April 1683, Polish officials insisted on backdating the agreement to 31 March, so that the date would not call into question the sincerity of the document.

Historically, 1 April could be considered the beginning of the year. Before Christianity became a major religion and dictated that the new year would begin on 1 January, many pagan rituals celebrated the new year around the vernal equinox. Even today, some non-abrahamic religions celebrate the new year in the spring. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors are two such examples, coinciding with nature’s cyclical beginning.

In Poland in the 19th and early 20th centuries, publications devoted entire issues to prima aprilis, especially satirical periodicals who saw the humor in the everyday, despite Poland’s politcal situation under the Partitions. Below is a series of some fantastic postcards from the First World War with humorous rhymes celebrating prima aprilis 1915. These humorous and bold drawings take a dig at Franz Joseph I of Austria and German Kaiser Wilhelm II; they were, naturally, approved for publication by the Tsarist censorship of the Russian Empire.

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