Harvest has become unremarkable, harvest festivals are different too

What is done with the wreath after the harvest festival? Some makers simply sell them. The merchant gives the wreath a second life and presents it as his own at the next harvest festival. "We did not win last year's competition, but we know that this year our wreath won an award," says Wanda Polewska. However, the wreath trade is not to everyone's taste.

The sun is already hanging low when I take the local roads, passing fields that are already deserted, to Blichowo, a Mazovian village in the Płock district. At the entrance to the primary school grounds, the ladies of the Blichowo Pearls Rural Housewives' Circle are waiting for me. It is a busy evening for them. In a dozen hours or so, the commune and parish harvest festival will begin, and not all the delicacies they will be offering at their stand are ready. The cakes still need to be baked, and a supply of grey noodles, which will be served with cottage cheese and bacon. " "It's best to come to the harvest festival with an empty stomach, there will be plenty to eat," advise the hosts.

However, the ladies did find some time to talk about the preparations for the harvest festival. In the communal building that has just been handed over to them, decorations await to adorn the Harvest Festival stage. Bunches of reaped grain with bending ears are adorned with intricately made crepevine flowers: poppies, cornflowers, sunflowers. This is the work of Agnieszka Pawlak, acting as deputy chairwoman of the circle. Handicrafts are her passion, which she shares with others. Both flowers and Easter palms, hand-made by her, are on the table. The crepe paper daffodils, crocuses and basil look just like the real thing.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE We cut coloured crepe paper and tried to make one of the flowers too. Apparently it's not difficult - you have to fold the paper over the thumb with which you hold it and twist the top edge with a vigorous move - but you can tell by my production from a distance that this is the work of an amateur. The Pearls of Blichowo do much better.

"We are a young Rural Housewives' Circle (KGW), having only registered in February, so this year we are preparing decorations of ears and paper flowers for the harvest festival, but next year we will already be making a traditional harvest wreath," announces Agnieszka Pawlak. Because they will still have to learn this art. "Nobody in my family made wreaths. Of course, when I was a kid - somewhere in the 1980s - we used to organise harvest festivals. I remember bands playing at the fire station, dancing, but no wreaths. Harvest festivals returned to Blichowo for good not long ago, when the communal and parish ones were combined. Rural Housewives' Circles got involved in cultivating the tradition," says Renata Klimkiewicz, one of the housewives.

Bagpipes, windmills, pokémons

The following day, there was a lot of traffic in Blichowo from the morning. Stalls selling bagels, pinwheels and teddy pokémon have set up on the main street. Fire brigades descend on the school yard, music blares from loudspeakers. Other housewives' associations, parishes and groups from the Bulkowo commune gather in front of the 18th century wooden church and line up their wreaths. And these are photographed like film stars. No wonder, the intricate work is awe-inspiring.

Most of the grain- and seed-strewn structures have religious motifs. There is a cross, a chalice, a host. On the heart-shaped panel, the Virgin and Child are dressed in blue and red robes carved from painted and carefully woven straw. The inscription "Under your protection..." is sprinkled with tiny black grains. Poppy seeds, or perhaps rape seed grown in the surrounding fields?
"How long does it take to make such a wreath? - I ask the ladies of the Włóki local community centre who, dressed in uniform - black blouses, large red beads and skirts with red flowers - carry a wreath representing a chalice with the Host under an arch of ears into the square in front of the church. "A few weeks," they reply. But the chairwoman of the circle, Wanda Polewska, adds that if a large group sits well, even a few days will be enough.

"The construction of such a wreath must first be welded. After all, the ears have to hold on to something. Who does the welding? My son. We make the base out of OSB," she says. When the structure is ready, we weave the grain, glue the grains together. - We attach the bunches of ears one by one. You can't do this alone. One person binds, the other holds. Bonding takes the longest time, because you have to wait for the glue to dry. This year, 15 people were involved in preparing our wreath," explains Polewska. And she stresses that the wreath makers have to think about cutting the grain and drying it long before the harvest festival. - If you want very light-coloured ears, they have to be harvested from the field even before the grain appears. The darker ones also need to be harvested before the harvest, before the ear bends over from the weight of the grain. How did I learn to make wreaths? My parents made them and I do likewise. Every village used to make its own wreath.

"Certainly, we have been making these wreaths since I got married, and I have been married for 45 years now," says Elżbieta Natkowska, another of the housewives of KGW Włóki, joining the conversation. And she assures us that the tradition will not be lost. "My granddaughter is eager to help us - hugs the slim five-six-year-old.

The second life of a wreath

Wreaths are put up for competition. Displayed in front of the stage, they compete for the jury's vote and the title of most beautiful. What is done with the wreath after the harvest festival? Some makers simply sell them. There is no shortage of offers from all over Poland on the internet. For a harvest wreath - depending on its size and complexity - one usually has to pay from a few hundred zlotys to even a few thousand. In Balice, in the Małopolska region, a wreath in the form of a picture of a holy family made of grains can be bought for PLN 1,300. In Łowicz, a chalice and cross made of long, mustached ears is on display for 800 zlotys. There is also something for those with a much fatter wallet. In Kołobrzeg, a huge wreath in the form of a crown topped with an eagle was priced at PLN 3 900.

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The merchant gives the wreath a second life and presents it as his own at subsequent harvest festivals. "If mice don't pick on such a wreath and it is well made, it will look beautiful next year," says Wanda Polewska, adding that last year's wreath made by her circle found a taker. "We did not win last year's competition with this wreath, but we know that it won a prize this year," she adds.

The practice of trading wreaths does not please everyone. It is a financial boost for KGWs or other wreath-bearing organisations, but it also gives rise to gossip. Harvest festival participants speculate as to whether all the wreaths on display were made by the wreath-bearers or whether someone took the harvest festival easy and bought a wreath in a neighbouring municipality or even province.

In the old days, nobody thought of putting harvest wreaths on sale. "The grain was not to be wasted. The respect for grain was completely different than today. Already at harvest time, all the ears were carefully harvested. Until the 19th century, grain was still mown with sickles, which allowed all the ears to be picked up in a handful and trimmed. It wasn't until the 19th century that people started mowing the grain with scythes, as this greatly speeded up the harvest. Harvest wreaths, consecrated in church, were kept by the heir or farmer until the following year and the grain from them was added to the grain for sowing.This symbolised the continuation of vegetation," explains Danuta Krześniak, ethnographer at the Mazovian Village Museum in Sierpc.

The earliest evidence of harvest festivals that researchers have found dates back to the 16th century. - Such a harvest festival at the end of the work was organised by the lord of the manor for the employees of the manor and the peasants involved in the harvesting of the manor and farm fields. At the end of the harvest, the reapers would leave a strip or clump of unharvested ears in the field, known in various parts of Poland as 'quailka', 'pêp' or 'broda'. The ears left in the field were decorated with flowers. At the end of the harvest, a harvest wreath was woven, to which ears of quail were added. The mowers and reapers decorated their scythes and sickles with flowers and ribbons and walked in a huddle to the farmer. The wreath was carried by the leader, i.e. the reaper, who was the fastest and best at cutting the grain and tying the sheaves. The leader was an unmarried girl, a virgin. The heir or landlord thanked the leader and all the harvesters, then bought a wreath and invited them to a feast and refreshments that lasted until late into the night. There was no shortage of food, including meat and alcohol," says Danuta Krześniak.

The harvest festivities were accompanied by songs. Some of them were composed by the harvesters themselves. "These were joyful songs, which also included jokes about the stewards and administrators who watched over the workers in the fields. Everything was in the form of a joke and no one was offended by these songs," adds Danuta Krześniak.

There were also dances. The leading lady danced with the heir or farmer. The wife of the heir or farmer was enticed to dance by the best gendarme or mower.

Ownership changes in the countryside, the abolition of serfdom and the parcelling out of estates - those owned by the state, the church and the nobility - which began in the inter-war period, meant that harvest festivals also changed. "It was no longer only the heirs, but also the richer landlords who organised harvest festivals for their employees. Often neighbours helped each other with the harvest, and at the end of the harvest, either each farmer organised a harvest festival at his home and invited those who had helped him with the work, or it was organised jointly. After the Second World War, harvest festivals began to take on an institutional character and were organised at an administrative level, from municipal to central. The mechanisation of agriculture also meant that the harvest became almost invisible, so the nature of the harvest festival changed," stresses Danuta Krześniak.

28 trains to Spała

The national harvest festival - still held today and known as the President's Harvest Festival (this year's will be held in Warsaw on 23-24 September) - was first celebrated in 1927. It was built for the needs of the Russian tsars, who came to hunt in the Spal Forest. The residence, which Nicholas II visited for the last time in 1912, was favoured by the presidents of the Second Republic - Stanisław Wojciechowski and Ignacy Mościcki. The latter, persuaded by the manager of the Spala residence of the Polish Presidents, Captain Tadeusz Roplewski, to organise a harvest festival, which was to be attended by delegations of farmers from all over Poland.
Delegation from the land of Kraków at the Presidential Harvest Festival in Spala in 1933. Photo: NAC/IKC
„(…) The economic and social affairs of the countryside during the Second Republic were among the most pressing problems of the state's internal policy. The Sanation authorities wanted to show their openness and readiness to cooperate with rural communities at all costs. Propaganda-wise, the figure of President Mościcki was perfectly suited to the role of a 'friend of the people'," writes Michał Słoniewski about the motives behind the harvest festival initiative in his book "Presidential Spała".

Indeed, agricultural delegations from all over Poland descended on Spala. There was a service in front of a field altar, and colourful processions of peasants in folk costume, with rakes, ploughshares and hay carts. Folk bands played, and President Mościcki greeted the colourful procession with wreaths on the steps of the palace. He invited the wreath-laying delegations to lunch at a communal table. Other harvest festival guests were served stew and beer.

The first harvest festival in Spala attracted 10 000 people. Extensive press coverage meant that almost four times as many visitors came the following year. "There were 28 trains from Warsaw alone, not counting coaches and other means of transport. A veritable town of tents sprang up in the Spalskie forests, and 70 field kitchens stood in various places, each serving 400 dinners," enumerates Michał Słoniewski, adding that the 1928 Presidential Harvest Festival lasted three days and was the largest in the inter-war period.

A loaf for Gierek

More harvest festival records were set after the war. The Central Harvest Festival - the communist authorities organised it for the first time as early as 1946. - were attended in some years by as many as 100,000-250,000 people. The Harvest Festival was organised in stadiums and its meticulously prepared artistic programme was reminiscent of the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. There were processions in folk costumes, songs and wreaths (including those with a sickle and hammer motif or factory chimneys) carried by labour leaders. In the 1950s, harvest festival celebrations carried portraits of Joseph Stalin, Bolesław Bierut or Kim Ir Sen. Banners carried slogans in honour of the USSR or praising Nowa Huta. The manorial origins of the harvest festival did not seem to bother the party, as it could be used for propaganda purposes, showing how the Polish United Workers' Party cared for the farmer and praising collectivisation or technical progress.

In 1969, the Central Harvest Festival was accompanied by an agricultural exhibition. URSUS tractors, a prototype of the Vistula-Bizon combine harvester and dozens of other agricultural machines rolled into the Theatre Square in Warsaw. "The so-called BA-3 type active harrow - said to be a revelation. It breaks up the soil, clears weeds, harrows potatoes, not to mention the fact that it could successfully produce holes in cheese," enthused the reader of the occasional film reportage entitled "For agriculture".

In 1973, Edward Gierek was the host of the Central Harvest Festival in Białystok. The newsreel reported the two of them with Piotr Jaroszewicz visiting the hog barn of Jan Jablonowski, the Harvest Festival host, which was full of hogs. The main celebrations were organised at the city stadium. A loaf of bread was presented to Gierek by starost Jabłonowski and starostess Wiera Martynowicz from the Goldap State Agricultural Farm.

"You have increasing opportunities for development, thanks to the great investments of the food industry. To mention the new cold store in Bialystok, the meat combine currently under construction in Elk, the sugar factory in Łapy, the new dairy plants and the agricultural and food storage facility. This is an expression of putting into practice the policy of the party and the state, the desire to accelerate progress, provide employment and increase incomes". - persuaded farmers of the Białystok region Piotr Jaroszewicz.
1979 Central Harvest Festival celebrations at the XXXV-anniversary stadium in Piotrków Trybunalski. Photo: PAP/Leszek Łożyński
The propaganda of success at the Central Harvest Festival was captured on film. What the original harvest festival customs were like is harder to see.

"Traditional harvest festivals - the kind that took place in villages between the 16th and 19th centuries - can now only be seen in open-air museums. In the Museum of the Mazovian Village in Sierpc, every year on the first Sunday of August, we organise an open-air event entitled "Harvest in the open-air museum". The Boczki Chełmońskie Regional Song and Dance Ensemble comes to us to present old harvest and harvesting customs and traditions," says Danuta Krześniak.

Peasant with a pumpkin head

It is time to return to Blichowo. The parish priest comes out to join the procession, headed by the headmistress and the harvest starter carrying a loaf of bread. He blesses the wreaths and the baskets of vegetables, fruit, seeds and flowers. All the gifts and wreaths are carried in a procession to the church, and after the liturgy the procession moves to the school grounds, where the harvest festival games will be held. On stage, the Płock band Mazovia in folk costumes sings a harvest song: " We carry the harvest, the harvest, into the host's house".

On the field, the stands of the municipality, the school, the associations and several KGWs operating in the municipality stood side by side. Each tried to attract harvest festival guests. The ladies of the Pearls KGW from Blichowo decorated their stand with pumpkins, colourful courgettes and sunflowers. They planted a pair of hostas in the foreground. Made of straw, the woman in a floral kerchief hat and skirt, and the farmer in overalls, rubber boots and a little helmet, they invite visitors to take a peek at the delicacies the table is strewn with.

Not a few people are surprised by the culinary passion of the farmers' club. After all, why would a modern woman want to cook in a club after dealing with her daily chores? "It's a completely different kind of cooking than everyday one," explains Magdalena Bartkowska, chairwoman of Perły KGW in Blichowo. "We meet, we learn from each other, we watch others making the same dishes. There is always something we can take from such meetings for ourselves. Besides, we talk, it's fun," she assures.
Another member, Aneta Tybuś, adds that what motivated them to set up the circle was precisely the need to meet, get out of the house, do something together and for the local community. "The KGW is the answer to our quest. Although we live in the countryside, only some of us are farmers. Some of us commute to work every day, for example to Płock, which is 30km away. It's good to have such a group with which we can do something together," says Aneta Tybuś.

Not all the housewives of Blichowo knew each other before the circle was founded. "We are not all from here. I am the wife of the mayor, so I do meet my neighbours often, but I can see that the pandemic has changed a lot. Some people have got out of the habit of going out and visiting their neighbours," adds Ewa Pęcherzewska. And harvest festivals are invariably an opportunity to get out of the house, have fun with family and neighbours - those behind the fence and those in the neighbouring village.

In Blichowo, there are folk tunes on stage alongside contemporary sounds. For the youngest visitors there are competitions with prizes, pony rides and arts and crafts. Older visitors can test themselves in a tug-of-war competition - the winner's prize is stewed meat.

There is no shortage of educational accents. The "Our Future" association, which conducts, among other things, addiction prevention activities on a daily basis, draws attention to the problem of alcoholism at its stand with an occasional installation. Here, too, the main roles are played by a woman and a peasant. An overturned wheelbarrow, scattered corncobs and a peasant with a pumpkin head sitting on them. Around him are empty beer cans. A woman with a stick in her hand stares menacingly at the peasant. "My husband said that this installation is sexist," says the head of the association, adding that female activists cannot complain about their husbands. "But we know that such situations happen," she says, pointing to the installation and looking for a photo from last year's harvest festival.

A year ago, the ladies placed a large bale of straw in front of their stand. It was into this bale that a peasant riding a bicycle prepared by them plunged his head. The culprit? Alcohol. The cyclist had a bottle of liquor in his back trouser pocket. "Our decoration caused a sensation, everyone came to us, took photos," say the ladies from the 'Our Future' Association.

At the end of the harvest festival, however, it turned out that a bottle had disappeared from the peasant's pocket. And hardly surprising. The peasant was made of straw. Instead, the bottle, the truest one, from a liquor store.

– Agnieszka Niewińska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Harvest Festival in Blichowo, Bulkowo municipality. Photo by Agnieszka Niewińska
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