How is Śmigus-Dyngus/Wet Monday celebrated the Polish way?

April 13, 2020

Easter Monday, which is called “śmiguszt” in Orava, and in other parts of Poland “Wet Monday” or Śmigus-Dyngus, is a very old custom cultivated already in pre-Christian traditions. Undoubtedly, we associate it with the popular custom of mutual pouring with water. However, it is worth asking the question what depth or symbolism lies behind this eagerly reproduced custom.

Originally, these were two separate, very old family rites. The first term in the name ‘Śmigus’ meant the same as ‘beating’ or ‘striking’. Ritual spanking with pussy willow branches or whips woven from them was meant to oust all weakness and disease. The magical power of willow branches, which at the time of impact was to pass to the person, ensured prosperity and health. “Dyngus”, the meaning of which might be translated as “buying out”, was a kind of scavenger hunt game, played by young men, often in disguise, holding door to door processions to the houses of the girls, who were ready and eager to get married soon.

These visits were accompanied by the custom of throwing water on all the brides as well as young married women. Water is the most significant symbol of life and purification in folk culture, followed by rebirth. Both touching with a green branch and pouring water, characteristic of folk spring rituals, is a relic of eternal magical practices designed to ensure the abundance of rain, continuity of vegetation and plant fertility. The ritual purification is to ensure beauty, vitality, fertility and numerous and healthy offspring.

Therefore, wet Monday was usually full of ‘dyngus’ fun. The atmosphere in the villages was full of joy and the inhabitants used to spend this day visiting one another. This custom is common throughout Poland, but in almost every region it is celebrated somewhat differently.

On Easter Monday in Orava, early in the morning, the bachelors came to the houses of marriageable girls and threw water on them. There were times that the farm workers were violently knocking on the closed door, willing to achieve their goal, as a consequence of which the door often needed repair after such a visit. They took buckets, bowls, jugs or other dishes and carried water from a well. If the girl was very resistant, she was often dragged to a stream where she could not avoid bathing in cold water. The number of ‘polewacy’ (the bachelors with water)visiting the girl showed how popular she was in the village. Potential victims often decided to stay at their neighbours for the night to avoid such situations. The, processing from house to house with sticks in their hands would hit them on the floor and recite:

„Przyśli my mu po śmiguszcie/ We came here cause of śmiguszt
Ale mnie tu nie opuście / But do not leave us here”

They continued to ask for donations and made wishes to the hosts, leaving one stick for them, which the host could use to prod the cattle to the pasture for the first time. In return, they received eggs, pies or money from the household members.
Nowadays, only the custom of pouring water has survived, but it is usually a symbolic delicate indication of tradition, usually without a conscious understanding of the rite. It is a great joy to be able to convey to the young generation these extremely important messages and to engage them in consciously recreating the traditions of our ancestors.
The folk band Małolipnicanie from Lipnica Mała, in cooperation with photographer Łukasz Sowiński from Zubrzyca Górna, undertook an extremely difficult task and try to recreate the custom of “śmiguszt” in Orava. The session was conducted in an extremely joyful atmosphere, and despite the rather cold season of the year, we managed to achieve a sensational end result, which I think is reflected in the beautiful photos made by SowinskiFoto.

Author: Ania Olesińska
Photos: Łukasz Sowiński

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