Travel: Love on the longest day
Aleksandra Skawinska could not resist a little jig. Tempted by the joyful couples dancing by the Vistula River in Warsaw, the bespectacled bride swayed graciously as she accompanied her folks to the venue of the summer wedding.
Midsummer is a time for love in Poland. The Slavic summer solstice festival of Kupala has long been transformed by Christianity into St John’s Day, but the longest day has more to do with Bacchus than the Baptist. Poles pour into the town squares and village fields to weave floral wreaths, dance with their partners and witness mock weddings.
Warsaw has been celebrating the Kupala Night in the Multimedia Fountain Park by the river since 1996. Wianki Nad Wisła is a family picnic, food fest and fun show. Fireworks and the rock show have to wait until the sun leisurely sets around 9pm. Similar celebrations occur across Poland, notably in Krakw.
The original festival
“This is our original festival,” said Ola Slaska as she stuck flowers onto a huge wreath (wianki in Polish). “Make sure to be here when we float this in the river in the evening. Meanwhile, you can munch on our traditional fare over there.” The flower girl in a flowing white robe hastened to join the other volunteers busy making floral wreaths for anyone who wished to find love.
Even statues yearn for love. William Heerlein Lindley, the British engineer responsible for the 19th century Warsaw Waterworks, sported a floral wreath over his top hat. So did the concrete dragon.
Midsummer revelry has retained its distinct flavours all over eastern Europe. Celebrated as Ligo/Jani in Latvia, Kupoles/Jonines in Lithuania and Kupala/Sobótka in the Slavic world of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, the longest day comes with its own excesses and excuses.
Women go about with wreaths on their heads while men jump over bonfires hoping to boost their virility. Young men and women go to the forests to look for the mythical fern flower that blooms when the night is shortest. They don’t return disappointed.
The underage bride
Matchmaking is central to the Kupala night. Skawinska and her family have travelled to the capital from the southern village of Futoma to stage a traditional wedding as part of the festival. “I’m underage and I’m getting married. Isn’t it fun?” she teased her parents.
Her mother and aunts treated the dancers and onlookers with cheese-stuffed bread, sour cherry soup and other tempting Subcarpathian delicacies, while her father gave the final instructions to his companions. “He is the director of the wedding. You can’t see such weddings for real anymore. But see how fun they were,” Skawinska said. The journalism student said she had been celebrating Kupala all her life.
That is not a long time. Kupala or its Christian version were frowned upon until the communist regime fell in 1989. If the Christians tried to hijack the festival, communists merely wished it away. Yet the people kept alive the tradition as a mark of national identity.
The Pole party
The musicians have taken over. Fiddles and the traditional tsymbaly set the stage for the wedding. Clad in a simple white gown and veil, Skawinska walked onto the stage along with her groom as the older women threw pieces of bread at them as the ultimate form of blessing. The bride in white stood out among the intricately embroidered scarves, skirts and aprons in blue, green and red.
Once the couple was led to the feast table, the bride’s father called upon the family to celebrate. The wine bottles were out and men poured each other generous servings, trying to convince the audience that they had just started partying.
Women in white linen blouses and floral skirts joined men wearing white shirts and black waistcoats. They erupted into a lively polka as the musicians kept the pace. The spectators ignored the summer rain. “It almost always rains on Kupala. The sun can’t have all the day for himself,” someone said reassuringly.
When fight is fun
The pace was not fast enough for the Subcarpathian Uplanders though. The bride’s father yelled out to the musicians to increase the tempo. The predominantly city crowd loved the theatrics. So did the tourists who were drawn away from the makeshift stalls selling anything from local dumplings and waffles to more exotic snails and frog legs.
The party went on until a young energetic dancer picked a fight with an elder. The audience pondered if it was really part of the script as the women shouted at their belligerent men in mock frustration. The commotion yielded to music as effortlessly as it started. The young man held on to his dancing partner again, his torn shirt sleeves swinging around him. Nice family weddings come with a touch of violence.
The jovial couples resumed dancing with a vengeance, swaying each other around and stomping their boots to the cyclical rhythm. They were at home. Skawinska wished she had a more active role to play, tapping her feet beneath the table. The elders were in no mood to step aside. Songs of love and longing have overpowered them in a nostalgic trance.
Dance and divination
By the time someone invited the “newlyweds” to the dance floor, the audience had joined the party. The hosts obliged anyone who wanted to swing with them. The dancers defeated the drizzle.
The matriarch took a break to cut the wedding cake. The onlookers acted the part of guests all too well. The cake vanished within a minute. The family had come prepared. They had stored enough cakes for the small crowd. The men in the family were still dancing, almost-empty wine bottles in hand.
After the dance came the divination. Women crossed the road en mass to throw their wreaths into the evening river. Those floating rings of twigs and leaves and flowers could tell them about their love life, or the lack of it.
Ola Slaska and gang had already floated the big wreath, accompanied by countless smaller wreaths made by the women assembled in the park. Skawinska took the wreath off her head and tossed it into the river. She waited to see who picked it up.
From HT Brunch, September 8, 2019
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