Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Welcoming Spring with Marzanna

We were invited to take part in a Polish tradition on Saturdays with Margie's friend, Izabella. Meeting up at Susquehanna State Park, We could hike one of 3 trails, picnic afterwards, followed by a doll burning ceremony called Marzanna. This particular group were all originally from Baltimore and started this annual meeting 18 years ago, even though some have moved further afield into Virginia and DC.
In Poland, the arrival of storks from warmer climates is a sign that spring is on its way and arrangements are made for the drowning of Marzanna, a tradition going back to Pagan times. A straw female figure is made, representing winter, death, cold, and anything bad that the winter has brought. She is set alight and tossed into a river, the 'drowning' representing the end of winter and the coming of spring. I was very much looking forward to taking part in this ceremony but first we had to hike.
There were 3 options, a 1 mile, 3 mile or a 6 mile loop. We opted for the latter although Margie had been hoping for a 10-12 mile stint, even suggesting we went round twice. I looked at her in horror and kept quiet. My opinion was that we needed to be around when we returned for the Polish sausages and we also needed plenty of time to create our Marzanna doll, we simply wouldn't have time to hike additional miles. Even though of course, I would have loved to! Not.
 We all stood in a circle, listening to our options after having been quietened by the shrillest and loudest whistle I had ever heard. This came from Christo, as he called himself, who was the organizer. These whistles were used often throughout the afternoon to herd us into line or simply to shut us all up, which it did quite effectively. I soon learned to move away from him as soon as I saw his lips pursing together, and wondered if he took part in any sheep dog trials. He was hilarious. But his system worked and it wasn't long before we were all in our groups, like sheep, and starting on our respective hikes.
Spring had definitely sprung as we hit the trails, bluebells carpeting the woodland floor along the bubbling creek, and Dutchman's Breeches in clumps alongside the path, while small clumps of violets peeked out from under huge tree roots. The foliage was fresh green, that wonderful bright hue of newly opened leaves, the sunlight illuminating them and adding yellows and creams to the palette.
We stopped numerous times, which we weren't accustomed to on hikes, but soon got used to it, following our new Polish friends' leads and enjoying a drink or quick snack at each stop. At our second pit stop, deemed the halfway point, on top of a hill in a huge green field with a more than welcome breeze fanning our hot faces, it seemed to be a universal decision that this would be a picnic stop. People sat down leaning against the warm hay bales while sandwiches, fruit and other snacks were pulled out of backpacks and spread on the grass or handed out. Margie passed round a plastic container previously filled with pickles and now containing a 'wine like substance', as Rob referred to it, but we all dutifully took a sip. Christo was jumping from hay bale to hay bale while enjoying a few mouthfuls from a small hip flask, of which I was quite envious, and mentally made a note to bring the same on the next event, if we were ever invited again. Margie had started collecting supplies for making our Marzanna doll back at the park. Everyone was expected to form groups and make their doll from natural and bio-degradable materials so Margie had stuffed 2 carrier bags full of dried grass, and thoroughly inspected a deer skeleton on the way back too, which I was very thankful to see didn't return to the park with us.
Rob discovered an old barn building that had almost completely fallen down and which had antique rusted farm equipment under the collapsing eaves. We scrambled underneath to take a few photos, happy that we'd managed to have a taste of urbexing while we were hiking. I took the photo immediately above because in the foreground was a vine that had twisted itself and now resembled a rope hanging down, while in the background is one of the largest trees in Maryland's forests, an American Beech Tree.
We returned to the parking lot, making a beeline for our cars, where we all grabbed an ice cold beer, sat on the warm tarmac and chatted, trying to formulate a plan for creating our Marzanna doll. We gave up as the wonderful aroma of sausages on a grill wafted across, and focused instead on trying these Polish foods, hoping some sustenance would encourage some brain activity. The sausages were delectable, absolutely the best I'd tasted since coming to the U.S. They came from Krakus Deli in Baltimore, a Polish store in Fells Point who make their own bread as well as sausages.
As I blissfully munched on my sausage and bread, daubed with a little Polish mustard, I stood and listened to Polish songs being sung around the fire pit, accompanied by guitars and an accordion. I felt dreadfully homesick, these guys had such a wonderful community spirit, they were like one big family, and I missed my community back home. Unfortunately in America, they miss out on this, unless you live in a small town, most people not even knowing the names of their neighbors. I loved listening to the Polish language, they all spoke their native tongue rather than English, but we were never excluded, many of them chatting to us or beckoning us to join them.
We very reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the firepit and with a forlorn last look at the remaining sausages on the grill, we decided to focus on building our doll. Traditional Marzanna figures are often dressed in women's clothing with handmade wooden beads but we only had natural materials to use so off we went into the woods to scour for anything we could find. We had no real idea of how to build our doll but finding a large piece of bark set the ball rolling.
Before too long we had our Marzanna. Emily, Izabella, Margie and Rob all brought arm fulls of goodies, and with the bark stuffed with dried grass and tied with natural twine, a skirt of brambles, blossoms and leaves, hair of pine, more blossoms and a pine cone as an adornment, facial features using grapes, orange peel and a mushroom, we were done. And very proud we were too.
Everyone got together to present their dolls and then we were informed we had to tell a story about our doll. We weren't prepared for that so I just reeled off a story of how our girl was wandering the forest just dressed in bark, feeling drab and searching for adornments to look pretty. She'd seen a program on TV about Hawaii, which explained her hairdo and then she came across a huge American Beech tree which was so big and strong that she promptly fell in love with it. I had no idea whether this was acceptable or not, but our 'Americana' doll received applause and we then listened to the other folks talking about their dolls, even understanding some of the talk thanks to plenty of pointing and arm gestures.
 The judges sat on a bench and deliberated. For ages. We all stood waiting but it was ages until they had their results, which showed they took this very seriously. We didn't have any expectations of getting anywhere since we were the 'foreigners' who had only just learned of this tradition, so we were incredulous when we discovered that we'd come in 3rd place, winning a box of chocolates from Paris. The children above won first prize, which we thought was most excellent as the adults want the youth to continue this tradition, and we certainly agreed with them.
So we all struck a pose with our beautiful creation, holding her proudly, if not lovingly, because those damn brambles kept scratching us. But we were really happy to have taken part in this event, and so after a beer, everyone was told we'd proceed to the river to complete the ceremony by setting fire to our dolls and tossing them into the water.
Everyone lined up along the bridge and the matches came out. Christo set each one alight and we all leaned over the parapet to watch the flaming dolls fall into the flowing water, then bob into the distance leaving a trail of smoke and cinders. Everything bad about winter was henceforth banished and spring could begin properly.
I read on line that after the drowning of Marzanna, everyone had to run home as fast as possible, and if anyone fell they would die that year. Thankfully we weren't observing that part of the tradition and instead we all sauntered back to the picnic site where the air was once again filled with the music of guitars, an accordian and singing. Much more preferable!
A link explaining Marzanna in more depth is here.
Here is a superb Polish Marzanna video.

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