Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Witches' Days of Winter in Slovakia - November 25 to December 13

The time between the feast of Saint Katherine (November 25) and Saint Lucy (December 13) used to be called Witches’ Days in Slovakia, as women who could tell the fortunes of people were perceived as witches (bosorkas or strigas in Slovak, a male using magic was strigôň).

The first day was the feast of Saint Katherine, when people defended against evil with garlic. Garlic was eaten, used for smearing on doors, door-handles, locks, and latches. Women were strictly forbidden to do any work on this day, especially spinning and sewing, so that their fingers would not fester during summer works. A superstition said that if the first person to enter a house on Saint Katherine's was a woman, dishes will be smashed in it for the whole year to come. Young single men made rounds in the village in female clothing and in masks. Tools from a house where maidens were living were stolen and secretly removed and hidden.

Superstitions concerning love happened too, for example, when girls put papers with boys names in the water while cooking dumplings: the first paper to float to the water surface supposedly bore the name of one’s future bridegroom. Other magic rituals included jabbing needles into a willow-tree, strewing sawdust from the lover’s house to the girl’s house, etc.

The last of the balls and dance parties for the year were organized on this evening, ending the period of weddings and feasts and starting the time of Advent.

The next witches’ day (stridží deň) was Saint Andrew’s Day, November 30 – probably the most famous day of this period. Girls poured molten lead into cold water to see the profession of their future husbands, slept on male trousers to dream about their prospective spouses, shook fences, knocked on wells, waiting from which side a barking dog will come – from that corner, their future man may come. Again, wool spinning was forbidden, to prevent sheep getting fluke or being eaten by a wolf.

In some regions, Saint Barbara’s Day (December 4) was also included in the witches’ days – the patron saint of miners was especially esteemed in mining areas, such as around Prievidza. On that day, girls chipped off small cherry branches, put them in their rooms and watered them until Christmas Eve – if it blossomed, they would marry the next year.

On Saint Nicholas’ Day (December 6) rounds were made by Saint Nicholas, a devil and an angel. However, this ritual arrived rather from towns to the countryside. Originally, an entourage marched across villages, composed of a farmer with a fake horse and bear.

The most important of these days was Saint Lucy’s Day, December 13, when dark powers culminated, including that of witches. In the unreformed Julian calendar used prior to the modern Gregorian calendar, December 13th fell on the shortest day of the year. The lack of daylight made this day very favorable for the witches to come out! While in the neighboring countries, Lucy (or Lucia) is perceived a Saint of light, in Slovak culture her feast day is felt as the most important witches’ day. The activities of strigas were most intense then. On the eve of Saint Lucy, people used to eat garlic, sprinkle households with holy water, make circles around wooden cabins, stables and barns. Young men roamed around the village, cracking whips to avert evil.

From oral tradition, we also know a ritual of making a wooden stool on Saint Lucy’s Day. It was a wooden stool made from Saint Lucy's Day to Christmas Eve, without the use of any metal nails. People were supposed to bring it to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and sit on it – it should have enabled the person to clearly see who is a witch in the village.

The most famous tradition associated with this day were the "walks of Lucy" (pochôdzky Luciek). Young girls dressed all in white (usually by wearing a large bed sheet and a white head scarf). They dusted their face with flour and sometimes even made fake teeth out of potatoes. One Lucy carried a bucket of dry wall (vápno) and a brush (štetka). Another carried a goose wing (husie krídlo) which she used to brush off spiderwebs. This cleaning was supposed to rid the house of witches.

Another habit was scaring off witches. People would walk down the village and made noise with pans and other tools. It was prohibited to go to the forest on Saint Lucy's day or stop at crossroads as it was believed that witches would chase you and tear you apart. Nevertheless, it was also the day of good wishes of great crop.

In Slovakia, if you're scared and want to be sure that witches will not do any harm to you, then follow several rules: don't spin thread and don't sew on December 13, if you have cattle, lock the door of the stable, hang a garlic wreath and sign a cross on it. Don't forget to take a pan and make big noise at crossroads to drive away the witches. That will protect you against the evil and secure you a tranquil wait for Christmas Eve.