Folktales, Legends, and Stories

Slovak Customs in Autumn

 

Harvest Festival (Dožinky)

Autumn and the last part of summer are the periods of most strenuous work for farmers. Customs and rituals of this season were abundant. They belong among the most important within the entire annual ritual cycle. These were, above all, customs accompanying the harvest, the harvest festival and, in the ancient past, a harvest feast.

Many aspects of harvest customs were connected with harvesting itself. We know their concrete forms from the previous centuries, after they underwent further development and various changes. The significant aspect of harvest customs encompassed rejoicing over the new crop, and making efforts to ensure a sufficient amount of grain for the next year.

When binding sheaves, farmers carefully listened to whether the straw produced a dry, crackling sound as it was considered the heralding of a storm. They could also call rain unwittingly if they left a rake with its teeth pointing upwards. In the Gemer region a landlord would carry the first sheaf into the barn with its stalks facing forward to prevent mice from fining the corn ears. For the same reason, in Orava it was recommended to store the first sheaf before sunrise, or to take three stones and knock them three times in the corners of the barn. After the grains were threshed, they scattered one handful along the barn for mice and another for birds. In some Orava villages, plants blessed on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, were placed under the first sheaf. They would serve as protection against rodents as well as fire and storms.

In many regions of Slovakia no one was allowed to speak when the sheaves from the first cart were sacked. Everyone had to move as quietly as possible so that mice would not hear them. In the Spiš region the landlord threw the first sheaf into the barn and it had to stay exactly as it landed.  It was dedicated to the mice. Before World War I, in a village called Dačov Lom, they placed a jug of brandy under the first sheaf and drank it after they had finished threshing.

The scope of performed customs depended on whether the harvest had to be handled only by a landlord with members of his own household, or with the help of other families, or hired harvesters. In fertile regions, until the middle of the previous century, landlords promptly threshed the first harvested grain and had it milled so that a meal could be prepared from the new flour immediately after finishing the harvest. They shared it with their neighbors.

When the harvest was coming to an end, reapers wove a garland from corn husks and field flowers. In Beňadovo, a village in Orava, and in many other villages, it was made from corn cut by the last sweep of the scythe that was caught before it fell to the ground. The ready garland was sprinkled with holy water and hung in a pantry. Often corn from it was added into “featherlets”, decorations for wedding guests.

The harvest garland had various shapes and, depending on its form, it was either carried in the hand or placed on the head of one of the girls. Furthermore, especially in central Slovakia, women would prepare a May tree - a tree decorated with ribbons and scarves. Men would prepare a flag – a scarf tied on a stick decorated with grains and flowers. Harvesters would follow the last cart-load carrying a garland, May tree or flag.

This topic and many others may be found in our book Slovak Folk Customs and Traditions.