Polish Six Seasons: A Guide

December 10, 2008

Kids in Polish schools learn that there are four calendar seasons, those officially marked in a calendar, and six natural ones. That’s true for Poland, the nearby area in Germany, some Baltic States (Latvia and Lithuania), and Belarus.

The seasons, each lasting about two months, are:

1. Zima – winter – January, February

2. Przedwiośnie – pre-spring – March, April

3. Wiosna – spring – May, June

4. Lato – summer – July, August

5. Złota Polska Jesień – Golden Polish Summer – September, October

6. Jesień – autumn – November, December

Why six?

Of course what needs to happen in the Polish weather to go all the way from winter to spring or from summer to autumn is no different than in other countries, however, the clue is in the length of the processes. Since przedwiośnie is so totally different than either winter or spring, and Złota Polska Jesień resembles a cool summer more than autumn, and each of them takes about two months, they deserve recognition.

At the same time both Polish przedwiośnie and autumn may resemble English winter more than anything else, hence people expect snow, since that’s how they think of Polish winter. Nothing more misleading! Przedwiośnie and autumn in Poland are the periods of the ugliest weather, and naturally people complain that this year’s spring is late or winter failed. However, if they compared the weather year by year they’d notice that it’s pretty normal.

For those of weak faith there are always the old folk proverbs that prove the rule. Winter ones:

  • Styczeń styczeń wszystko studzi ziemię, bydło, ludzi. – January cools everything: land, animals and people.
  • Idzie luty podkuj buty. – Hobnail your boots before February.

Przedwiośnie ones:

  • W marcu jak w garncu. – In March it’s like in a pot.
  • Kwiecień plecień co przeplata trochę zimy trochę lata. – April entwines bits of winter and summer.

December ones for comparison:

  • Grudzień to miesiąc zawiły, czasem srogi, czasem miły. – December is a baffling month, sometimes severe sometimes nice.
  • Gdy w dzień Adama i Ewy mróz i pięknie, zima wcześnie pęknie. – If Adam and Eve’s day is frosty and beautiful winter will break soon. (This may not be obvious to English speakers, but the nameday of Adam and Eve is on Christmas Eve). This saying shows that around the time people are only expecting winter to come, not assuming it should be there already.

The pagan year.

In the old good times, when our pagan ancestors weren’t yet aware of the need to observe the calendar seasons, but rather used to look around and notice things as they were, they marked the Polish six seasons correctly, and we still can trace the beginnings of them to their holidays and celebrations. Whenever possible I’ll try to show the correlation between the old Slavic customs and their equivalents in English or generally Western tradition.

Winter in Poland – January and February – means snow and freezing temperature, usually between -20-0C, but it can be around -40C in Suwałki area. It shouldn’t rain at all, unless it’s a mild, ugly and sloppy winter.

A Baby Wisent Playing in Snow

A Baby Wisent Playing in Snow. Winter, Białowieża Wilderness.

The beginning of winter was marked by the Festivities of Sun, or Mating Day. Even today in some regions of Poland Christmas is called Gody (wedding). It’s the time when Sun and Moon touch each other, and Sun, the most powerful force, wins over Moon. Styczeń (January) comes from stykać (to touch, contact). The celebrations used to last more than ten days, and today it’s the period from Christmas Eve to the Twelfth Night. Of course, as usually, Christianity imposed their holidays on the pagan ones, but some elements of decoration and food still remained: yuletide, hay and strow – the symbols of the previous fruitful harvest, eggs – the symbol of life and sun. In England Christmas chicken symbolized the same that eggs in Poland – new life.

Przedwiośnie – March and April – means temperature above 0C, with some warm days, many cold ones, snow melting, and timid plants blooming. It’s soggy, grey, and seems to last forever! April can be either warm or cold, with temperature anywhere between 5-20C. There’s no rule. It can be sunny, or hot. Rains are frequent, and sometimes it snows. By the end of April, however, it’s usually green, and we say that spring came (in Poland it comes on foot btw ;-)). Kwiecień (April) literally means blooming.

Young Wisents In Przedwiośnie Scenery

Young Wisents In Przedwiośnie Scenery, Białowieża Wilderness.

The beginning of przedwiośnie till today is marked by the drowning of Marzanna. A female doll is produced by kids and drown in a river, lake or sea. Marzanna symbolizes Mara, the goddess or demon of death, night, and winter. To pagans winter was a hollow time, not a season of a year, but the period of void in between. In English Mara is still present in the word nightmare, in Polish mara nocna.

More of Przedwiośnie Scenery

Another Przedwiośnie Scenery

Spring – May and June – is usually warm, however, there are burze majowe (May storms), so normally one should expect lots of thunders and rain, but there is also deszczyk majowy (light May rain) that is warm and pleasant. May is also the month of majówka (picnic) that in the Polish mind means a blanket and sandwiches taken to a forest on a fine Saturday or Sunday. June is similar, only a bit warmer and dryer. Spring temperature usually varies between 15-30C.

Spring in Janowski Forest

Spring in Janowski Forest

The beginning of spring was marked by Zielone Świątki (Green Holidays). The name is still used today in reference to Pentecost.

Zielone Świątki were observed by the performance of the so called wiosenne porządki (spring cleaning) when people used to burn all of the unnecessary stuff, old leaves or dry branches uncovered by melted snow, and clean and decorate their houses with fresh green branches. Women painted eggs, now known as Easter eggs, but in the past a part of pagan tradition. The Catholic Church prohibited eggs painting for some 200 years during the medieval era, but in the end they gave up, and now people carry the eggs to church in order to have them sprinkled with holy water before Easter. Ukrainians believe that if they don’t paint eggs the world will end!

Summers – July and August – tend to be hot, however, there is a possibility of a mild summer, when it winds from east. Then it can be pretty cold and wet. But usually they are good solid summers. Sometimes it doesn’t rain for weeks, and I personally suffer, but for those who like it hot the temperature can get up to 40C, with many days above 30C, and hardly ever below 20C.

Summer in Mazury

Summer in Mazury

Summer begins with the pagan Noc Kupały (Coupling Night) or Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s night), and is nothing else but the Midsummer Night – night of love and fertility – as depicted by Shakespeare. Fires were burnt to perish the spring ghosts and water demons that were needed for vegetation during spring but would spoil summer fruits. It’s also when girls plaited their wreaths to attract boys. In the past it was the night in a year when maidens and bachelors could flirt freely. Ukraść wianek (to steal a wreath) means defloration. The reference to flower in English seems obvious.

We still celebrate Midsummer Night in Poland, and in Latvia it’s even a day free from work.

Wreaths Floating on Water on Midsummer Night

Wreaths Floating on Water on Midsummer Night

Traditionally summer is a good time for beating up the Teutonic Knights. Poland-Lithuania wins every year since 1410, which isn’t without reference to our pagan-weather musings, since it was this victory that allowed us to tell the Church and Holy Roman Emperors to stay away from our pagan customs.

Battle of Grunwald, July 15th, Every Year. The Holy Monks Moments Before Their Demise.

Battle of Grunwald, July 15th, Every Year. The Holy Monks Minutes Before Their Yearly Demise.

Złota Polska Jesień – September and October – takes its name from the colours of the leaves. It’s pretty much like a two months long Indian Summer. September temperatures vary between 20-30C and October ones between 15-25C. It’s usually warm and pleasant, with a reasonable amount of rain. It’s the season I favour.

Złota Polska Jesień in Bieszczady Mountains

Złota Polska Jesień in Bieszczady Mountains

The beginning is marked by Babie Lato (Old Widows’ Summer) and Harvest. Yep, people had fun and festivities because of their newly gathered riches. Still celebrated today.

Autumn – November and December – begins around Forefathers’ Eve, the Polish equivalent of Halloween. No doubt the old pagan holiday came from the fact that the weather changes abruptly around that time. Suddenly it’s cold, windy, and sloppy. Temperature drops to around 10C and lower. Days are short and trees bare-branched. Even if the weather was nice the day before one may expect a cold All Saints’ when Poles pilgrim to the graves. Listopad, Polish for November, literally means fall of the leaf, that used to be recognised in English English as well. From the OED:

2. (In early use also more fully fall of the leaf.) That part of the year when leaves fall from the trees; autumn. In N. Amer. the ordinary name for autumn; in England now rare in literary use, though found in some dialects; spring and fall, the fall of the year, are, however, in fairly common use.

Moreover, the particularly fine autumn weather also used to have its recognition:

b. [Summer] Applied, with qualification, to a period of fine dry weather in late autumn; see ALL-HALLOW(S 7, INDIAN SUMMER, MARTIN3 3c; St. Luke’s (little) summer, little summer of St. Luke, such a period occurring about St. Luke’s Day, 18 Oct. (Cf. Ger. altweibersommer.)

7. All-Hallown Summer: a season of fine weather in the late autumn; also fig. brightness or beauty lingering or reappearing in old age. Apparently Obs., but worthy of revival, as much superior to its equivalents, St. Martin’s Summer (from French), and the Indian Summer of America.

1596 SHAKES. 1 Hen. IV, I. ii. 178 Farwell the latter Spring! Farwell, Alhollown Summer!

In the old pagan beliefs the period of autumn (fall of the leaf) was dead in nature. Hence the conviction that it’s haunted by ghosts. It’s the time when people think of and fear death more, mourn the dead, and connect with them.

Autumn in Bieszczady Mountains

Autumn in Bieszczady Mountains

Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady in Polish) is a feast for the ghosts. In the Catholic belief those are those guys whose souls are caught in Purgatory, but obviously our pagan ancestors also had an idea or two about it, and while in the Anglo-Saxon world the old tradition became trivialised into the form of modern Halloween, in the Polish-Ruthenian one (never strongly suppressed by Catholicism and free from Puritans) it merged with Christianity, receiving a feel of gravity.

We don’t observe Forefathers’ Eve in practice any longer. In the past it was a feast, held in cemeteries or old chapels, where the ghosts were invited, and asked what help they expected from the living. The ghosts, as presented by Mickiewicz, could be of various kinds, from innocent children, who could not enter heaven without having experienced grief, to the undead, like vampires. Usually they were offered some kind of food, or some deeds had to be performed for them. Hence ‘trick or treat’ in Halloween.

Fire and candles, still present in the Anglo-Saxon tradition as the candles in pumpkins, used to indicate the direction to the dead, so that they would not wander to the houses of the living. Today Poles continue the tradition by leaving candles on the graves of their ancestors. The special feel of mourning, that can be observed in Poland on Zaduszki (To Ghosts) and All Saints’ Day, that is neither sad nor merry, but resembles a kind of national reflection, is a remnant of the old tradition.

Zaduszki (To Ghosts) in Poland, that the communists renamed to the Day of the Death

Zaduszki (To Ghosts) in Poland. Communists renamed it to the Day of the Dead.

So that’s when Polish autumn begins, and it’s dark, with the feel of stillness and hollowness in nature. It ends around the end of December or the beginning of January, with the first serious snows. If it snows on Christmas it’s usually an early snow, and not an obligatory one, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t, and don’t normally expect it much earlier than that.

If that weren’t enough, December is the month of Advent, that in Polish tradition is observed much more strictly than in the West. Advent is the time of waiting, and again, Poles link waiting to mourning and reflection. A general preparation for the birth of Christ. If you work in a large company, with many workers from outside of Warsaw, and plan a Christmas party, don’t expect many of them to dance or drink. They don’t in Advent. They came because they thought they had to, but it’s not their time for celebration. Likewise, traditionally, Poles decorate their houses for Christmas very late, and there are people who hate all of the Christmas trees in shopping malls starting from Thanksgiving. What Thanksgiving anyway?

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