Dažynki. Belarusian Harvest Holiday That Lived Through Centuries

The nationwide harvest festival Dažynki is oncoming and if you happen to be in Belarus, don’t get surprised by odd hay figures, lots of flags here and there and numerous fairs.

It’s a time of happy songs and merriment, folks! Although Dažynki was celebrated by all Slavic nations, in Belarus, we managed to preserve many of its pagan traits and unique features.

Dazhynki Dažynki harvest festival Belarus

In pre-Christian times it was a cult of fertility, agriculture and nature. In later years celebrations were held in churches, with thanksgiving masses for generous crops.  

The holiday survived until present times and is now a combination of Christian and pagan traditions and rituals. Let’s cut to the chase and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of festivity.

Then: As the harvest time greatly depends on climate it was celebrated on different days in different regions of Belarus. Although some researchers believe that there was a set date, that is August 15 (28 Gregorian calendar).

As with most other traditional festivals, it was rather a series of holidays lasting for a certain period of time. They usually were timed to an autumnal cycle, marking a shift from summer work to fall and winter periods. It was the time of happy songs and merriment. Peasants had a bounty of various foods, could finally rest after a hard summer period in the field and rejoice for some time. 

Dobry viečar, dobry viečar!

Dobry viečar, Talaka!

…Da vaźmi ad nas, vaźmi,

Hety zbožny ty snapok,

Da nadzień ža, nadzień,

Z kraskami pryhož vianok!

Good evening, good evening!

Good evening, Talaka!

…take from us, take it,

This rye sheaf,

And put, put it on,

A beautiful wreath made of flowers!

Now: Today the holiday in Belarus is associated with pretentious and sometimes weird celebrations organized by local authorities every year, to honor the village workers. Each of the six provinces holds its own official event called “A regional festival-fair of workers of the village”.

Those are typical state festivals full of thematic presentations, fairs, tastings, contests, and music concerts. Naive sculptures made of hay bales are an embodiment of this sort of kitsch creativity.

Then: In different regions, Dažynki was celebrated differently but usually, a sheaf of grain was decorated and taken from the field to the village with songs and music.

“The day on which rye harvest starts is called zažynki (zazhynki).  It’s a small celebration. Reapers take the first sheaf to a manor’s house and the owner treats them for this. After harvest reapers walk together singing a song with a tune from ancient times.

One of the girls, which walks in the front has a rye wreath on her head, and after an appropriate speech, which is usually in verse, with wishes for a good harvest in the following year, she would give the wreath to the lord. 

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He in return gives her a gift in the form of money, ribbons or something else, in gratitude for the peasants’ work did and treats them with vodka. When assembled fiddlers (or bagpipers) start to play, dances start… and last till the late night,” Jaŭstach Tyškievič wrote.

Therefore zažynki opened the period of harvest and dažynki closed it – both were celebrated pretty similarly. 

Now: True, hay figures are not an exclusively Belarusian thing, one can see similar sculptures around the world. And still, we had to admit that some of them are not that bad. Just take a look at this giant spider made in Kletsk district this year.

Having in mind the important role the rural parts of Belarus and peasants played in our history and mentality, Dažynki has a very big potential for sustaining the ethos of village workers.

Celebrated in a proper manner, with traditional songs and music, timed to a traditional calendar and old-time rituals it can be preserved as one of the most important holidays of Belarusian people.

Text by Vital Voranau.