SIERPC, POLAND – Clutching a gaudy homemade doll in flames, students gathered Thursday on a frosty footbridge in central Poland to toss it into the river, an ancient rite repeated across the country every March 21.
The students — chanting “Evil winter begone!” — joined winter-weary Poles nationwide in the centuries-old tradition of burning “Marzanna” dolls to cast away the cold, illness and all other forms of misery.
“The initial plan was to drown one of the girls from class, but our teacher said no,” joked Piotr Soldanski, 14, drawing laughs from his classmates in the town of Sierpc.
The students made their Marzanna doll out of everyday items: colorful ribbons for hair, crumpled newspaper for the body, a parent’s old shirt for the headband and a mop stick for support.
“The Marzanna is supposed to be ugly because it symbolizes misfortune,” said Joanna Szewczykowska, who organized the event at the local folklore museum, the Muzeum Wsi Mazowieckiej.
The origins of the word “Marzanna” are under debate, but the etymology is clearly rooted in a vocabulary of misfortune. Szewczykowska says the name harks back to the word “mor,” which means “illness” and is no longer used.
Many Marzanna dolls today are eye-catching objects full of color and creativity. At the Zastow community center in Warsaw, the 80 or so dolls on display along the fence included faces made of rubber gloves, arms made of wooden spoons, button eyes and garlic garland necklaces.
Traditionally, going back centuries, the doll was made of straw, the most readily available material for country dwellers desperate for spring, Szewczykowska said. “Until the 19th century, this rite was taken very seriously and was carried out by adults. But since then, it has turned into something fun for kids” with bad grades to chase away the chief ills, she said.
Teachers plan the torching and drowning event as a field trip, since March 21 is also “Dzien Wagarowicza,” or “skipping school day,” when students cut classes to seek out spring, forcing police officers to patrol for truants.
“Better to organize something official, rather than have the students come up with some outlandish plan,” said Alina Dumowska, 56, the Sierpc students’ English teacher.
After throwing snowballs into the river for good measure Thursday, the bundled-up teenagers watched the smoldering doll float away.
They then turned to the second part of the rite, the “Gait,” in which they paraded down the road carrying a pine branch adorned with colorful tissue-paper flowers to symbolize spring.