Wianek - Wreaths in the Slavic Tradition
In many cultures the wreath symbolizes innocence and has served as a sacred ritual prop, embodying the unity of the universe and eternity.
The perfect form of a circle gave wreaths magical characteristics, such as defense from evil, sickness, bad fortune, and dark spirits. In Polish tradition wreaths blessed during the Corpus Cristi (Boże Ciało) feast were hung above doorways to help protect against lighting and disease. Placed on the outside corner of a home under construction it was meant to guarantee its inhabitants happiness and protect them from all evil.
Wreaths were also used in divination. During Noc Kupały (June 21st/22nd), Slavs used flower wreaths to foretell a young woman’s future. If her wreath sank after being set into the water, it signified an early death. If it stayed afloat, a wedding would soon follow. And if the wreath spun in circles, it foretold spinsterhood. The wreaths were also tossed into a tree in cases where villages were located far from rivers. Various positions on a tree foretold different futures.
The wreath has also been a symbol of innocence since time immemorial, and within the Christian tradition, a defendant of the body’s purity. In many folk songs and carols the Virgin Mary weaves and wears flower wreaths, along with other holy virgins.
As an element of headdress in the past, girls all around Europe and of all social classes wore flower wreaths. Daughters of ruling knights often had them embellished with precious stones and ribbons. Traditionally, unmarried Slavic women and priestesses serving Slavic deities wore flower wreaths. Until the end of the 19th century young peasant women, as well as those from the sphere of nobility and city inhabitants all shared this common custom. Wreaths were woven from specific materials, primarily ruta, myrtle, barwnik; all are symbols of chastity and everlasting life. On some occasions flower wreaths worn with regional costumes were constructed from fabric flowers, ribbons, etc. To this day the wreath remains a crucial element for every girl’s headdress during her 1st Communion. In certain regions the family whose daughter was old enough to be wed displayed a wreath in the windows or on the front wall.
According to Slavic tradition, weddings began with the weaving of a wreath for the bride by her bridesmaids, the night before the ceremony, and was accompanied by songs. The following day the bride wore her flower wreath, or in some regions a flower crown adorned with additional stones and ribbons. Once the ceremony was over and the bride officially became a part of her husband’s family, a ritual called “oczepiny” took place. Married women carefully removed the wreath or crown from the bride’s head, symbolizing her departure from girlhood. The wreath was replaced by a cap (czepiec), thus welcoming her to their group. If the wreath was woven with herbs and flowers it was most often kept under the glass of a holy paining, and pieces of it were later added to a baby’s first bath or used for medicine. A woman who was married, or a girl who lost her virginity were said to have “lost their wreath” - “straciła wianek”. Many folk songs use the theme of the flower wreath in their texts. Often they tell a story of a wreath taken from a young girl by a water current, from which flowers slipped out, etc., and about the punishment that will befall anyone who picks it up.
The traditional use of wreaths also extends into end of life rituals. In the Slavic culture, proper funeral flowers come in the form of wreaths (often times set on spruce branches or fern leaves), which signify eternity, the closing of the circle of life, and also honor the dead. Wreaths are commonly placed on graves during All Saint’s Day to commemorate those who are no longer with us.
— from Zwyczaje, Tradycje, Obrzędy, Urszula Janicka-Krzywda (pp. 227-231)