December 13 is Saint Lucia’s Day, celebrated across much of Europe and especially in Scandinavia in memory of a young Christian woman who was martyred during Roman times because of her faith.
However, if Saint Lucia’s Day celebrates a venerable woman who was not only pious but reportedly beautiful and charitable, in Poland, the evening before – December 12 – is about an entirely different type of woman: hideous and malevolent crones who serve the Devil. It is the Night of the Witches.
It’s a time of year when, especially in the highlands of southern Poland, the sun would start to sink below the surrounding mountains quite early in the afternoon, cutting short the day and introducing long and increasingly cold nights.
The Night of the Witches was seen as the transition into this dark and frozen part of the year, and a window of time when the dimensional veneer between the earthly and otherworldly realms becomes very thin, enabling much freer passage of strange spirits and forces.
Poland’s Night of the Witches: a Highlander superstition
Although common across Poland, these folkloric beliefs were particularly well-embedded in Highlander communities, known in Polish as Górale. Indeed, one prominent mountain in southern Poland is known as Babia Góra, or “Mountain of the Crones”.
The belief was that witches like to gather at certain geological spots – where multiple streams converge, or at a clear-cut edge of forest, for instance – and the Beskid mountain ranges have an abundance of these.
Of particular (dis)repute was Haleczkowa Glade, just below Babia Góra’s dome, said to be a major meeting-point for witches to convene, forge plans and partnerships for the new year, and even engage in orgies.
The evil that lurks in the night
As the legend goes, the most obvious sign of the witches’ coming-together was snowstorms. Blizzards were believed to be generated by witches casting their spells at one another in violent skirmishes for supremacy. At the slightest sign of ill weather or the incoming night, people would huddle indoors lest they be caught in the crossfire and find themselves trapped in a terrifying maelstrom of ice and darkness.
To protect against more subtle witchcraft, villagers would fasten bunches of herbs and thorns to the doors of their homes and barns. Children in particular were nested away in a safe space and closely watched over, lest they be kidnapped or replaced by an odmieniec – a “changeling”, similar in appearance to the original child but actually a shape-shifting imposter.
Safeguarding cows from the witches’ insidious designs presented a greater challenge – but this was also important, as witches could render them unable to produce milk, a vital ingredient for the cream, butter and cheese that Highlanders depended on to get through winter. Hence cattle, too, would be herded up and closely monitored, and sometimes even bathed in smoke from garlands that had been blessed on the Day of the Divine Mother of Herbs (August 15).
A new day, a new era… But the tales of yesteryear live on
The following day – December 13 – was considered ideal for divinations. Across the countryside, girls would cut off a cherry branch and place it in a vase in their room, for if it bloomed by January, it promised a fortuitous year ahead. Indeed, all twelve days preceding Christmas were closely observed, as each was believed to predict events or weather for a respective month in the upcoming year.
Today, long grown over with pine trees, the clearing known as Hałeczkowa Glade no longer exists – although those who know the area well could still tell you where it is located. And while witchcraft and folklore have recently become one of Poland’s most popular exports, in the form of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series, it’s fair to say that even the Górale of Poland’s mountainous regions no longer fear crones and their black magic.
Nevertheless, to this day, they still consecrate wreaths and bouquets of herbs and hang them up to ward off bad energy… And should a snowstorm break out on December 12, the legends of yore are surely still remembered, perhaps sending a shiver down more than one spine.
By Mateusz Buczko
Mateusz is an Australian of Polish descent living in Melbourne. A communications specialist by day, he has a passion for European history outside of work and is currently writing a historical fiction novel about the ‘cursed soldiers’ of post-World War 2 Poland.