Žatva and Dožinky – The Slovak Harvest and Harvest Festivals

The harvest or Žatva was one of the most important events in the traditional life of Slovak peasants and farmers. Historically, viagra usa Slovakia was mainly an agricultural area, so for most people, a good harvest could mean the difference between a bountiful or poverty-stricken year. Slovaks had to work hard and fast, and protect the fruit of their labor. Bringing in a successful harvest was a cause for great rejoicing.

The Dožinky or Harvest Festivals marked the final step in celebrating the conclusion of the growing season of agricultural work in Slovakia. They are the equivalent of the American and Canadian feasts of Thanksgiving, which express gratefulness to God for a bountiful harvest. Both the Žatva and Dožinky played a significant role in enabling many Slovaks to survive and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Žatva – The Harvest
Before one can begin to talk about harvest feasts, it is necessary to look at the reasons for the great celebration – the žatva, the harvest itself (Also referred to as the že?, sk?udze?). A Slovak saying (porekadlo) expresses how important the harvest was to Slovak peasants and farmers.

?ižmár sa teší dratve, sedliak žatve.

A shoemaker looks forward to strong thread, a peasant to the harvest.

Praying for a good harvest was an essential religious practice, and the harvest typically began with blessings. The harvesters would pray that their heavenly Father would protect them from harm, for “Everything depends on God’s power” (Všetko je v Božskej moci), for “the Lord God blesses grain, and the devil makes thorns (t??a).” The hospodár, the manager of the harvest, would give a short speech and say: “Lord God help us, for He is the oldest hospodár.” For he could grant them a bountiful feast and celebration for the whole family.

The ancient Slavs had the custom of praying before the harvest, taking a handful of grain and lifting it toward heaven, and crying out: “Lord, you who took care to give us food, grant us abundance today.” They would then offer the first handful of ears to St. Blaise for his intercession, and a second handful to the demons of field, so they would leave them alone.

Then male and female harvesters (ženci, žnice) would bless the field by making a cross with a sickle or a scythe, and then kneel down and pray that the Lord grants them good health and dry weather to complete the harvest successfully. A saying about the weather that was popular stated:

Rok blativý, zle nás živí; rok slne?nosti všetko dá v ho-jnosti. No, a „V dobrý rok sa všetko podarí.

A muddy year feeds us poorly; a year of sunshine gives everything in abundance. Well, in a good year, everything will go well.

Another saying notes the need for a good balance of hay and straw from the harvest. It states: “The horse wants a good oats crop because “The oats carry the wagon; the hay is just that …” But “straw is a stryga (witch) when there is no hay.”

In previous times and into the early 20th century, the žatva, was also referred to as the že? or the žne. It revolved mainly around the reaping (ža? – to reap) of cereal grains, especially wheat, barley, corn, rye, oats etc. – (pšenica, ja?me?, kuku-rica, žito, ovos at?.) The people tore off the grain by hand and was very labor intensive, involving as many hands as possible from families. It was also oftentimes very hot, and sweat (pot, znoj) freely flowed.

Timeliness and working quickly was important, so people prayed for good weather. Regardless, the church prohibited all field work on Sundays, so all the work had to take place from Monday through Saturday. So work usually started on Mondays.

Before machines came to Slovakia, the work of harvesting was done laboriously by hand in the fields (na roli). People used a sickle with a toothed blade (kosák or srp). By the 18th century, they used a more efficient sickle with a smooth blade, most likely imported from the shops of Steierland in Austria. Typically, the reaper held the grain or corn with his left hand, and cut it with his right hand, and cut it close to the ground. The work was done quickly, but also resulted in much dropped grain or corn. This basic labor intensive method lasted for a long time in Slovakia because of the cheap and abundant supply of surfeit labor, and especially on small plots of land.

Another innovation during the agricultural revolution of the 18th century was the adoption of the long scythe (kosa). Scythe usage expanded in the 19th century gradually in Slovakia, for it was expensive for most poor Slovaks and the tool often used to break during the course of work. Slovaks would buy the blade and attach their own homemade wooden handle.

There were two types of scythes: one to cut bare grass and clover, and a second type of scythe with a rake to cut and then toss the grain. It could have as many as 4-5 wooden teeth. Each harvester shaped a handle based on local needs and often the scythe doubled (a kosec) as a pitchfork (vidly). This enabled the harvester to toss the sheaves into rows for the women to gather. The kosa had to be very sharp to work effectively, so it was frequently sharpened. But on small farms in mountainous regions, both genders continued to use mainly the sickle.

The harvesters scythed the grain in one of two ways to dry, either in a row (zákos, pokos, válok), or into standing grain (na stene, na odberanie, na klas). Harvesting in rows usually involved winter wheat, and they bound the sheaves with straw bands. Mountainous areas used rods, and more productive areas used string as well.

On larger estates and farms, more of a division of labor occurred. Men would often do the cutting and women would gather the sheaves (viaza? do snopov), so they would dry out when bound (viazané). Once cut, the grains or hay was then gathered with a long wooden rake (hrable). Women usually collected the grains and the men bound them. Older people and children would help carry the sheaves to their props. Children also buried the stubbles into the earth.

In the oldest method, the harvesters placed about 11-22 sheaves in the fields in crosses (križe), so that grain would dry out and not rot. Some places they would use wooden props. People took care not to lose grains or ears of corn, and would not leave a single stem on the field if they could help it. Food was a precious gift from God not to be wasted.

Depending on the locality’s climate and altitude, most of the gathering of the harvest occurred from late June through September, during the more dry periods of summer. Harvests in southern Slovakia started earlier, and were completed even later in the mountainous areas. The grains had to be ripe and sufficiently dry so they could be put into storage without rotting or getting moldy. If it was too humid a summer or wet, grains had to be put out to dry or later, in a special drier (a suši?ka).

Slovaks were very preoccupied with not wasting. The children would also help with the harvest and would gather grain or ears of corn that the adults had missed. Finally, the family would send geese out into the fields to eat any grains which remained on the ground.

Hired Labor
As early as the 18th century, many large-scale farmers and nobles hired migrant laborers from Slovakia to bring in the harvest. Often they lived in northern and eastern Slo-vakia and traveled to the lowlands of Hungary and Austria for work.

While more of these type of laborers were men, women would also sometimes accompany their husbands, along with other members of the family, or relatives. They would frequently work in pairs if they were free, and not serfs. (Serfdom was abolished in 1848.) Some couples would even bring their children with them and would render assistance if they were old enough.

Babies would be cared for by other children during the work, or they would be wrapped up for protection and carried around on a mother’s back in a zajda, a type of portable baby backpack. Mothers would also put a baby in a portable field cradle (po?ná kolíska or in dialect, kolemba), which could rock the little one to sleep.

During the harvest, a young unmarried man might choose to work with his sweetheart. A wealthy farmer could employ as many as 40-60 pairs of workers. When they finished the harvest, they could take a share (podiel) of the harvest with them home for their own use or to sell.

When working on large estates, the agricultural laborers were housed in barns or wooden barracks. Each set of laborers usually had their own boss who managed and directed the work for the harvest. The laborers would refer to him as a “harvest farmer” (žatevný gazda), and he would organize the work, including their compensation for work. According to Slovak ethnomusicologist, Dr. Ondrej Demo, who spent a lifetime recording folk music, the amount agreed to pay for set work would be documented in a written contract.

The seasonal laborers would get a small share of the harvest, around 10 percent of the harvest, plus they would receive a pre-determined weekly food ration. Each couple received a kilo of bacon, 2 kilos of flour, 1 kilo of fat, 1 kilo of beans, a half a kilo of meat for Sunday’s meal, and 3 deciliters of brandy for each day they worked.

Not only cereal grains and corn, but vegetables were also harvested in this time frame, including legumes such as peas, beans, soybeans (hrach, fazu?a, sója), oilseeds (repka – rapeseed), and the ever-present potatoes (zemiaky), which were the main staple of many Slovak diets. Other common vegetables included cabbage, carrots, garlic, onion, and parsley. Since vegetables required greater attention and more personal care, Slovaks mainly raised such crops in their own home gardens, and used these to supplement their diets. In fer-tile areas of western Slovakia, which were located closer to city markets, some Slovaks sold their vegetables in Vienna.

Slovak-Americans of the first and second generation would almost always take great pride in their large gardens. When we visited others of Slovak descent as a child during the summer or fall, going to see someone’s garden was a given.

Evidence of the first threshing machines reaching southwestern Slovakia dated from around 1900. In the north and east, threshing by hand continued in many regions as late as the first Czechoslovak Republic between the world wars. By 1930, most communities at least possessed hand threshing machines.

Many areas of Slovakia did not begin using machines extensively until after World War II, when the communist government seized farmlands and compelled peasants to join an agricultural cooperative called a druztvo. Factories churned out tractors and combines for farming, and the old ways gradually died out during the 1950s.

Mlátenie a Cepy – Threshing and Flails
After gathering grains, it had to be transported to a barn or other area for threshing. Harvesters threshed the crop in order to loosen the edible parts from the chaff. Threshing preceded the process of winnowing, which would separate the loose chaff from the grain, for threshing did not take off the bran from the grain. Threshing was dangerous too, for dried-out chaffs could easily lead to fires, so they had to work fast.

Slovaks typically did threshing using a hand-held flail (cep) consisting of two parts on a threshing floor. It involved a very labor intensive process and took about an hour to produce a bushel of grain. In southern Slovakia, using cattle or horses to trample grain on a hard surface bed (posád, nasád, posta?) was more widespread. Grain sheaves had to be turned over several times to ensure all the sheaves were thrashed.

Flails or cepy, also called a bilen, a bijak, or a bosák, were among the oldest agricultural tools used by the ancient Slavs, and Slovaks made the flails by hand and used them into the early 20th century, even though the first threshing machines in Britain dated from 1786. Today, combine harvesters perform the multiple processes of harvesting, threshing, and winnowing the grain in the fields. Ethnological researchers have identified two types of flails used. Both resembled a cudgel and one type had one part, and the more common type consisted of two parts. A ring would sit on top of a long, smooth handle (ru?ník, húlka, dzeržák) made from hardwood, especially hazelwood. From it would hang and rotate a halter, a shorter leather piece known as the ohlávky or kapice. It was most often made of leather from a cow, a pig, or dog skin. Some museums in Slovakia also contain metal halters which blacksmiths made in northern and central Slovakia.

Most of the threshing occurred in open-air barns, even though the poorest Slovaks could not afford their own. Threshing involved two processes, the pre-thresh (okle-palo, obokoval, obíjalo), and the final thresh. In pre-threshing, the farmers worked with the sheaves while they were still bound together. The pre-threshing forced the highest quality grain to drop out, and these grains were often used for seeds for the next planting. They used either a flail or a pitchfork or stick in pre-threshing.

During the second phase of threshing, the farmers would place unbound sheaves in a one or two rows . Generally, barley and oats had two rows, and wheat and rye just had one row. The farmers would thrash the grains twice, turning it over, and thresh it twice again with flails. They would gather the threshed-out straw and store it in a barn for cattle, and some was put in an open air stack.

The grain was then scraped away for cleaning. The oldest traditional way to clean involved viatie, tossing the grain against the wind with a wide wooden shovel (veja?ka), which blew away the husks and portions not useful. By the mid-19th century, mechanical hand-driven cleaners first came to Slovakia, called a fukár or rajtár.

The blowing of the grain would have the men sorting out the residue of straw and ears of threshed grain. Then they would use a sieve called a rie?ica with a large mesh to remove any remaining residue. Then they would again toss the grain with the wooden shovel. The work often took place in an open air barn to ensure there would be a draft to blow the grain.

Finally, the women would take over and pour the grain, corn, or poppy onto a large sheet. Apparently, this final phase of cleaning continued on a small scale in some Slovak communities right up through contemporary times.

Storage of Crops
The last phase of the harvest involved safe storage. Grain had to be stored safe from insects and away from the houses, in case of fire. One of the oldest methods placed the grain in pits. This methods was widespread in the flatter grain-growing areas of western, southwestern, and southeastern Slovakia. So the grain would not get wet, the men built pits on higher ground or built up earth. Sometimes they would place the pits in a courtyard or in a village common area. Sometimes a village might hire pit-makers to dig out the holes, burn out the wars, and strew it with rye straw. They used non-wooden building materials except for the upper part of the storage hut. Kept cool, the grain could be stored for several years, useful in case of famine.

Slovaks also used portable storage bins for grains. Usually they were made from the trunk of a tree hollowed out at both ends, and grain was poured in from an opening made on the top. Eastern Slovaks called these wooden bins kadluby. Other portable storage bins included slamenice, made of burnt clay and straw, and plaited (braided) bins made from tree bark or willow rods (pri-luby).

Carpenters would also construct long-lasting storage chests, referred to as a súsek, a skri?a, or a štok. These proved efficient in keeping out bugs and moisture, and were also used to store flour.

By the early 20th century, most storage huts were made of bricks and built with fireproof roofs. Grains also were kept in bags more frequently in more modern times.

Unlike grains, potatoes were more often kept in a house. They were less susceptible to fire and could be protected from freezing and kept cool in holes dug in the kitchen or under a table. They would be covered with clay and hemp. In the home, they were also safer from possible theft. This method was especially widespread in the less fertile mountainous regions.

Vegetable such as carrots, celery, kohlrabi and beets were also stored in holes dug in homes. But outdoors, they stored vegetables such as parsley and cole crops (Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, , turnips). They dug holes in the earth in rows and covered the vegetables with hay or straw. On the other hand, garlic and onions were tied in bundles and stored in the attic to dry. Cabbage and cucumbers were cut up and placed into barrels. Some of these methods of storage continue to this day.

Fruits also helped supplement the Slovak diet as well as provide extra income for large estates. While fresh fruit was sold in towns if there was enough for a family, Slovaks also preserved fruits by drying them in drying houses or ovens. With canning in the 19th century, jars helped preserve fruits over the winter, and the kompót became a common dessert in winter. Slovaks also made jam, and used plums to make the very powerful slivovica, a very invigorating plum brandy. My own grandfather used to make his own slivovica and peach brandy (brosky?ovica).

Though it was hard life in agriculture, Slovaks managed to eat a fairly balanced diet, especially in the summers and autumn. But winter menus were richer in carbohydrates and bread and potatoes were a daily part of the menu. As my mother used to say, they ate potatoes in the morning, for lunch, and for dinner. Meat was a more rare treat among the common folk, but many had a few cows and chickens, so eggs were plentiful.

Traditions while working
Slovaks also practiced many customs associated with the harvest. For instance, women would tie a batch of corn to his right arm when a gazda came to the field, in the hope work would go well. As a reward, the gazda would pay the women and provide brandy for the male laborers. If the farmer’s wife or their female cook would arrive at the field, the men would sprinkle water on her, in the hope that it would freshen her and make her work easier. When the men returned from working in the field, the cook would in turn sprinkle water on them so they would be refreshed and continue to work well.

Traditional songs resounded throughout the harvest. A Slovak expression goes, Kde Slovák, tam spev (Where there is a Slovak, there is song), and it was no different during their laborious work. The songs helped to pass the time and make the work more enjoyable. Most harvest songs were rather slow, keeping in character with the nature of the steady, ongoing jobs. They worked most of the day, from morning to dusk. The harvesters sang on their way to and from the fields, while working, and when they took a break to rest.

The themes of the harvest songs (žatevné piesne) most often reflected the work they performed, nature, and were sprinkled with ideas about love. Most contain very simples texts with 6 syllabic verses and 2-4 line stanzas. Quite a few regional differences existed, and such songs were prominent in the Považie and Tren?ín regions, mountain-ous areas and even after more advanced agricultural methods started. Here is a short sample http://www.ludovakultura.sk/index.php?id=4748

Hreje slnie?ko hreje, zelené žitko zreje, niže slnie?ko niže, bolá ma moje kríže.

The sun is heating up, green grain is ripening, the sun is going down, down, it was my cross.

Young men and eligible girls would use songs to tease and taunt one another, and would frequently use song as a vehicle to send messages of attraction or rejection. Many a marital match started in the fields. Here is a sample of the type of songs they sang.

Nevyberaj diev?a v tanci, ale v lete medzi ženci,
pozriže si po údolí, aké ona hrstí valí.

Don’t choose a girl in a dance, but in summer among the reapers,
Look across the valley, see how she rolls the piles.

Note the practical approach the guys take. Do not just seek some pretty girl at a dance, but grab a gal who can work well in the fields! Thus the girls also worked harder so they could prove a valuable partner to a young lad (šuhaj).

Žnime len žnime — od kraja do kraja,
azda si vyžneme švarneho šuhaja.
Žnime len žnime, od konca do konca,
azda si vyžneme švarneho mládenca.

We reap, just reap — from end to end,
Maybe we’ll harvest a good-looking lad.
We reap, just reap — from end to end,
Perhaps we’ll harvest a good-looking young man.

Another occasion for song was obed, lunch, which was the main meal. Cooking could not take place in the fields, due to the danger of fire. Such hard work meant that the workers needed to be well fed. If a gazdiná (a wife) did not have lunch ready on time, the men harvesters (ženci) would complain and sing the following ditty.

Naši pani mladá, robí jej ?e?ad rada, ale je neopa?ná, robí jej ?e?ad la?ná.

Our young lady makes her family happy, but if the reverse happens, she makes her family very hungry.

As the harvest and raking was nearly finished, the women harvesters (žnice) would surround the gazda and refresh him with a handful of grain and bind his hands and feet. Sometimes they would even tear his clothes and not let him go until they received some money. When the harvest finally ended, Slovaks would be sure to guard their good fortune. According to Viera Feglová, they would perform sacrificial acts. For instance, they would leave behind several ears of grain on the field for ghosts and birds to gather. Prayer was another common gesture, since they knew whom they owed their harvest to – Pán Boh (the Lord God).