Toward a Theory of Pre-industrial European Folk Ritual: The Case of Polish Wigilia


Toward a Theory of Pre-industrial European Folk Ritual: The Case of Polish Wigilia

By Sarah Slevinski

Studies in Slavic Cultures, Vol.5 (2006)

Introduction: The practice of Christianity throughout European history has been an interaction of popular belief and hierarchical prescription. While church powers influenced governing structures and established legal authority, everyday customs—often leftovers from pagan practice—frequently held more sway in the lives of ordinary people. The makeup of this folk belief for any particular culture, village or family must be examined as a mix of pre-Christian survivals and Christian appropriation. Why did certain pagan practices take such firm hold, weathering the imposition of Christianity? Why did certain Christian practices and beliefs resonate with people so as to merit inclusion in their everyday lives? On a fundamental level, the root of the study of popular belief is a matter of determining what benefit people perceived in the practice of particular customs. Whether for functional, aesthetic, spiritual or other motives, the popular customs of pre-industrial Europeans survived because of their perceived value to their practitioners.




This study seeks to examine the popular customs of preindustrial Poland, in particular the festal food customs of the Wigilia supper, the primary ritual of the winter (Christmas) season. I will investigate these customs using some of the tools provided by scholars in the field of Ritual Studies. However, such an enterprise is not without its problems. This study will address the question of whether methods structured around the live observation of practice can be applied to a historical, and thus non-observable, ritual. The ramifications of conducting the study of ritual practice on historical customs are various. Some historical insight may be gained, but some methodology must be lost and compromises made. We must frame historical ritual differently than contemporary ritual. Reconstructing rituals of the past requires a modified methodological approach. After examining the implications of these modifications, this study will use ritual theory—reconceived for the examination of historical ritual—to study the aforementioned food rituals of pre-industrial Poland. This new framework of historical Ritual Studies will allow us to piece together the known Wigilia customs of the past into a unified ritual, to determine why certain elements, whether pagan survivals or Christian adoptions, persisted among historical Poles, and to speculate on what the elements of this ritual tell us about the everyday concerns and motivations of pre-industrial people.

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Sharan Newman