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Emaus and the Rękawka Festival

by Kraków Heritage team
Emaus and the Rękawka Festival Emaus and the Rękawka Festival
There comes a moment on Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday when you can leave the festive table. The best idea is to burn calories in the fresh air!

There comes a moment on Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday when you can leave the festive table. The best idea is to burn calories in the fresh air. Such circumstances gave rise to two folk holidays inscribed in the traditions of Krakow districts which have been popular walking places for centuries: Zwierzyniec and Podgórze. 

The Emaus indulgence and the Rękawka Festival are unique manifestations of Kraków’s intangible heritage. As the case is for any such tradition, constant changes are also part of their essence. Successive generations shape these spring customs with their tastes and sensitivity.

Let’s see what it looks like step by step!

The Emaus of Krakow

The Krakow Emaus indulgence is a close relative of many similar customs in Central Europe, the genesis of which dates back to the Middle Ages. Every Easter Monday, around the Church of the Most Holy Salvator and the Norbertine nunnery, the streets of the picturesque Zwierzyniec district (called Salwator in this part) – Św. Bronisławy, Kościuszki, Senatorska, Kasztelańska, and Flisacka – are filled with stalls piled high with folk toys, sports shooting ranges, merry-go-rounds for children, and raffles. You can buy gingerbread hearts, dough rosaries, candies, clay whistles, birds and bells, yo-yos, rattles, and balloons.

The name of the indulgence and, at the same time, one of the neighbouring streets, came from the biblical village of Emmaus, to which the resurrected Christ was said to be heading. The indulgence developed around the Romanesque church of the Most Holy Salvator which dates back to the 12th century when the walls of Krakow were 1.5 km away from the church. The fact that it was a healthy distance from the city walls made it a great destination for a walk during the Easter holidays. It is possible that the tradition of Krakow’s Emaus is even older, connected with the pre-Christian feast of the dead, celebrated during the spring equinox.

Here is what Giovanni Paolo Mucanti, the secretary to the papal legate, wrote in the late 16th century about Emaus in Krakow: ‘On Easter Monday, I went to see the church called Emaus, where a large crowd of both sexes gathers. All the youth and students observe the old custom of wearing, on that day, a willow wand on which catkins grow.’

Metamorphoses of folklore

Over time, the Zwierzyniec festivities became more and more folk in nature. Toys and sweets appeared, competitions for throwing a rag ball or… climbing a greased pole were organised. Among the figurines carved in wood, which were supposed to bring good luck, it was possible to identify representatives of various professions, ethnical and ethnographic groups. One especially popular type were figures of Orthodox or Hassidic Jews depicting a stereotypical image of neighbours and residents filtered through the folk Christian imagination.

For many years, you could also buy an original souvenir from Emaus: ‘the tree of life’. Traditional Emaus trees had a nest with figures of chicks, or a figure of a bird embedded on a stick decorated with leaves. They were usually made of wood. The tradition of making them dates back to pre-Christian times. It was then believed that the souls of the dead returned to the earth in the form of birds and sought shelter in the branches of trees. The tree also symbolised nature waking to life.

Post-war degradation

From the second half of the 20th century, and especially after 1989, Emaus – like other popular indulgences – was literally inundated with shoddy mass-produced goods. Trees of life and other works by local artisans were replaced with plastic guns, arcade games and rubber balls made in Asia.

It was most likely in the same period that the traditional figurines of ‘lucky’ Jews were equipped with a hurtful attribute, offending many people’s feelings: a coin. As Erica Lehrer and other researchers of this phenomenon write, it was closely related to the rapid enrichment of the society after the transformation, as well as the trauma of living in totalitarian systems but, above all, to the lingering stereotypes related to the social group so tragically devastated during World War II, which in its time constituted several dozen per cent of the population of Krakow.

The phenomenon of ‘Jews with coins’ was the subject of a recent intervention by the municipality, supported by a coalition of institutions, non-governmental organisations and researchers of the topic, conducted in parallel with the recent organisational reform of the indulgence. In 2021, the members of the Round Table in Villa Decius issued an official declaration, which became an interpretation of the city’s new policy, aimed at the ultimate elimination of the figurine with the coin from the offer of Emaus stalls.

Read the declaration of the Round Table in Villa Decius

The renewal

At the same time, from 2021 onwards, the event has gained a new organisational model. The organiser of the indulgence – Krakowskie Forum Kultury (the Krakow Cultural Forum) – has managed to unify the aesthetic form of the stalls and aims to increase the participation of traditional handicrafts in the offer of the event. It is the tradition of the Emaus tree, which stands every year in the form of a model of a real tree, accompanying the Easter Fair on the Main Market Square, that is now promoted as a symbol of the festivities.

The history of Emaus shows that heritage is a living matter that not only undergoes natural changes over the course of time but also demands responsible management. It also shows that not every form in which different customs evolve deserves public honouring. This is not an isolated example: similar controversies have for years been provoked in the Netherlands by the figure of “Black Peter” (Zwarte Piet), repeating the still not quite worked-out stereotypes of the colonial era.

The phenomenon of the ‘Jew with a coin’ cast a shadow on the Emaus Easter fair for a long time, obscuring its long and rich history. One hopes that, in the coming years, the accent will move away from plastic gewgaws and more towards the source, in other words handicraft and that the proper sense of the beautiful tradition of Krakow’s Emaus – the celebration of life reborn in the spring – will return with full force.

The Rękawka Festival

The mysterious Krakus Mound, built in the 7th or 8th century, is a place of another unique Krakow tradition, closely related to the old town and now the Podgórze district. Every year, on Tuesday after Easter, tents are put up around it, full of armour and robes like those worn by medieval knights. You can taste Cistercian flatbread hot and fresh straight from a special portable oven, and teams of warriors fight duels in the nearby meadow. What are the origins and history of the district’s Rękawka Festival?

It dates back to pre-Christian beliefs when the mound was a place of pagan festivities: ancient funeral rituals celebrated in spring. This is connected with the history of the Krakus Mound – named after the legendary founder of Krakow – which most likely is simply an early-medieval tumulus.

According to folk tales, people would bring the soil for the mound in their sleeveswhich explains the name ‘Rękawka’ (rękaw – sleeve). Linguists associate this contemporary Polish word with its pro-Slavic predecessor with the meaning associated with the burial (see Czech rakev and Slovak rakva – ‘coffin’, Old Slavonic raka – ‘grave’, common Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian рака/raka – ‘tomb with relics of a saint’. Thus, Rękawka was a spring celebration of life – ‘but with our dead’, paraphrasing the famous title of the collection of Maria Janion’s essays.

The ‘Christianisation’ of Rękawka and eggs for the poor

The influence of pre-Christian traditions during the holiday was so great that perhaps for that reason, in the early 11th century, it was decided to build a Romanesque rotunda on the nearby Lasota Hill. After a later reconstruction, it became today’s Church of St. Benedict, the smallest Christian house of worship in Krakow. The indulgence organised around it changed the nature of the event, making it more consistent with the institutional Church’s vision.

At least since the seventeenth century, and analogously to Emaus, the Rękawka Festival took the form of a popular indulgence. At that time, a peculiar tradition appeared, corresponding to similar customs cultivated to this day in England or Scandinavia: wealthier inhabitants would line up at the top of the mound or of the Lasota hill, throwing down various kinds of food. At the bottom, a crowd of local poor people would gather, fighting over eggs, bagels, bread rolls, apples or gingerbread falling from above.

The impoverishment of the society in the eighteenth century and the proverbial ‘Galician poverty of the period of Austrian rule was so severe that, over time, the custom was banned out of fear of the consequences of beatings and fights over the ‘gifts’. Foreign authorities also banned the celebration of the festivity at the foot of the mound, next to which it was planned to place one of the forts of the Fortress of Krakow. In this way, the ‘Rękawka’ moved for many years to the vicinity of the Church of St. Benedict.

Towards the sources

In such a vestigial form, the indulgence lasted until 2001, when the Podgórze Culture Centre, in cooperation with the ‘Krak’ Vistula Warriors Team decided to recreate the traditional Rękawka Festival at the foot of the Krakus Mound. Next to the church of St. Benedict, the folk fair continues while the charming, scenic meadow around the mound turns into a medieval encampment.

The ‘new’ Rękawka quickly gained the status of one of the most important events in Poland integrating the community of enthusiasts of the culture of the Middle Ages. Visitors to the tents, can see handicraft shows and enactments of medieval customs taste traditional dishes, and buy handmade products, clothes, and gadgets inspired by the medieval era. The highlights are the usual warriors’ run, armed encounters or rites performed on the occasion of the arrival of spring. This place will make you feel as if you were on the film set of ‘Vikings’!

Managing the heritage

The success of the Traditional Rękawka Festival is another example of how to give new meanings to centuries-old customs, but also an exemplary form of cooperation between a local cultural institution, fandom communities, and a great many non-governmental organisations.

The essence of heritage involves change no less than lasting and intergenerational transmission. Successive generations give new meaning to old customs, enabling them to endure – and making them unique. This was, is, and will be the case for Emaus and Rękawka, two special Easter traditions of Krakow.

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