St Gregory's Day – “Light on the water"

From pre-Christian ritual to tourist event

Today on St Gregory's Day children still launch tiny ships, boats, houses and other objects, with little candles lit on them, along rivers, streams, ponds and water channels. In some places this custom has an especially fascinating mythical background, including in Tržič in the Gorenjska region.

In an event which in modern times has been evolving in the context of tourism and education, participants symbolically herald the arrival of spring and the lengthening of the daylight hours, and in particular they ensure the preservation and development of our memory of a custom that in the past century was most prominent among artisans in Gorenjska towns and in the area around Ljubljana. Called vuč v vodo or in some places luč v vodo, the custom heralds the arrival of the lighter half of the year, especially important when people were not able to work under artificial light – and could only do so from dawn to dusk.

Photo: Nebojša Tejić/STA

In a deaf time

The day took its name from St Gregory, better known as Gregory the Great (540-604), one of the most outstanding church scholars and popes. His feast day is 12 March, but the St Gregory ritual is celebrated on the evening of 11 March. According to the ancient understanding of time, the day ended when the sun set, and the new day began when evening fell. This was also the “deaf time”, when darkness ruled. And darkness was necessary for people to perform the rituals that guaranteed order in the world. A ritual is something that ensures order, otherwise chaos would rule (the Slovenian word for ritual, obred, contains the meaning “in order”).

According to the calendar, spring begins on 20 March, or in some years 21 March, but until recently many people regarded the Feast of St Gregory as the first of the spring saint days. Indeed, under the old Julian calendar St Gregory was celebrated on the first day of spring. However, the calendar reform of Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585) shifted the feast day, and it no longer coincided with the spring equinox.   

It was said that after St Gregory’s Day with each wind the snow would melt, while “the farmer ploughs the long field, hat worn to the side, begging his old wife for bread,” because they had run out of the food made the previous year. There was also a saying that on that day “women cooked between the legs, and no longer in the oven,” meaning that they no longer cooked in the bread oven but in front of it – sitting at a tripod or four-legged grate on which they placed a pot.

Photo: Stanko Gruden/STA

Light on the water, a St Gregory candle lit

Sources from Gorenjska and around Ljubljana from the 19th and 20th centuries testify that on the eve of St Gregory’s Day people would launch a little candle on water, or light a fire on water or ice. The locations where the candle vessels, tiny ships, boats, houses, baskets and so forth, were launched with burning candles or fires have generally not changed – at least up to the time when the custom shifted from its ritual function to being a tourist attraction.

This was a symbolic act performed where there was water (a river, stream, pond, channel and so on). They cast light onto the water, and they also said they were lighting a Gregory, since with the lengthening days and right up to the Feast of St Michael (September29) artisans no longer had to work under artificial light. This custom is still practiced most notably in Tržič, Kropa and Kamna Gorica, and the oldest information on it comes from Železniki, although it was also known in some other locations.

Photo: Stanko Gruden/STA

Brandishing the broom, straw bonfire and lihtpratel – traces of pre-Christian rituals

In Tržič, writers between the World Wars mentioned that upon launching St Gregory candles they would make a bonfire, which may have been of straw. They would set it up on the banks of the Tržiška Bistrica stream, or it burned on the water. Another act frequently mentioned in Tržič by writers, along with the launching of candle vessels, was the brandishing of blazing brooms. They wrote about how they waved torches made of old brooms steeped in pitch; that they attached to the brooms štrajfecle (pitch-covered cloths that cobblers used in making their thread), set them alight and waved them in the air in circles or figures of eight. When they burned out, they were thrown into the bonfire or water. After the celebration people went off for lihtpratel, or “roast of light”.

All three actions show traces of pre-Christian rituals. People lit bonfires on the major days of the calendar year, and in pre-Christian belief systems straw held a special meaning associated with the end of the old year and start of the new. Waving burning brooms in a circle is in itself a symbolic act associated with the movement of time, and waving brooms in figures of eight represents an apotropaic act. The figure of eight makes the lines of a cross, which is clearly associated with magic. And what about the lihtpratel? This “roast of light”, at least originally, could not have been anything other than a meal whose principal ingredient was meat – something which during the Lenten time of the Christian church was forbidden, although the authorities did not succeed in suppressing the practice, which lasted right up into the 20th century, at least on a representational level. It would appear that this, too, is a remnant of a pre-Christian ritual.

The practice of launching candles on water is seen in many places around the world, and is especially notable in nearby Bad Eisenkappel (Železna Kapla) in Carinthia, in several places in Bavaria, in Switzerland, in eastern France, the Czech lands and Macedonia. But the dates of launching and the reasons behind the act are different – launching lights for St Gregory’s Day is only practiced in some places in Switzerland, and in other areas the ritual is part of various other festivals of the winter-spring period.  

Cult space in Tržič

The custom evolved from older pre-Christian beliefs that can also be seen in how the physical environment was arranged. Mythical points in the physical space are often set out so as to make regular geometrical lines, usually triangles. Within these special importance was held by the ritual angle of 23.5° ± 1.5°, which matches the incline of the Earth’s axis.

The location of launching of St Gregory candles in Tržič in relation to Pehtra Baba on Kamnek and to the parish Church of the Annunciation creates a ritual angle of 23°. Moreover Pehtra Baba is aligned with a place called Na Skali, the Church of St Joseph and Velika Mizica, where bonfires are lit on midsummer’s day in June. In view of our knowledge of spatial arrangement, the launching of St Gregory candles maintained the location where in pre-Christian rituals fire was put on or in the water.    

Photo: Peter Balantič

Text by Dr. Bojan Knific
Source: Sinfo