Folk Wisdom and Slovak Winter Sayings

By Vanesa Djibrilova

Every culture has its own wisdom summed up in catchy short phrases that are easy to remember. Sayings and proverbs are a form of practical and moral guidance, as cultures present their own understanding of the human experience, crystallised into idioms and folk sayings.

Over time, I have been confronted by the similarities and differences between the English language and Slovak proverbs. Some are word for word the same. For example, the English language phrase Birds of a feather flock together is similar to the Slovak saying Crow sits with a crow (Vrana k vrane sadá). They both suggest that people with similar interests tend to attract each other’s company, though the Slovak version is typically used to imply a shady character.

The origins of Slovak proverbs are largely unknown, and their authorship tends to be forever forgotten. The turbulent and revolutionary 19th century marked a turning point in the history of Slovaks, as organised patriotic efforts of proving the status of a nation manifested in the preservation and creation of a unified Slovak culture. The establishment of an official language was one of the most important steps, as at the time Slovaks existed as a minority ethnic group within the Kingdom of Hungary. Most folk sayings naturally predate this linguistic and political development – and survived through verbal repetition. Many would likely be forgotten nowadays if it were not for the efforts of Adolf Peter Záturecký, whose compilation of Slovak proverbs, sayings and phrases – Slovenské Príslovia, Porekadlá a Úslovia – was published in the 1890s. It is not the only 19th-century Slovak publication on the subject; however, it has been over time reprinted and treasured as one of the most valuable sources preserving this part of 19th-century Slovak culture.

Curious to find out what 19th-century Slovak folk wisdom has to say about the winter season, I found several seasonal proverbs that reference weather prediction and the nature of festivities:

Catherine takes away the violin from the musicians.

(Katrena hudcom husle berie.)

As the advent approaches, Saint Catherine’s Day, the 25th of November, marks the last date to get married before the advent begins, according to Catholic tradition.

If on St. Catherine’s day a goose stands on ice, Christmas will be muddy.

(Keď na Katarínu stojí hus na ľade, na Vianoce bude stáť na blate.)

If the weather on the 25th of November will be icy, it will be muddy by Christmas. This proverb is also used in reverse. It is frequently used as banter in weather forecasts, though it is not proving particularly accurate in the present-day climate. There are various other phrasings, the main message being that the cold intensifies as advent approaches.

White Christmas, green Easter; Black Christmas, white Easter; Green Christmas, white Easter.

(Biele Vianoce, zelená Veľká noc; čierne Vianoce, biela Veľká noc.)

These are weather predictions based on Christmas day. If Christmas is snowy/muddy/green, Easter will be the opposite. There are other similarly worded sayings. But the precise wording and meaning may change from region to region, village to village, and even from family to family.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas, every brave person sits at home.

(Na Štedrý večer a na Vianoce každý statočný človek doma sedí.)

This proverb is a moral guide on how to properly celebrate the festivities. It is still largely customary in Slovakia to celebrate with family, perhaps also due to it being embedded in the culture through traditional sayings such as this one.

Whatever you do on a festive day will come back to you.

(Čokoľvek robíš vo sviatok, to všetko ide naspiatok.)

This is a superstitious proverb, which advocates for enjoying festive pleasures. While the phrase can be understood differently, the focus is on regulating the ratio between work and pleasure. If you will celebrate and rest, you will be so rewarded in the future again. However, if you will work hard even on a festive day, you are likely to have only more work come back to you.

How it is on Ney Year’s Day, that way will be the rest of the year.

(Ako na Nový Rok, tak po celý rok.)

This one remains in the collective memory of Slovak-speaking people, used till the present day, albeit it is a twist on the previous one. What you do on New Year’s Day will come back to you for the rest of the year, or what you prioritise on this symbolic day is what you will tend to all year. Commonly, Slovak people try to surround themselves with their friends and family on this festive day, if for nothing else, then at least to let their loved ones know that they choose to spend time together with the promise of pleasant, shared moments in the year ahead.

References:

Image credit: Winter Sun in a Landscape with a Brook. Oil painting on canvas by Ladislav Menyánsky. 1900-1910. Slovak National Gallery. Image from: https://www.slovakiana.sk/kulturne-objekty/cair-ko242xs/stiahnut?rurl=%2Fvyhladavanie%3FsearchString%3DLadislav%2520Medny%25C3%25A1nszky%26display%3D0%26s

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