When the Birdies Marry

St. Gregory’s Day and celebrating start of the spring

By Slovenian Tourist Board

St. Gregory boats lightening the river Bistrica by Archive of The Public Institute Ribnica Handicraft CentreSlovenian Tourist Board

If you are ever wandering across Tržič, Kropa, Železniki, Kamna Gorica, Maribor, Vrhnika or Ljubljana on the evening of 11th March, look down the local river, as its surface is probably magically decorated with little lights. 

St. Gregory boats lightening the river Bistrica by Archive of The Public Institute Ribnica Handicraft CentreSlovenian Tourist Board

These pretty lights are “gregorčki” - little boats of all different shapes and sizes you can imagine. Making them and sending them downstream is a way for many Slovenes to say goodbye to the winter.

Launching one of the St. Gregory boats into the Kokre river by Primož PičulinSlovenian Tourist Board

Even though Pope Gregory the Great changed the old Julian calendar more than four centuries ago and deleted 10 days from it, so the official first day of spring is now later, Slovenes still celebrate it on the original date, March 12th, the name day of St. Gregory. 

The legend says that he was put in a wooden vessel as a baby and so floated his way to a miller. This happened on the first day of spring. 

Boat of St. Gregory on the water (2020) by Peter BalantičSlovenian Tourist Board

In the past...

it was celebrated by craftsmen as the turning point in the year when the day grew longer and they didn’t need artificial light to work anymore, and so they “threw the light into the water”. When water carries away the fire, with it goes everything bad, all the worries and the winter.

St. Gregory boat as a tree (2017) by Domen PalSlovenian Tourist Board

And it’s still most present in Gorenjska and Železniki, as these were places in Slovenia known for shoemaking, blacksmithing, and ironworking.

St. Gregor's Day in Kropa (1944) by Boris OrelSlovenian Tourist Board

The first data about this tradition in Železniki dates back to the mid-19th century, but this symbolic ritual of sending “the light” downstream goes far further into the past before any artificial lightning even existed, probably to the times of pre-Christian beliefs.

Bonfire on Tržiška Bistrica (2020) by Vili VoglenikSlovenian Tourist Board

At first, the ritual occurred during the transition from the old to the new year. That’s when two very important elements of life met - fire and water. 

The fire was the attribute of the god who ruled the upper world and water was the element of the underworld god. With the ritual, people ensured order between these two extremes.

Traditional woven basket on the water (2021) by Meta WraberSlovenian Tourist Board

For the ritual, the craftsmen used worn-out objects, such as clogs, or wooden baskets, which are called “camboh”.

Before sending a "camboh" downstream and lighting it on fire, they filled it with sawdust and resin.

Finished St. Gregory's boat with little birdies by Archive of The Public Institute Ribnica Handicraft CentreSlovenian Tourist Board

The main thing was - and still is - to put something on the water that emits light.

Making St. Gregory's boats in Kranjska hiša (2018) by Primož PičulinSlovenian Tourist Board

Through the years the custom transformed into the one we know today, when St. Gregory’s boats are mostly made by pre-schoolers and school children. 

They love to build their own little floats.

Children making St. Gregory's boats by Archive of The Public Institute Ribnica Handicraft CentreSlovenian Tourist Board

Looking forward to the tranquil scenery their “gregorčki” will make in the evening, they are creating paper boats of all shapes, most often little houses.

The exhibition of St. Gregory boats in Elementary School Tržič 2 by Milan MalovrhSlovenian Tourist Board

Each is a unique piece of art. And the beautiful thing is, making it allows you to be crafty and creative, as there are no rules on how it should look - it just has to be floatable and big enough to put in the candle.

Exhibition of St. Gregory's Boats by Milan MalovrhSlovenian Tourist Board

Not to be mistaken, it’s not only a children’s custom. Many adult Slovenes put a lot of effort, time, and creativity into theirs, too.

In some cases, they create a miniature version of a real house, church, mill, or some other construction.

St. Gregory's procession (2017) by Špela KurnikSlovenian Tourist Board

At nightfall, the procession begins. The whole town goes to the banks of a river or creek to “throw the light into the water”, as their ancestors have done for centuries.

Little boat of St. Gregory on fire (2017) by Špela KurnikSlovenian Tourist Board

The lights are as beautiful as the feeling when the water takes away the winter and all the worries. 

The dancer Mitja Benčina with the fire spectacle at the event Vuč v vodo (2016) by Milan MalovrhSlovenian Tourist Board

The event is pretty lively, as there are also individuals whipping flaming brooms poured with resin, and there is also a straw bonfire lighting the river bank.

Birdies illustration (2021) by Meta WraberSlovenian Tourist Board

Slovenian Valentine‘s Day or “when the birdies marry”

It’s said that on this day the birdies get married. In the past, parents would hide potica, bread, sweets, or other goodies as the feast for the bird wedding. And if the birdies couldn’t eat everything, the village kids helped them. 

They gladly searched for the goodies all over the village. According to the old faith, you could see the bird wedding only if you came to the bushes barefoot.

Decoration of the Tržič at St. Gregory's Day by Milan MalovrhSlovenian Tourist Board

The day was special for young girls too, as it was believed that if they kept an eye on the sky on this day, the first bird they saw would tell them what kind of husband they would have. 

The exhibition of St. Gregory boats in Elementary School Tržič 3 by Milan MalovrhSlovenian Tourist Board

DIY project: gregorček

Try to welcome spring the Slovenian way yourself! Print a colored or B&W version of a model for a paper house, decorate it with your favorite colors, make it your own. Then cut it, glue it together, and put it on a floatable object.

Use natural materials, as the next step is to put a lit candle in it and let it go down the river. Please tie a string around it and make sure it doesn’t end up in nature.

St. Gregory in Kropa, Kamna Gorica (2021) by Fest produkcijaSlovenian Tourist Board

St. Gregory boat as a house (2017) by Domen PalSlovenian Tourist Board

Wait… did you hear something too? Some say that a bear comes out of his den on St. Gregory’s Day and feels the willow twig. If it’s soft enough to curve, the bear stays awake, and if not, it goes back to sleep in his cozy, warm den.

Check out the Slovenian wildlife safari, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see that majestic creature!

Colourful House 01

Why should Slovenians get all the fun?!

Build the traditional Slovenian floating house. Click here to download the cutout.

White House 01

Or a white one, if you prefer!

Credits: Story

🐦 Sources:
Gregorjevo: ko gre luč v vodo in se prične pomlad. Knific, B., Tržič: Tržiški muzej, 2017.
Slovensko narodno izročilo. Pavlin, D., Kranj: Lexis, 1993.
St. Gregory’s Day - Slovenian Version of the Lover’s Festival  

🐦Photo credits:
Slovene Ethnographic Museum
Municipality of Trzic
The Public Institute Ribnica Handicraft Centre
Milan Malovrh
Tourist destination Kranj
Archive of Old Ljubljana Cultural Institute

🐦Video credits:
Tourist destination Radovljica

🐦Illustrations by Meta Wraber

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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