A unique spectacle marking the start of spring will take place in several towns across Slovenia on 11 March, on the eve of St Gregory Day. To celebrate the victory of light over darkness children will release candle-lit miniature boats and houses into rivers, sending them off downstream in what is a symbolic as well as an eye pleasing ritual.
St Gregory Day, celebrating the arrival of spring, and love, is named after a sixth-century monk who became pope. He is known for many acts of kindness and remembered as the patron saint of schoolchildren and scholars.
Originally, St Gregory Day was celebrated on the first day of spring, but as the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, it was pushed ten days back, to 12 March. It is said that on this day, birds are joined in wedlock, which is why St Gregory Day is in a way the Slovenian version of Valentine’s Day.
In the past people hung baked goods in the trees and bushes on this day. These represented left-overs from the birds’ weddings, which children would search for. In another custom from the past, young women would look up at the sky and the first bird they saw would indicate what type of husband they will marry.
In the early 20th century, towns with a long-standing tradition of crafts and trade such as Tržič, Kropa, Kamna Gorica and Železniki believed that St Gregory “tosses the lamp into the water” as the day becomes longer and artificial light is no longer needed in workshops.
There, the tradition of crafting candle-lit miniature boats and houses called gregorčki and sending them off downstream was born. In many towns, the tradition is still alive today.
Some of the tiny vessels, mostly made by children, are veritable pieces of art, and seeing them float in the evening is quite a spectacle.
In Ljubljana, gregorčki are traditionally released on the Gradaščica river in the Trnovo borough. A number of accompanying events are also held on the occasion, including workshops and concerts.
According to the organisers, the Institute for the Revival of the Cultural Image of the Old Town, the ritual helps revive this part of the town, as the Gradaščica riverbank and Trnovo Bridge are part of the architectural heritage of Jože Plečnik, which was protected by UNESCO in 2021.
The tradition lives on in several other towns around Slovenia as well, especially in the northern half of the country, including in Vrhnika, Kranj, Kamna Gorica, Kranjska Gora, Maribor and Beltinci.
According to Bojan Knific, the author of a book on St Gregory Day, in pre-Christian times certain rituals were held at turning points such as the equinox to prevent chaos and restore order.
In Slavic mythology this was when Perun, the god of the sky, clashed with Veles, the god of the underworld. “This is exactly what the symbolism of fire and water are all about – the fire goes into the water, the power of the upper world and the underworld become one,” he said.
Similar traditions of releasing candle-lit floats on rivers are also known in Austria’s Carinthia, Switzerland, Bavaria, the Czech Republic, southern Poland and France, and they all have the same roots in pre-Christian times, Knific explained.