Merry Day of Culture

Author: Tanja Glogovčan

Date: 1. November 2019

Time to read: 5 min

This Merry Day of Culture is an informal holiday celebrated in Slovenia every year on 3 December to mark the day the great Slovenian poet France Prešeren was born.

It was first celebrated in 2000 on the initiative of the Ministry of Culture to mark the bicentennial of the poet's birth. Afterwards, cultural institutions throughout Slovenia established the practice of opening their doors for visitors at no charge on this day. The name was derived from part of the title of the popular Anton Tomaž Linhart comedy This Merry Day or Matiček's Marriage.

A Poet of Imperishable Fame

France Prešeren was born on 3 December 1800 in Vrba in Gorenjska. February 8 is cultural holiday in Slovenia or the Prešeren Day. It is when we remember the works of this great poet that marked Slovenian culture. Dr France Prešeren is also the author of Slovenian National Anthem – A Toast.

He has had the exceptional significance for the history of the Slovenian nation and the majority of Slovenes comprehend the deep substantive dimension of aspirations for personal and national freedom.

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Prešeren’s work

France Prešeren – poet, writer, thinker – won a position in Slovenian society more reminiscent of a natural phenomenon than of a person of flesh and blood. It is impossible to remove him from the collective Slovenian spirit, since he is practically one with this spirit. The presence of his name and image everywhere – on squares, streets, awards, bank notes, the theatre – is only a superficial manifestation of the poet’s influence.

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Prešeren's Toast as the anthem of independent Slovenia

A Toast, (Zdravljica) is the culmination of Prešeren's political poetry. It was written in 1844 during a period of tight political censorship in the former Austrian monarchy of which Slovenia was a part. Due to censorship, the poem could not be published in Prešeren's "Poems", therefore it could only be published after the fall of Metternich's absolutism and the removal of censorship in 1848.

Even the former US president Bill Clinton emphasised, when visiting Slovenia, in his speech the prophetic and symbolic meaning of the words of the Slovenian anthem. He seemed to be sincerely impressed by the words:

"God's blessing on all nations, who long and work for that bright day, when o'er earth's habitations, no war, no strife shall hold its sway…"

This poem was exceptionally important during the history of the formation of Slovenians as a contemporary European nation; the poem was particularly topical in the period of the national and liberation war during the occupation from 1941-45, and it was during Slovenian independence (1990-91) that the idea of Prešeren's Toast as the anthem of independent Slovenia arose. The idea was adopted by a great majority.

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His thought was ahead of his time

Prešeren's biography is from many perspectives a characteristic biography of a secularly educated person of the time. Prešeren was a representative of the neglected peasant classes and was accompanied by the numerous traumas he had been through in his youth for his whole life. He went through a series of romantic disappointments and was strongly affected by the premature loss of a series of his closest friends. France Prešeren was certainly not a man corresponding to his narrow-minded environment: he was too liberal and, as a poet, he deviated far too much from the established literary currents of the time both from the substantive and formal aspects. In his time, France Prešeren actively participated in the cultural struggles of educated Slovenian people in the first half of the 19th century.

What Shakespeare is to the English, Racine to the French, Dante to the Italians, Goethe to the Germans, Pushkin to the Russians, and Mickiewicz to the Poles, Prešeren is to the Slovenes - thus, in 1866, critic Josip Stritar described the place France Prešeren held in Slovene literature.

He was a third of eight children and the first son to Mina and Šimen Prešeren. When he was eight years old, he went to live with his uncle Jožef, a priest. France was educated by Jožef for the first two years and then entered primary school in Ribnica. Prešeren continued his schooling in Ljubljana. It was there that he realised that he had not been born to be a priest, which was his mother’s wish.

Against his parents’ wishes, France applied to the Faculty of Arts in Vienna. He graduated in the spring of 1828 and soon after found his first job as a lawyer in Ljubljana. He also worked pro bono as an apprentice; however, this work brought no success, since he was not regularly employed. He gave up his career as an official and started working regularly as an apprentice. For a long time, he tried to become an independent lawyer, but his applications to practise law were constantly rejected. Interestingly, Prešeren, who was registered in the golden book of excellent students and passed all exams with honours, could not get a job. It became clear to him that honesty would not take him far. Yet, he never changed and an interesting fact is also that Prešeren only accepted cases of those wrongly accused or victims of injustice.

He was unhappily in love with nobleman's daughter Julija Primic, to whom he dedicated Sonetni venec (Wreath of Sonnets).

He never officially married but had three illegitimate children with Ana Jelovšek. Many of his closest friends died, even his best friend, Matija Čop, who drowned in the Sava River. Prešeren blamed himself for Čop’s death, and dedicated his epic poem Krst pri Savici (The Baptism on the Savica) to him. His children went into foster care, so he sought comfort in inns, which became his second home. Five applications to practise law were rejected. On the same day that his sixth application was approved, he also received an approval for the publication of the only book published in his lifetime, the collection Poezije (Poems). He moved to Kranj and finally found some luck. At first, he did quite well, he even opened his own office as a lawyer.

He was known as Doctor Fig among children, since he always carried a fig or other sweets in his pockets.

He also liked to invite groups of children for lunch and liked to observe how they eat and play and their conversations. They inspired him and filled him with joy. He also gave money to the poor. However, the lucky life did not last long. He was killed by drink and poverty. He died on 8 February 1849 of liver cirrhosis, caused by alcoholism. He was buried in Kranj.