[b]Modern holidays transport us to the past and look into the present [/b]It’s interesting to look at the origin of today’s festive calendar, since the events of the past clearly shape our state, professional and folk holidays, now celebrated countrywide. Each has its own fascinating biography. In the early Middle Ages, several principalities were situated within the modern territory of Belarus, with Polotsk being the most powerful. It reached its height under the rule of Vseslav the Magician (Vseslav Charodey) who even ruled in Kiev for some time. In the mid 13th century, one of the most powerful states in Europe was established — the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (including today’s Belarus and some parts of modern Lithuania). Vilnya was its capital (modern Vilnius).
It’s interesting to look at the origin of today’s festive calendar, since the events of the past clearly shape our state, professional and folk holidays, now celebrated countrywide. Each has its own fascinating biography.
In the early Middle Ages, several principalities were situated within the modern territory of Belarus, with Polotsk being the most powerful. It reached its height under the rule of Vseslav the Magician (Vseslav Charodey) who even ruled in Kiev for some time. In the mid 13th century, one of the most powerful states in Europe was established — the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (including today’s Belarus and some parts of modern Lithuania). Vilnya was its capital (modern Vilnius).
In the 13th-14th century, the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania significantly expanded. By 1420, it occupied 687,000 square kilometres (not counting the Black Sea marshes). Modern Lithuania comprised just 10 percent of this amount, with modern Ukraine forming 33 percent, Russia — 23 percent, and Belarus — 30 percent.
In 1569, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Kingdom merged to create a new federal state: the Rzech Pospolita. Later, the Russian Empire annexed Belarus and, during the 1812 War, the country suffered great ruin: as the Russian troops retreated and, then, during the retreat of Napoleon’s army. Following this destruction, many local residents emigrated to North America.
An independent Belarusian state revived in the early 20th century but remained divided until 1945. It was only after the Great Patriotic War that Belarus received its modern borders. From 1922 to 1991, it was known as the Belarusian State Socialist Republic (part of the USSR) and, in 1991, the Supreme Council adopted the Declaration of the State Sovereignty, proclaiming Belarus’ independence.
Despite a painful historical past, Belarusians love traditional celebrations, creating an atmosphere of festivity.
Belarus’ festive calendar currently boasts over 90 state, professional and folk holidays, including those celebrated globally and ones which are unique to the republic. State holidays revere significant historical events and priorities of state policy, such as the Day of the State Coat of Arms and the State Flag, Constitution Day and Victory Day. Mothers’ Day is a new state holiday in Belarus, celebrated on October 14th, allowing motherhood to receive the attention it deserves.
Professional holidays honour certain vocations and date from Soviet times; Belarus’ existence as a sovereign state has only changed the dates of some of these. Among the professions honoured are doctors, lawyers, drivers and customs officials. The ancient Day of Millers is celebrated on October 25th, while November 14th is Blacksmiths’ Day. Even today, the craft of blacksmiths remains much respected. During the Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk song festival, organised each year, the Ball of Hephaestus takes place, featuring the mastery of blacksmiths. They show their talents in transforming metal into flowers, butterflies and, even, hats.
Of course, some holidays have lost their relevance over time while others, such as Mothers’ Day, have emerged. Life changes and so do our festivals. The next holiday receiving consideration is the Day of the Entrepreneur.
Since ancient times
Of course, state and professional holidays require an official approach and dignified celebrations, but folk holidays allow free expression. The latter allow true celebration. With its rich history, Belarus enjoys a diverse calendar of folk holidays. Rather then celebrating Pancake Day as other countries do, Belarus has Maslenitsa, with its own weeklong series of pagan rituals. Another beautiful holiday from the past is Kupalle — celebrated on the night of July 6th — 7th, honouring the summer solstice. Our forefathers gave thanks to nature for the fertility of the land, while young couples jumped over the fire to purify their souls. Young girls would undertake activities to try and foretell the identity of their future husbands, throwing their floral headdresses into the river; their final resting place indicated whether they’d soon marry. Meanwhile, it was thought that pagan god Peroun sent his fire to the fern, allowing it to bloom at midnight — just for a few minutes. Finding the magical flower would, temporarily, bestow special powers ensuring good fortune and omniscience.
Students’ Day — celebrated on January 25th — also has its traditions. It began under Russian Empress Elizaveta, who signed a ‘Decree on the Establishment of a University and Two Gymnasiums in Moscow’, on January 25th, 1755. Since then, St. Tatiana has been the patroness of students.
In recent years, more days have been added to Belarus’ festive schedule. St. Valentine’s Day is a recent addition from the 1990s, encouraging lovers to declare their feelings publicly, with gifts and flowers. Belarus has also introduced its own version of International Museum Day, with museums countrywide opening through the night. Gomel’s Palace-and-Park Ensemble organises a wonderful dance each year to celebrate. Car Free Day is another novelty in Belarus, as is International Beauty Day, which is humorously celebrated by dozens of beauties running in heels.
The Dutch Flower Parade, Italian Tree Day and Spanish La Tomatina have also inspired Belarusian cities to create their own culture of celebrations. Lida has its own beer festival while Slutsk honours the potato and the Buda-Koshelevo district has an autumn holiday of kites, creating unforgettable impressions for the residents of this small town. Gomel has its own holiday celebrating kind deeds: from planting a tree to helping an unwell child. One city school has dedicated the Day of Smiles to this holiday. At the end of the year, a special commission awards a prize to the person having shown the greatest kindness of the year.
By Violetta Dralyuk