By Lyudmila Minokova
On the day of the summer solstice, our ancestors used to celebrate one of their favourite folk holidays: Kupalle. They gave thanks to the Sun, Earth and Water for its bountiful harvest. As soon as Christianity arrived, the pagan festival became combined with another holiday: the anniversary of the birth of Saint John the Baptist (popularly called Ivan Kupala, having baptised Christ). Kupalle is associated with many legends, songs and customs, with some still popular today. Others now exist only on paper or in the memory of our grandparents.
Although Kupalle was celebrated in the evening, people began to prepare for it in advance, going to the banya in the morning, to cleanse their bodies: literally and symbolically. Those who were ill placed nettles on the coals to create a herbal steam-bath. The legacy of this is still seen today, with people still making their birch twig beaters on this day, for use for the forthcoming year. Those who failed to go to the banya might visit a spring or well with the same purpose, washing their face and throwing a coin into the water to ward off illness.
Folklorist Yanka Kruk notes that our ancestors treated Kupalle with great caution. It was strictly forbidden to give something, sell or borrow on this day: a maxim passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. It was considered a great sin to give or take fire or bread from a house, since it might bring poverty in future. They also believed that evil spirits awoke on Kupalle, with witches turning into frogs and mice on this night, in order to creep into barns to steal milk from cows, damage rye and generally harm people. To protect themselves, people would place nettles on the doorstep and young aspen on the barn door. A candle was fixed at the gate as a talisman and bouquets of medicinal herbs and birch branches were placed on cows’ horns to ward off evil. Blessed salt and Gromnitsy candles were also common.
Float, float, the wreath...
Staying up all night at Kupalle was also thought to confer protection, so rural residents gathered together until morning. The holiday began with making a bonfire, for which young boys spent the day collecting rotten barrels and sticks, as well as worn out clothes and footwear. A wooden stick with a rye sheaf tied to it was placed in the middle of the bonfire and the fire was brought ‘alive’ by the spark of a flint or by friction. Songs were sung around the Kupalle bonfire the whole night, with villagers dancing karagods (reels) and playing games. Young boys and girls jumped over the bonfire and bathed in water to purify themselves and protect from evil spirits. They ate Kupalle dishes, wove wreaths and told fortunes. In some places, wreaths were made only from flowers while in others, oak, birch, pine and fir twigs were woven. Wreaths also varied in their size, with smaller ones designed for the head or waist and bigger for dancing karagods. Wreaths were also thrown over the bonfire and floated along the river, with the fate of the wreath’s owner forecast by the wreath’s ‘behaviour’. If the wreath immediately sank to the bottom, the young girl wouldn’t marry that year; if it floated further and smoothly, she would have a happy marriage.
Flower of happiness
Some old beliefs and fortune telling rituals are less well-known nowadays. In days gone by, on Kupalle evening, if a family member were unwell, flowers would be placed inside the house wall, between the logs. If they had died by the next morning, it was thought that the ill person would also soon die. Wreaths made from Kupalle flowers were also thrown onto the roofs of houses where unmarried young people lived, so that a young boy or girl would court during the year.
One of the most famous Kupalle beliefs concerns the fern flower, which was said to only bloom on this night, for a few moments. As it opened, a heavy thunderstorm would begin, with lightning. Finding the flower was thought to bring a host of treasures, good health and wealth, while conferring the lucky hunter with the ability to understand animals and plants. Those bold enough to seek out the flower would have to face various evil spirits which would try to seduce them along the way in their quest to guard the fern flower’s location.