Under snowy veil
[b]It’s only autumn but the breath of winter is just around the corner. Frosty mornings are almost within grasp. Within a few weeks, the last autumn leaf will fall to our feet and we — either helplessly or joyfully — will acknowledge that winter has arrived… and, with it, certain folk traditions[/b]Winter was once perceived to bestow Holy Protection, with the white cloudy sky and snowy blanket seen as a veil placed by the Virgin Mary over the heads of the faithful. The idea originated in Tsargrad, which was repeatedly attacked by barbarians. In fact, snow often begins to fall on the joyful festival of Holy Protection and many folk traditions and legends are connected with this special day.
Winter was once perceived to bestow Holy Protection, with the white cloudy sky and snowy blanket seen as a veil placed by the Virgin Mary over the heads of the faithful. The idea originated in Tsargrad, which was repeatedly attacked by barbarians. In fact, snow often begins to fall on the joyful festival of Holy Protection and many folk traditions and legends are connected with this special day.
“Holy Protection is a major holiday, which is especially revered. It’s considered to be a landmark in the seasonal cycle, where nature and mankind enter another stage,” explains folklore researcher Yelena Dovnar-Zapolskaya. “Once Holy Protection day arrived, sheep were no longer sent out to pasture; shepherds would only work from St. George’s Day to Holy Protection.”
Meanwhile, ‘Holy Protection pies’ were baked, stuffed with boiled kidney beans and onions. In some areas of Vitebsk Region, this custom remains. People would carry the tasty pie all around the house and outbuildings, touching the walls lightly with its brown crust to imbue protection from snowstorms and strong winds. Kidney beans were appropriate, containing essential vitamins for the female body — useful to young mothers and mature women alike, being a wonderful hormone replacement.
Of course, even after Holy Protection, the weather could be changeable, with sun and rain coming in turn; this was sometimes called a ‘girl’s summer’ — being as unstable and changeable as a girl’s character. There was no escaping the fact that summer was leaving however, hiding itself at last. People said that ‘Holy Protection puts its stamp on the earth’. According to legend, no one would discover treasure until the first spring thunders arrived, as the earth would hide all beneath its winter coat.
This new part of the year turned the thoughts of parents and young people to match-making and weddings, which were often celebrated during the cold season. It seemed as if the Virgin Mary would bless newly-weds with a long and happy life: ‘Holy Protection! Cover the land with yellow leaves and young snow, water — with ice, fish — with scales, trees — with bark, birds — with feathers and young girls — with caps’.
People would also foretell the weather on this day. A northern wind meant a severe winter, an eastern wind forecast little snow and a western wind threatened deep snow, as high as the gates, bringing much sledging.
Earth under young snow
While everyone enjoys warmth, winter has its own charm, as proven by the rich heritage of Belarusian folk traditions from this time of year. Respect and admiration for its beauties is obvious and, of course, we know that spring will always return. Life continues regardless of the weather; it simply adjusts in the winter months, to accommodate the snow, frost and wind.
Long ago, people viewed snow as a manifestation of God’s care for the land and its inhabitants. They said: ‘much snow means much bread’ and ‘snowy frosts and snow higher than the house brings a rich year’. However, snow accompanied by strong winds and storms was thought to be sent by evil forces, as were spring frosts. According to Ms. Dovnar-Zapolskaya, people would say that ‘devils and witches marry in snowstorms’, showing how a snowy landscape can be perceived as other-worldly. Snow was also connected with the world of our ancestors, with each snowflake, being unique in shape, containing the soul of a dead person or, even, a whole family generation. Snow or rain on your wedding day is still seen as good fortune — a God-given sign of well-being.
Our ancestors saw frost and snow as purifying the house and air, so, if Easter was early, people would ‘shower’ all corners of their houses with snow on Holy Thursday. Since ancient times, ice water has been considered to have healing powers, bringing strength and health. The first snow was especially powerful while the last snow flurry, which could fall on fresh spring growth, was described as ‘God sweeping away the tents’. On frosty and snowy days, newly-weds would be ‘buried’ in snow during the Maslenitsa festival, since it was thought that this would bring them good health, bestow strong children and, even, ensure soil fertility.
During the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Magdeburg Right, deep snow-drifts (some higher than houses) had to be cleared away by law, with roads covered with ash and sand in advance. Everyone took their duties seriously. The police would even fine residents who failed to clear their courtyard.
Frost has long been identified with festive New Year but our ancestors also imagined ‘frost’ as an old man with beard and moustache, whose coarse clothes were covered with frost and ice. Frost was seen as benevolent, sent by God to freeze rivers and lakes, creating icy bridges. Strong frost wasn’t a punishment; rather, it was considered ‘healthy’ — even if the logs were cracking in the house. People said it was the ‘icy old man’ walking from one corner to another or even sitting on the roof. Father Frost was treated very respectfully, with people even inviting him to the table at Kolyady, trying to ‘bribe’ him.
However, frost in spring aroused less joy, bringing more trouble. When spring arrived, people said: ‘Frost is struggling with the Sun’. However, he couldn’t win, since his strength was draining away, his beard, moustache and clothes melting.
Wind — another roaring and uncontrollable element — also has a double folk origin, boasting purifying power and expelling evil in its moderate form while storm winds are ‘evil’s child’. In many illustrations from the late 19th-early 20th century, wind and frost are personified, presented as a man with blowing cheeks and pursing lips.
Ms. Dovnar-Zapolskaya explains, “The wind can bring warm rain and disperse seeds from plants and trees, allowing them to germinate. Wind also blows away all evil; healers would ‘send’ disease ‘to the wind’. However, it can also bring trouble and illness, possessing destructive power; accordingly, some diseases were associated with the wind — such as chickenpox. Angry winds are sent by evil spirits. Naturally, many legends exist. One states that a knife thrown into the centre of a hurricane will return covered with blood or that an evil spirit may emerge from the tornado with the knife in their leg, promising to serve whoever will take the knife out. It’s important to be careful when cutting things during windy weather and, in Belarusian fairy tales and legends, millers were often thought to have made deals with the wind to make it change direction or strength as necessary.”
Fast isn’t empty
The last autumn days and the beginning of winter brings a period of fasting, preceding the great holiday of Jesus Christ’s birth. It’s known as St. Philip’s fast in Orthodox religion (beginning on November 28th) and Advent in the Protestant and Catholic faiths.
Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christmas, and is observed until December 24th. Believers joyfully anticipate the arrival of Jesus Christ, undertaking quiet reflection and endeavouring to shake off bad habits — such as smoking, drinking or eating to excess. Most choose an aspect of their lives which they know requires attention while others seek the advice of a priest. In scrutinising one’s own lifestyle, it brings great joy when Christmas actually arrives, with the birth of Jesus Christ perceived with especial depth of feeling.
One beautiful tradition of the Catholic faith is to conduct candlelit prayer services in honour of the Virgin Mary. The liturgy includes the words: ‘Clean dews, embrace our world; skies, give us the Holy Deliverer’. Advent also marks the start of the new liturgical year. Believers are encouraged to devote themselves to prayer, meditation about God, and contemplation of their faith and lives.
Orthodox believers’ St. Philip’s Fast is less strict, since they focus more on Christ’s birth as a joyful event. Traditionally, those fasting might give up meat, cheese, butter, milk, eggs or, sometimes, fish. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, fish and wine are prohibited, while cooking with vegetable oil is forbidden after evensong. On the other days, food can be prepared using vegetable oil.
According to ancient tradition, fish is permitted on Saturday and Sunday, on great holidays — such as the Presentation of the Theotokos at the Temple — and on saints’ days, if these fall on Tuesday or Thursday. If holidays fall on Wednesday or Friday, only wine and vegetable oil are allowed. From December 20th-25th, the fast becomes stricter, with fish prohibited even on Saturday and Sunday. New Year is usually celebrated on these days, with priests often suggesting that believers continue their lent diet and remain aloof from noisy entertainments. The fast aims to bring spiritual purification, rather than serving a purpose in itself, to help the soul’s journey heavenwards. However, the faithful are advised not to view themselves as being in any way superior in making their efforts. As the Optina Elders said: ‘Those who don’t want to fast voluntarily, will fast involuntarily…’.
The church views fasting as a lifestyle choice, requiring long-term commitment and gradual abstinence; it’s advised to fast on Wednesday and Friday all year through to allow the body to adjust. Undertaking a sudden change of diet can either damage your health or make you impatient and irritable from hunger. When this happens, anger and discomfort make people abandon their fast, so the faithful are advised: ‘Let your hearts not be embittered with overeating or excessive drinking’.
The last day of the Christmas Fast is Christmas Eve, when the Church asks followers to eat ‘sochivo’ (made from wheat and rice). Orthodox believers must fast ‘until the first star appears in the sky’, reminding us of the appearance of the star in the east, announcing the birth of Jesus Christ. Once the Divine Liturgy has been performed, a meal can be prepared with vegetable oil.
How to prepare ‘sochivo’
1 glass of wheat grains, 100g of poppy seeds, 100g of walnut kernels, 1-3 table spoons of honey and sugar to taste.
Wheat grains are crushed in a wooden mortar with a wooden pestle, while pouring some warm water from time to time to remove the husks. The kernels are drawn, bolted and washed before being cooked as usual as a thin porridge. When cool, add some sugar. Poppy seeds are ground until they form poppy milk, when honey is added. Everything is mixed and added to the wheat, with cooled boiled water added if too thick. Finally, walnut kernels are sprinkled on top. Sometimes, ‘sochivo’ is made from rice, but each cup must be boiled with 1.5 glasses of water, with the lid on, at a high heat for three minutes, for six minutes at a moderate heat and three at a low heat. The rice should stand for another 12 minutes with the lid on. Sometimes, raisins can be added but only honey should be used for sweetening.
Finishing point of the year
“In ancient times, the penultimate day of the year — December 30th — was also special, being the day when workers finished their contracts of hire,” notes Ms. Dovnar-Zapolskaya. “People would work the last day and then reassess their conditions. It was said that ‘On St. Stepan’s Day, each hired worker was master of himself’ and it was absolutely true. Employers would be slightly concerned about how to keep their essential workers, offering advantageous proposals and benefits and, of course, good salaries. If the labour force was dissatisfied, they had the right to change employment. There was a saying: ‘I’ll find another master for myself on St. Stepan’s Day’ (30th December honours St. Stephan or Stepan).”
Just a week is left before Christmas,
Our master isn’t pleased with his servants,
Servants are going skipping
And master follows them crying.
Weather forecasting also took place on this day, with snow on trees promising an abundance of tasty, fragrant wild strawberries in the woods (despite it being many months ahead).
Christmas now awaits us, followed by Theophany and Maslenitsa. Time ever rolls on!
By Galina Ulitenok