Ivan Kupala Day: Histories and Traditions


On June 7th, the slavic people celebrate Ivan Kupala Day. On this day it is tradition to begin the swimming season. But not many know the history of this holiday and its place in Slavic culture. Elvira Voronina, associate professor of the Department of Russian Language and Literature at SUSU, told us about the holiday and its traditions.

– Do you know the history of this holiday? How long has it been celebrated?
– Ivan Kupala, or Midsummer Day, is one of the main pagan Russian holidays which was celebrated on the day of the summer solstice. With the adoption in Kiev Rus of Christianity, the Christian holiday of St. John the Baptist was added to this day, and the holiday began to be celebrated on June 24th.

 It is thought that we owe the source of Ivan Kupala Day to both eastern and western Slavs. By the old tradition, in our day, Ivan Kupala Day is celebrated by almost all of Europe, including Belarus (St. John the Baptist, Ivan Vedmatskiy, Ivan Koldunskiy, Sun and Love day), Ukraine (Solntsekres, First Mowing, Varfolomiy and Varvara, Ivan the herbalist), the Baltics (Rose Day, Yana Day, Water Day, Day of Spirits), and so on. In the olden times, before the arrival of Christianity, Ivan Kupala day was tied to the summer solstice, which in the old calendar tradition occurred on June 20-21. With the adoption of Chrstianity, people did not reject Ivan Kupala Day, but added St. John the Baptist's day to it, which was traditionally held on June 24th. But per the new calendar, St. John the Baptist's day is on July 7th. Having gone through changes over many years, Ivan Kupala Day has lost its true astronomic time which first arrives in the summer solstice. The arrival of Ivan Kupala Day is still not known to this day. Supposedly, Ivan Kupala Day came from the linguistic rituals of cleaning and ablution which occurred in rivers and lakes on the day of the summer solstice. Later, with the arrival of Christianity, celebration of Ivan Kupala Day was symbolized by the day of St. John the Baptist (in translation from Greek – dunker, bather) - the Christian tradition of baptism..

– What place does this day have in Slavic culture?

– Ivan Kupala Day was the most important of the summer holidays. The thing is that the Russian people, from ancient time, have practiced agriculture. Like all agricultral peoples, our ancestors had a solar cult. So, they especially valued holidays that glorified the rebirth of light and the ignition of solar flame. Ivan Kupala Day is the most important of them. It is celebrated on the summer solstice. Fires lit in the night of Ivan Kupala Day were a symbol and representation of the scorching June sun. Ivan Kupala Day was a holiday of solar fire and its powers of purification and creation. I was in Mexico recently, and not too long ago I became interested in Mexican culture. The ancestors of modern Mexicans, the Aztecs, also worshiped the sun, but their rituals were more harsh. They believed that the sun god gave birth to people, but so that this life giving and creation didn't stop, the sun constantly required fueling and feeding with a special food and water – human blood. So, the Aztecs had mass sacrifices. Apparently, the Slavs were a more peaceful people, because in their worship of the sun they did without bloodshed.

– What celebratory traditions exist?

– Midsummer traditions are explained by the properties of magical symbolism. The popular epithet of John the Baptist was associated among Russian Christians with the custom of ceremonial ablution, bathing, as a manifestation of cleaning magic. The etymological dictionary from the 20th century connects the word bathed to the verb “to bathe”. From this day, they were allowed to bath, since according to popular belief, John the Baptist chased the evil spirits from water. Ablution with water was a mass bathing in water sources, washing or bathing with water or dew, in a bath tub, or by pouring water. These rituals with water could be done at night, at dawn, in the break between the church services – morning and lunchtime. A person who refused to bathe was suspected of witchcraft.

We also don't want to forget that in this time, in the time of the solar solstice, light – the fire of life – ascending to fullness, shone with miraculous power. On the eve of Ivan Kupala Day they lit midsummer fires everywhere. Gustynsky chronicles from the 17th century describe Ivan Kapala Day like this: in the evening, young people of both sexes joined up, braided themselves wreathes from greens or roots, girded themselves with weeds, lit fires. Hand in hand they walked around the aforementioned fire, signing their songs, and then they hop over this fire. It was believed that on this night fire, like water, had cleansing strength, and that's why they hopped over it – for cleansing and health.

Vegetation also performed miracles in this time. On this night, flowers and herbs gain magical power and properties that do not exist in other times. It was necessary to guard the minute when these magical substances were passed to you. On the eve of this holiday, the charming wives walked around the meadows and swamps, fields and oak forests, looking for herbs and any greens, scooping out various magical roots.

All throughout the air charm, magic, and a special poetic fear moves throughout the air from the fact that here, there are unseen and unknown spirits capable of doing harm. The calendar period in which the Midsummer holidays occurred were considered the most “dangerous” (like the Christmas season) – by their beliefs, during this time, otherworldly forces came to life.

And you had to manage to do a lot while this holy and strange time was occurring – jump over the fire, bathe in the refreshing waters, and gather herbs which only have special healing powers on Ivan Kupala Day.

But the most courageous would wander into the woods looking for fern flower. Those who find it will find any treasure without effort.

– Has the relationship towards this holiday changed in the modern world?

When student philologists and I find out about Russian traditions and beliefs, we understand how much we could learn from our ancestors. The ancient pagan holidays have given us a chance for lively discussion, the chance to be involved not in real life games and fun rather than digital ones, a chance to feel like part of nature and a part of a community and collective. What feelings do we have today from these holidays? Only a desire to save these traditions and, if possible, make them a part of the lives of modern man.

Ekaterina Kuznetsova
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