July 01, 1996

Ivan Kupala

Ivan Kupala
Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902)

This is the name given in the folk calendar for the July 7 holiday, better known to Orthodox Christians as the feast of John the Baptist. It can also be called Ivanov Den (Ivan’s Day) or Ivan Tsvetnoi (Ivan the Colored). Just like any other Russian holiday, Christian rituals have their origins in pagan ones. In pre-Christian times, it was the feast of the summer solstice and the day of cleansing with water and fire.

The word kupalo means being angry, wild and boiling with rage. The combination of this pagan deity with the Christian holiday of John the Baptist, and the similarity of the words kupalo and kupat (to immerse in water) gave the holiday a hybrid name.

Our pagan ancestors believed that, in the struggle against evil forces (which were to blame for all human failures, bad harvests and disease), they needed rituals of a cleansing and avertive nature, using the most active elements — fire and water. This was why, in the old days, on the night of Ivan Kupala, bonfires were lit on the outskirts of towns and villages. On the one hand, these bonfires were necessary for chasing away evil spirits from homes and farm land. On the other, they were an element of a feast of young people, who danced in rings around the fires and played games. The most dexterous would jump through the fire. Old clothes, bones, tree bark and the clothes of sick people were burnt on them.

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