Important Russian Summer Holidays, Customs and Traditions
Semik, Parent's Saturday, The Trinity
The seventh week after Easter is a sacral period, especially 3 days of that week: Thursday ("Semik"), Saturday ("Parent's Saturday"), and Sunday (The Trinity), 50th day after Easter. The rituals connected with that period symbolize the change of spring by summer. The rituals center around the birch tree. The branches of the birch tree were used to decorate the houses and streets. People would be singing and dancing in a ring around the cut birch tree. They would also curl the branches of the birch trees singing ritual songs. Sometimes they would bend the tops of the birch trees to the ground and interlace them with grass. This was supposed to neutralize the two opposites ('up' and 'down'), to guarantee fertility. This is also connected with the male-female and live-dead origins. Binding the branches of the birch tree, man as if magically added vital energy from the upper world (the tree crown) to the lower world (the earth) and to himself. Another meaning of this binding was establishing close, ('binding') relationships. At the end of the ritual, they would unbind the tree and throw it into the river with lamentations. The unbound vital power was supposed to transfer magically into the future grain yield. Often times this ritual would take place on Monday after the Trinity - White Monday. It was believed that mermaids often get out of the water on the Trinity or on White Monday, start swinging on the trees trying to lure the passers-by into their arms to tickle them to death. People would beware of swimming that whole week, as well as passing alone through a sowed field. There was a way of protecting oneself from the mermaids' attack: one was supposed to draw a cross on the ground, and a circle around it. Standing in that circle was believed to give protection: the mermaids would not dare to approach anyone standing in that circle; they would be walking close to it and then hide away.
Agrafena Kupalnitsa's Day, Ivan Kupala's Day, Peter and Paul's Day
Among other summer holidays - Agrafena Kupalnitsa's Day (June 23/July 6), Ivan Kupala's Day (St. John Baptist's Day) - June 24/July 7, and Peter and Paul's Day (June 29/July 12.) One of the key rituals of this period was swimming with ritual singing. Beginning with Agrafena's Day, they would start swimming in rivers; they would go to bathhouses to sweat and wash themselves. Bath brooms would be made for the year ahead (broom-making was also accompanied by ritual songs.) On that day, they would wash their faces with the morning dew to stay healthy. Also, on Agrafena's Day herbs and plant roots would be gathered for medical and sorcery purposes. In this period, nights were filled with horror because all forces nourished by Chaos were believed to be activated- not only the forces favorable for fertility but also anti-sacral, dark, demonic forces. The popular belief was that the night before the Ivan Kupala's Day (St.John Baptist's Day) trees would move from place to place and talk among themselves; animals and even herbs would also talk to each other, because that night they would obtain magic power. To gain this power, people would gather herbs to be used for medicinal and sorcery purposes. Also, the plants were believed to be able to point to hidden treasures (in particular, the mythological fern flower); they were expected to protect from all sorts of troubles and to be good for making love potion. To make sure that the herbs had the magic and medicinal effect, it was important to gather them in the right place at the right time following all rituals including singing special songs.
Erotic symbolism was also typical of the Kupala holidays (it is not by chance that Kupala is being often compared to the Roman Cupid). Pouring water and mud over people of the opposite sex, followed by joint swimming of men and women was a trace of the pagan sexual freedom which was part of the fertility magic. Love motives are the main ones in the Kupala songs.
Not only water is an important part of the Kupala holidays, but also fire. The night before the Kupala's Day they would build fires, dance around them and jump above them. Those who could jump especially high were supposed to become happier.
The holiday was also associated with the sun; therefore, there existed a tradition of throwing from the hills the wheels covered with straw and put on fire (this used to be the ancient symbol of the sun.)
This cycle of holidays was ending with love songs and building night fires on Peter and Paul's Day (June 29/July 12), when they bid farewell to spring. The haymaking time would begin right after that. The short summer would follow.
Kuzminki (July 14) is a women's holiday. On that day women would visit friends, eat vegetables, drink beer and sing women's songs, full of mythological motives. Here is an example of a traditional women's song:
"When I was little, I didn't know the sorrow.
Then I grew up and faced the sorrow:
I married an old man
An old and jealous man I married.
He goes to bed not like a human,
Not like a human, but like a fool,
Like a fool, with his back facing me.
A vicious snake is lying between us
And at the head of the bed there is a snowdrift.
You rise, the cloud, the thunderous cloud,
You kill the vicious snake!
Shine, gorgeous sun, shine!
Heat that snowdrift, heat it!"
Here we can see the main mythological motives - a jealous husband (Perun-the thunderbearer was traditionally pictured as a bearded old man), his wife, and a snake that came between them (fighting the snake-enemy), thunderstorm, killing the snake, melting of the snowdrift leading to the final appearance of water in a myth. While the archaic folklore is mostly built on similar variations on mythological subjects, it does not mean that it is poor; on the contrary, the many ways of recreating the myth shows the richness of folklore.
Ilya's Day (July 20/August 2) - this date symbolized for the northern Russia the end of the summer. Ilya is a Christian version of thunderbearer. People believed that Ilya rides in the sky in a chariot or on a white horse and makes thunders. He is in charge of rains, thunderstorms, lightnings, and he sends fertility to the Earth. He is the master of the most frightful yet beneficent forces of nature. On the Ilya's Day, all the Evil spirits turn into various animals, trying to escape the fire arrows of Ilya the Prophet. The traditional enemy - the snake - cannot escape from his arrows even though he turns into a stone, a tree, an animal, etc.
Maria Magdalene's Day
Maria Magdalene's Day (July 22/Agust 4) is believed to be a "thunderstorm" day. Therefore, on that day traditionally no work was done in the fields by farmers for fear of being struck by the thunderstorm.
Assumption Day (August 15/28) is known for its ancient tradition of "curling Ilya's or Nikola's beard" which symbolizes the end of harvest. The farmers would leave a few spikes on the field, and tie them with a ribbon repeating the following words: "Here is your beard, Ilya, bear us an abundant crop of rye and oats next summer!"