Plunge into the magic of Kupala Night
Mark the beginning of summer, the Slavic way
As we enter a new season, people around the globe gather to celebrate summer solstice with a myriad of festivals and rituals. In Eastern Europe, this millennial-old tradition is called Kupala Night, or ‘Feast of St. John the Baptist’, and takes place on the night from July 6th–July 7th.
Originally a Slavic pagan holiday named Kupalo (a pagan fertility rite), the event was in danger of being wiped out following the introduction of Christianity to Eastern Europe. Yet, efforts to abolish the custom proved futile and ultimately a tamer version of the tradition was adapted into the Christian calendar as St. John’s Eve.
Consequently, the Slavic midsummer traditions celebrated today are a quirky fusion of both pagan and Christian influences.
Traditions and beliefs
In pagan days, Kupalo was believed to be the god of peace, love and harvest as well as the personification of the earth’s fertility.
Among the ancient celebration’s many legends is the belief that the evening of Kupala marks the only time of the year when the mythical fern flower blooms to reveal hidden treasures buried across the lands.
Lore has it that the flower, which is meant to bring prosperity, can only be located by people of exceptional virtue. In the old days, it also served as a socially accepted pretext for single youths to come together, without a chaperone!
Nowadays, unmarried couples gather outside villages, usually near forests or ponds, to build so-called Kupalo bonfires – a relic of the pagan sacrificial custom – around which they perform ritual dances and authentic songs. As part of the ritual, couples jump over the Kupalo fires in a test of bravery. If they complete the jump while holding hands, they are destined to be together.
In the past, the bonfires would also be used to burn herbs that were collected in the previous year as well as discard items that had been blessed with holy water and could not be safely disposed of by any other means.
Following Kupala Night, the bonfires themselves were never extinguished by locals but always allowed to smolder naturally.
Another integral part of today’s festivities is the quest for the fern flower. Traditionally, single women, signified by their wildflower crowns, are the first to enter the forest in search of magical herbs and particularly, the mythical flower. They are then followed by young, unmarried men in hopes of a romantic pairing.
Magical properties were attributed to the plants and herbs collected on Kupala Night. According to popular belief, the gathered plants could protect individuals from evil forces and cure illnesses in humans and animals alike – and even priests agreed. In fact, local priests proceeded to bless the plants in church on the day of Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
Other Kupala traditions include the plaiting and releasing of a floral wreath. On the night of Kupala, young women place their handmade garlands in the river with a lighted candle, meant to predict their romantic future. The belief is that the longer the garland remains on the water’s surface, the happier the lady’s life will be and the longer the candle burns, the longer she will live.
Many of the traditions used to be observed solely in rural areas, but have over time migrated to larger cities across Eastern Europe. Today, summer solstice still calls for a celebration and while modern day festivities largely circle around fireworks, concerts and dancing, the Slavs’ ancient pagan customs prevail.