June 06, 2021

My First Ivan Kupala

My First Ivan Kupala
The khorovod and fire are two essential elements to any good Ivan Kupala celebration.  Photo by Alexandra Curtis

While everyone’s favorite traditional Russian holiday seems to be Maslenista, the less famous (but equally fiery) holiday of Ivan Kupala (also known as St. Ivan’s Eve) holds a special place in my memory. I do understand the former’s massive popularity; there’s a huge appeal to giant stacks of buttery bliny that no other ritual tradition is ever going to be able to compete with, and I can respect that. But there’s something about Ivan Kupala. It’s mysterious in a way that the bright colors and sunshine of Maslenitsa never could be. And I’m not the only one to be taken with this mystery; Gogol liked the holiday so much that he wrote a short story about it (which, in turn, Mussorgsky liked so much he composed his own piece honoring the holiday too). 

For those who have never had the pleasure of staying out late on St. Ivan's Eve (in late June), you can learn more about Ivan Kupala, its traditions, history, and folklore in one of the many well-written Russian Life articles that focus on the celebration. Like Maslenitsa, Ivan Kupala is a holiday with deeply pagan origins that got flipped around and reutilized to become more acceptably Christian. In order to keep the tradition alive, they took the celebration of the summer solstice and rebranded it as an Orthodox celebration for Saint John (or Ivan, the Russian version of the same name).

A blurry figure jumps over a fire in the dark of night.
An appropriately blurry photo of someone jumping over a flame on Ivan Kupala. | Photo by Alexandra Curtis

Common Kupala traditions (like jumping over an open flame) may seem like just fun and reckless ways to spend an evening, but they actually serve a much deeper, symbolic meaning. In this case, fire is a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Jumping over the fire (and not being burnt alive) was not only really fun, but also a form of ritual cleansing, specifically because Ivan Kupala ceremonies originally had (and on some level still do have) a lot to do with ensuring fertility. 

I witnessed this tradition firsthand when I participated in a folklore expedition with the Partnership for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Folklore in July 2018. This experience was not only amazing because it had been my first time visiting a Siberian village (I didn’t know the night sky could be so dark!), but also because it had been the first time I had ever in my life witnessed a ritualist celebration such as Ivan Kupala.

A table full of Russian delicacies, like vodka, cheese, meats, and salads.
The meal before the event was plentiful and included many different dishes, but a startling lack of utensils. | Photo by Alexandra Curtis

Just as most holidays are celebrated all over the world, we began by eating, laughing, and dancing while we waited for the sun to creep down. In the study of folklore, we talk a lot about liminal space, which is the blurry area that exists between two concrete locations. Magical things can happen in these zones because the regular rules of time and space rarely take governance within them. Holidays are a particular example of liminal space within time because they exist outside the regular work schedule. I could feel myself and others being pulled into this other world, and suddenly, I was being taught how to dance in a khorovod (traditional Russian circle dance), and it was wonderful. 

When it was finally dark, we all went down to the riverbank and lit a giant bonfire. As the embers were flickering, the ladies got quick to work making wreaths out of flowering tree branches. This was when the real holiday began. People started to dance in circles around the fire, play games jumping over the flame, and sing folk songs. 

Thinking back to America, the closest thing I could compare it to was my memories of staying up late to see the July 4 fireworks at the local park. The fire and the late-night sky were both vaguely familiar, but the energy of the festivities was much different. There was really no set schedule of events, no invitations, or closing times, it was just a group of people enjoying themselves and each other's company in the moonlight.

People in flowered wreaths and traditional dress dance around a building fire.
People (both young and old) danced hand in hand in circles for hours. | Photo by Alexandra Curtis

After the fire had died down and the darkness had really settled in, all the women began to throw their wreathes into the river for the river nymphs (the rusalki) to jump through. I wanted so badly to keep mine as a memento from the evening, but I heard it was bad luck to keep the wreath and that the rusalki would make your life miserable for withholding them their plaything. I tossed it aside, deciding to leave the liminal space closed behind me. 

Of course, this was just my individual experience celebrating Ivan Kupala in one very tiny village in Siberia. There are many ways to celebrate it, and I know for a fact that there are some rituals that this village decided to leave in the past (people running around naked for one was something that I was glad to not have seen). Just like with Maslenitsa, you can celebrate a contemporary version of this holiday in any major Russian city these days. Many Russians celebrate simply with their family and friends or by making mischief in the street. 

A group of people are laughing as they throw water from a fountain at each other.
People in Novosibirsk celebrate Ivan Kupala by having a water fight in the street. | Photo by Mikhail Koninin, through CC BY-NC 2.0

In many cities, there are also festivals to celebrate Ivan Kupala night every year. These gatherings often charge a fee for tickets (something their ancient counterparts would have scoffed at), but they also include a multitude of twenty-first-century "rituals" that resonate with the modern man, such as concerts and electronic music. This obviously isn't folk-tradition in its true sense, but it's something that I think sticks close to the playful ethos of the celebration in a new and modern way.

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