Day of Ivan Kupala (aka John the Baptist, or Ivan the Herbalist) in the olden days was one of the most sacred, important and the most rackety festivities for the Russian people. All partook in the celebrations: they would gather herbs and flowers, twine wreaths, make bonfires, jump over them and play, bathe in rivers and lakes and perform divinations about one’s intended.
Ivan Kupala Day falls on 24 June, taking into consideration natural and historical factor of the summer solstice. However, many mark it on July 7, i.e. June 24 in the old style.
Ivan Kupala Day was one of the major pagan festivals of the Slavs. After conversion of Rus’ into Christianity it turned out that the old habitual holiday coincided with the nativity of John the Baptist. So the two holidays blended together, just as the name of the holiday came to combine both John (Ivan) the Baptist and the old pagan god Kupala, who the pre-Christian holiday was dedicated to.
According to an old belief, Ivan Kupala personifies the blossoming of powers of nature. The rites are based on worshipping water and the sun. From times immemorial it was customary to make ritual bonfires on banks of rivers and lakes on the Eve of Ivan Kupala.
Purifying bonfires were the major peculiarity of Kupala Eve. They danced around bonfires, of course, to the accompaniment of live music. Young folks would throw wreaths over the bonfires and jump over them. Those who jumped higher were believed to live happier in future. In some places peasants even made their cattle go through this fire to protect it from pestilence. Mothers burned their ill children’s underwear to make all illnesses burn down, too. The youth and kids after jumping over bonfires would arrange boisterous merry games and races with one another. Playing race and catch was invariable on this night. By an old pagan belief on Kupala Eve, which is the shortest night in the year, one should not sleep, since all evil spirits come alive and are quite active.
On the Eve of Ivan Kupala the youth would look for their intended ones and choose their destinies: girls launched wreaths with lit candles on water and boys were to catch them – whose wreath he gets, she will be his wife.
On Ivan Kupala Day they bathed not only in water bodies but in dew as well. It was believed that Ivan’s dew helped against pimples, and if you sprinkled house walls and beds with it, then cockroaches and bedbugs would come to an end. On this day the Sun produces especially vivifying and animating impact on everything, folk beliefs say.
In the days of antiquity it was believed that Nativity of John the Baptist gave magic power to herbs and flowers and on the Eve of Ivan Kupala people gathered various plants, which they later brought to church for consecration, “to be used afterwards against evil suggestion of devilry”.
On this night people were looking for a fern’s flower – the one who is lucky to see it can make one’s innermost wish and it is bound to come true.
There is a number of folk weather sayings about this day, such as “On Ivan Day the Sun plays at sunrise”, “If there is rich dew on Ivan Day expect rich cucumber harvest”, “If the night is starry on the Eve of Ivan Day there will be lots of mushrooms”, “If it rains today then it will be sunny in five days”, etc.
Not only Russian people celebrates Ivan Kupala Day. In Lithuania it is known as Lado, in Poland as Sobotki, and in Ukraine as Kupalo or Kupailo. From the Carpathians and all around Russia people celebrated this mystical and enigmatic, though rackety and merry holiday of Ivan Kupala.