There’s one night of a year when strange things happen. River waters shine with a mysterious light, animals and trees start speaking and humans get a power of understanding them if they manage to find a blossoming fern flower. That’s Kupala night in a nutshell.
What is this holiday about and when should it be celebrated?
We will tell you about the big summer fest and also about three most untypical celebrations of it you’ve probably never heard about.
Kupala night, known as Kupalle in Belarusian and as Midsummer’s Night in English is not as unique to Belarus as let’s say Radunica.
However, the Belarusian version of the tradition is known as one of the best-preserved ones. It means that in Belarus, until the 20th century, this holiday was still connected with its ritual character and special ceremonial acts of the pagan origin. Its symbolic meaning is also connected with the date of celebration, which is not that easy to agree on.
If you ask when should Kupalle be celebrated, the answer would be – like most traditional holidays in Belarus, you have a variety of dates to choose from.
Traditional holidays were not so strictly tied to particular dates, as to certain periods of time in the traditional calendar. Before the invention of calendars, people used to organize their lives on the basis of nature observations.
Kupala (the shortest night – 20, 21 or 22 of June) is a summer equivalent of Kalyada (the longest night – 21-22 of December) and can, therefore, be considered an astronomical holiday.
However because our ancestors didn’t have precise tools for appointing summer and winter solstices, Kupala night could be celebrated by different settlements and regions on different nights, starting from 25th of May till 23rd of June according to Stryjkouski Chronicle (the chronicle is generally considered to be the first printed book on the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – author’s note).
To be ethnologically authentic, one has to celebrate Kupalle on 23-24 of June. Nevertheless, because of attachment to the Julian calendar, in most places in Belarus, it is celebrated during the night between the 6th and the 7th of July.
Slavic night of love
How to celebrate Kupalle? It’s easy. Swimming naked is not obligatory anymore – this tradition is mostly gone.
Girls weave flower wreaths. Guys build a gate with a circle symbolizing sun at the top and prepare big bonfires. In the past, the light from those bonfires was often seen from distant villages. Ritual songs and dances last all night long. The youths jump over bonfire which is supposed to purify them, give energy and vitality.
Let’s not forget another important meaning of the holiday – Kupala night is a Slavic night of love. Girls put their wreaths on water and wait to see who is going to pick them up. Singles had a big chance of finding a couple on that night. Couples could further strengthen their relationships with the help of various magic rituals.
Original ways to celebrate Kupala night
Many Belarusians have heard of big Kupala night celebrations such as the large-scale state-organized celebration in Alexandria village or an open-air Sviata Sonca (“the sun holiday”) in Dudutki (40 km from Minsk).
That is why we decided to tell you about the less known but quite original places where this Slavic holiday is celebrated by Belarusians.
Spot #1 – an island
There’s a very mysterious and picturesque island in Ushachy district where a group of folk and ethnography enthusiasts has kept celebrating Kupala night for about 20 years now. Participants weave flowers and erect a special gate with the symbol of sun at the top of it. Then they sing traditional songs, listen to the sounds of Belarusian bagpipes and light a fire which is supposed to clean their spirits.
We will not reveal the name of the island and the lake where it is organized in order not to pose any threat to this beautiful tradition. If you are eager enough, you will find the way how to become a participant, and if the organizers accept your presence you will cross the lake on a boat in order to take part in this most mysterious act of celebrating the Kupala night. We are quite sure that ethnography enthusiasts from SET might be able to navigate you.
Spot #2 – a Catholic church park
Another interesting example of Kupala night party takes places in Mosar, a village with a famous St. Anne’s Church. What makes this particular celebration unique is the place – it is organized in a park BEHIND A CHURCH.
Christian churches were known for eliminating or substituting pagan festivals with their own ceremonies. This way Midsummer’s night – the worship of the sun – smoothly became St. John’s holiday, also known as Ivan’s night among eastern Slavs.
That is why Kupala night organized in Mosar can be considered an interesting exception to the rule when the Catholic church doesn’t try to demonize the holiday but takes an active part in its organization.
The festival is not deprived of traditionally pagan elements is a nice example of how two traditions can peacefully coexist in one form.
Spot #3 – where Belarusians are
Finally, Kupala night doesn’t have to be connected with a particular place but rather with a particular spirit preserved by Belarusian people. Proof?
Belarusian communities celebrate it all over the world. One of the biggest and most impressing celebrations is organized by American Belarusians in New York. Some other big events are more or less continuously organized by Belarusian in Irkuck in Vilnius and other places.
Therefore, if you are not lucky enough to travel to Belarus in order to participate in one of the Kupala nights you can start by joining one of the Belarusian communities in your country. Image how thrilling it must be to celebrate with Belarusians in picturesque landscapes of the Hudson River or the Baikal lake.
Text by Vital Voranau.