In this final look at Russian Christmastide, we give the last word to the Pagans. At least that’s the way it initially appears. The truth is a little more complicated however, as although their behaviour seems Pagan enough, the perpetrators view themselves as decidedly Christian.
This seems a strange paradox, until we consider the behaviour and attitudes also adopted by some self-proclaimed “Christians” here in the west. It appears that certain glaring contradictions will become joined-at-the-hip and normalised, wherever we look.
Placate your gods
The fear of the unknown, the attempt to ascertain its intent and the desire to influence its worldly reach have long been factors of human belief in the supernatural. This behaviour manifests in practices such as knocking-on-wood at one end of the belief-scale or making requests through prayer at the other. Depending upon your belief system: one, both, or neither options are reality or nonsense. Take your pick and harvest the consequences.
In pre-Christian Russia, the period of “Svyiatki” that fits between today’s Russian Christmas and Epiphany (7th-19th January) was a time of supernatural uncertainty. The mid-winter solstice had just passed and the new year had barely began to form. Supernatural forces were at large, capable of bestowing good or bad fortune during the coming year.
The stakes were high, bad fortune could mean a failed harvest and possible starvation, good fortune may mean a little extra saved for the gruelling winter to come. All of this at the mercy of arcane deities with their own plans, whims and grievances. commune with them and see what they are up to then. Perhaps the right words or offerings of food (or worse) could amuse or placate them into throwing a little positive fortune your way.
Vladimir 1st’s unification of Russia under Christianity (988 AD onwards) was one of the most crucial milestone events in Russian history, but even official decree could not erase the ingrained beliefs and thoughts of a formerly Pagan society – not entirely. As is so often the case, the trappings of Christianity are used to mask a Pagan past. Yes you may ascend a sacred hill, but now a church surmounts it. You may celebrate the turn of the year with a feast at midwinter solstice; but now it’s role is to honour the birth of Our Lord.
The once serious business of interpreting and petitioning the old gods at the year’s transition became less solemn and no longer tinged with fear. Rites and offerings became celebrations and feasting. Forms of divination resolved and softened into fortune-telling games – albeit with a nervous edge as excited youth were permitted to touch the vestiges of ancient gods and spirits. Under Orthodox Christianity, the absolutely forbidden became briefly permissible for the few short days of Sviatki – and thereby irresistible.
Today, the various Christian and Pagan practices associated with Sviatki are maintained side-by-side in the spirit of fun and seemingly without contradiction. Some -such as remembering the dead, fit into both camps, others are purely magical. The connection with the dead is a significant factor here, in spite of the abundant merry-making, as Elena Morozova indicates on the Global Storybook site:-
“In fact, the word “svyatki” means “the soul of ancestors,” in the old Slavic.”
Alongside the Christian caroling, good deeds, alms offering and church services; a strange assortment of ancient traditions still persist. Some reinforce community spirit or the strength of the family unit, others are preoccupied with the fortunes of the individual. There are many, passed down through tradition but some of the more prominent ones are as follows:-
Kutia – A recipe of poppy seeds, honey and wheat berries that is also associated with Ukrainian and Belarusian cultures. Everyone present should eat a share from the Kutia bowl for the sake of unity. The presiding head of the family in ancient times could then foretell the quality of the harvest, perhaps bargain with nature and request favourable weather.
Maintaining pyres – For light, warmth, and a sense of community during the appalling weather. Also to warm the spirits locked out in the snow and to symbolically/practically consume rubbish and redundant objects from the previous year.
Fortunes by wax – Molten wax is cast into snow or cold water to harden, the resulting forms are then interpreted to foretell the fortune of the caster or those close to him/her.
Fortune by ring and water – A gold ring is lowered on a thread in to a glass of water. The number of ‘clinks’ it makes against the glass marks the age at which the petitioner will marry.
Dream husband – A girl writes down all the male names she knows onto separate pieces of paper and places them under her pillow. That night, the face of her future husband will come to her in a dream and is name will be revealed on the piece of paper she subsequently pulls out in the morning.
Husband in the mirror – A girl sits in silence, facing a mirror, with two candles before her. Behind her is another mirror so that a tunnel of reflections is formed. She is alone or has another believer for company -but no animals. She gazes into the infinite tunnel until her future husband appears, at which point she immediately throws a cover over the mirror before her so that bad fortune is avoided.
Husband by rooster – Plates containing various items or foods are placed in front of a compliant (?) rooster. The plate/contents that the bird chooses -by pecking at it- will disclose valuable information about the nature (and solvency) of the future groom.
Husband’s financial status – This was foretold by placing rings of copper, silver and gold in a container of grain. A group of girls would each reach in and take a handful . The value of the ring each ultimately picked would forecast the relative wealth of their future husband.
Mummers and madness in the community – Worthy of a whole chapter but here relegated to the final slot. These were (and are) Christmastide players offering song, dance, and mobile theatre for the community. Masked, made-up and costumed they provide entertainment for all – whether door to door, parading the streets, in the local square or bursting in through the front door.
The above high-jinks and magical practices are decidedly tame compared and accepted/tolerated by the church; the full-on Pagan excesses that didn’t “make-the-cut” are something else entirely. A story for another day.