In the very centre of Minsk there is a place where the River Svislach makes a wide curve between the October and Victory squares. This meander nests an oasis of old moss-covered maples and trembling aspens. This park is named after a famous Belarusian poet and writer Yanka Kupala. It hosts the poet’s museum, his statue, and a fountain that features two nude, yet innocent-looking, bronze-cast girls throwing garlands into the water. Unlike the Gorky Park, which is right across the main avenue and is always full of young families with clouds of candy floss in their hands, the Kupala Park is a quite place, suitable for reflection and tranquillity.
The fountain is especially tempting on a hot summer day. It is also the key to the park’s name. Yanka Kupala is the poet’s pseudonym. His real name was Ivan Daminikavich Lutsevich. Kupala (or Kupalle) is an old folk festival celebrating the Summer solstice. Despite the Soviet authorities’ attempts to eradicate folk traditions, even today most Belarusians are at least able to sing the tune of “Kupalinka” song and recall such elements of Kupalle as jumping over fire and putting garlands into rivers.
As often happens in Belarus, the celebration of “Yan Kupala” combines both Christian and pagan traditions. This is even reflected in the holiday’s name. When Christianity came to Belarusian lands, the solstice celebration (Kupalle) was timed to the birthday of John the Baptist (Yan or Ivan as he is called here). Eventually, the two holidays fused into a single Yan Kupala celebration – praising the man who “bathed”, or baptised Jesus Christ (the root of the word “Kupalle” means “bathing”). No wonder the ideal Kupalle would begin with a visit to a traditional wooden sauna. People believed it would guarantee good health for the whole next year. If there were no sauna available, people would go to a spring and wash their faces with cold water. After that they would throw a small coin into a spring in order to “bail themselves out” of poor health.
During Kupalle one had to be especially careful not to give away, lend or sell anything. It was especially forbidden to take fire or bread out of the house – this could bring poverty to the family.
Belarusians believed that on a night of Kupalle witches and evil wizards celebrated their “shabash” on a Bald-Headed Mountain (a mountain that had no forest on its top). This night served as a planning meeting for the forces of darkness. They decided which troubles they would bring people in villages during the next year. That is why every family took special precautions in order to protect itself and its possessions on this night. A stinging nettle was laid at the house’s threshold (so that witches would burn their feet), a young aspen tree was put up at the entrance to a cattleshed, and cows’ horns were decorated with the garlands of herbs and birch-tree branches.
The threat of being enchanted required special vigilance on this night. The best option was not to sleep at all. Young people did so with pleasure. It gave them excuse to stay awake until morning at a fire near the river. The Kupalle fire was a very important element of the celebration. Ideally, it would be made using a flint stone or by rubbing two wooden sticks together. It was also very important to put “Piarun’s Arrow” into the fire – a branch of an oak-tree that was hit by lightning. “Piarun” was Belarusian Zeus, the pagan god of thunder.
When the Kupalle fire was big enough, people sang songs and jumped across the flames. It was supposed to “purify” people of all evil for the whole year. One could also make a wish while jumping over the fire.
Another element of the celebration was burning a straw doll and rafting it down the river. A very picturesque moment was when young men put a fire to the oil-covered wooden wheels and let them roll down the hill into water.
Girls made garlands and tried to tell their fortunes by putting them into water. If the garland swam a long distance, the girl’s future husband would come from far away; if the garland stuck to the riverbank, the husband would be a local guy; the sinking garland was a bad omen.
When the night grew dark, the most daring participants of the fest went into the wood in order to search for a magic “Paparats-kvetka” (fern flower). The one who found this beautiful flower gleaming in the dark would become a visionary, able to understand the language of animals and birds, and would also able to see treasures buried under ground. By all counts, Paparats-kvetka was the flower of happiness. The irony of the legend is that the fern does not produce flowers. However, this never prevented young people from looking for Paparats-kvetka. Or, perhaps, they were simply looking for a romance? It was not unusual for a young man who went to look for the flower to meet that girl from a nearby village he liked so much. Often, the search continued until morning… Perhaps, this is the reason why Belarusians say that storks bring children to parents. After all, storks return home from south around March, some nine months after Kupalle…
Watching the sun rise was also a very special part of the celebration. If one has been awake the whole night and watched the sun without blinking, he would be able to see it “playing”, dancing in the morning air.
When Kupalle was over, the celebration of Yan Kupala, John the Baptist began with a prayer and a bath in a nearby lake or river.
In the multi-confessional Belarus the difference of church calendars resulted into Kupalle being celebrated two times – in the night of June 23 and 24 (according to the modern Gregorian calendar) and in the night of July 6 and 7, according to the Julian calendar, used by the Orthodox church.
One could think that the holiday is only alive at folklore departments of the University of Culture, but Kupalle is still celebrated in Belarusian villages. However, there are some deviations from the tradition. For example, there are much less songs being sung and much more beer and vodka being consumed. The Kupalle fire remains an absolute must, although ever more often it is made of old tires. Girls still like to make garlands, but protecting the house from evil forces by symbolic items is not as effective as it used to be. When the morning comes, masters of village houses often see that their gates have been switched with their neighbour’s. The least lucky ones find their street benches gone, their horse carts hoisted on the rooftops of their houses, and their wooden garden toilets standing on a crossroads in the village centre. There are all reasons to believe that this is not the result of a witches’ “shabash”, but of the local village youth looking for fun. However, for the sake of justice one should admit that these jokes almost never turn nasty.
In 1958 the Soviet Belarusian newspaper “LiM” published a letter written by the members of the Academy of Sciences. They suggested that Kupalle should be updated to “modern conditions” by introducing such elements as sport games, carnivals, and torch marches. “By combining the old and new forms of the Kupalle celebration, it would receive the shape of a merry holiday, celebrating socialist labour and the fight for peace”. These efforts were never successful. However, this is not ideology, but urbanisation and mass culture, which threaten the tradition of Kupalle. Indeed, with more and more Belarusians moving into big cities, there is simply no place for them to make the traditional fire. And surely you are not allowed to do that in Yanka Kupala park.
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Photos by Yulia Darashkevich (nn.by) Kupalle in the Belarusian town of Rakau (2007)