Kupalo Festival

Kupalo Festival

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: June 24
Where Celebrated: Ukraine, United States
Symbols and Customs: Fern, Tree
Related Holidays: Midsummer Day

ORIGINS

This Ukrainian festival takes its name from Kupalo, the god of summer and fertility, who sleeps under a TREE during the winter and awakens in the spring. Since ancient times, people in all parts of the world have honored the changing of the seasons. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

Many of the customs associated with the Kupalo Festival are directly linked to encouraging fertility in both the human and natural worlds. For example, young women often gather flowers to make a wreath that is tossed into a nearby river. Where the wreath touches the shore is believed to indicate what family the young woman will marry into. Another custom for girls is to make an effigy of Marena, the goddess of cold, death, and winter. After singing special holiday songs, they burn or drown the effigy to reduce the goddess's power over the coming winter. The Ukrainian winters are very harsh.

The Kupalo Festival dates back to pagan times, when people believed that the seasons were governed by supernatural forces. If certain yearly rituals were not carried out properly, the weather might not warm up in time to yield a good harvest. Today, the festival is still observed in parts of the Ukraine and in Ukrainian communities in the United States.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Fern

Young men go into the forest on Kupalo to look for a type of fern that, according to legend, blooms only on the night of MIDSUMMER DAY. They take with them a special cloth, white powder, and a knife. If they find the fern and are strong enough to ward off the enticements of the wood nymphs, they draw a circle with the white powder and sit down in the middle to wait for the fern to bloom. When it does, they cut off the blossom with the knife and wrap the flower in the special cloth. They must never tell anyone that they have found the fern, or they will lose the luck and power it is believed to symbolize. This story explains why some people have more luck and talent than others.

Tree

A young sapling decorated with flowers, seeds, and fruit is probably the most recognizable symbol of the Kupalo Festival. It represents Kupalo himself, who awakens in the spring and shakes the tree he's been sleeping under, making the seeds fall and symbolically making the earth fertile again. During the festival young boys and girls dance around the tree and sing special songs to please this image of the fertility god.

FURTHER READING

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.

Kupalo Festival

June 24; Midsummer's day and night
A Ukrainian and Russian festival also called Ivan Kupalo, dating back to pagan days, Kupalo traditionally is celebrated by young unmarried men and women and boys and girls. The festival takes its name from the god of summer and fertility: Kupalo sleeps in the winter and each spring awakens and shakes the tree he's been under, making the seeds fall as a sign of the year's harvest. During the day and night of the celebration, boys and girls decorate a sapling tree with flowers, seeds, and fruit, call it Kupalo, and dance and sing special songs to please this image of the god.
In other events of the day, young women gather flowers to make a wreath that is tossed into a river; the spot where the wreath reaches the shore indicates the family the girl will marry into. Another custom for girls is to make an effigy of Marena, the goddess of cold, death, and winter. After singing special songs, they burn or drown the effigy to cut the goddess's power over the coming winter; winters in Ukraine are very harsh.
Young men sometimes go into the forest to look for a special fern that only blooms (according to the legend) on the night of Midsummer. They take with them a special cloth, white powder, and a knife. If they find the fern and are strong enough to ward off the enticements of wood nymphs, they draw a circle with the white powder and sit and wait for the fern to bloom. When it does, they cut the blossom with the knife and put the flower in the special cloth. They must never, ever, tell anyone they have found the fern, or they will lose the luck and power it gives. The people's rationale behind this story is that it explains why some people have more talent and luck than others.
The celebrations to a greater or lesser degree are popular in both Ukraine and among Ukrainians in the United States.
CONTACTS:
Ukrainian Embassy
3350 M St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20007
202-333-0606; fax: 202-333-0817
www.mfa.gov.ua