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07 Jul. 2023


On Kupala’s Eve: The History of the Holiday, Traditions, and Prohibitions



On Kupala’s Eve: The History of the Holiday, Traditions, and Prohibitions

Every year on the night of 6 to 7 July, Ukraine celebrates Ivan Kupala Day. Learn more about the history and traditions of the holiday

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Ukrainian culture is rich in various holidays and traditions. Some of them date back to pre-Christian times. On the night of July 6-7, Ukrainians celebrate Kupala’s Night – a holiday surrounded by magical rituals and rites. During the time of Kievan Rus, the ancestors of present-day Ukrainians also celebrated this festivity, but in June - on the day of the summer solstice.

Kupala’s Night is considered one of the most magical days of the year, making the performance of rituals an integral part of its celebration. Adults and children eagerly engage in traditional activities, and for foreigners, participation in such activities will be an incredible cultural experience.

We describe the origin of the holiday, traditions, and prohibitions so that everyone can learn more about Ukrainian culture.

Kupala Holiday: the history

The earliest references to Kupala's Night can be found in the Volyn Chronicle. This cherished holiday holds deep roots in the Slavic tradition and predates the arrival of Christianity in Kievan Rus. Pagan communities revered the summer solstice and held great reverence for water. As a result, all the festivities associated with Kupala's Night are traditionally held near bodies of water.

To facilitate the adoption of the new religion, various pagan holidays were integrated into Christian practices, including Kupala's Night. Consequently, the authorities associated this holiday with the birth of John the Baptist, assigned a new date for its celebration on July 7, and renamed it Ivana Kupala. As a result, the holiday observed by Ukrainians today represents a synthesis of pagan and Christian traditions. Following the process of Christianization, the preexisting beliefs and sacred texts were replaced by new ones that incorporated elements of everyday life and amusement activities.

Interesting fact! There are several versions of the origin of the name "Kupala". The most popular guesses are related to the word “kupatysia" (to bathe) or the Indian word "kup" ("to shine", "to be angry"), "ku" ("earth") and "pola" ("protector").

Traditional entertainment that surprises foreigners

Today, people in Ukraine rarely celebrate Kupala on a grand scale. They don’t believe in the magic and power of rituals but rely on certain omens. However, you can see celebrations with music and bonfires in small towns or villages.

But it is necessary to remember rites and customs. Most importantly, Kupala’s traditions embody the worship of nature. That is why the main characters are not people, but water, herbs, plants, the Moon, and the Sun. The main entertainments on the Kupala’s night are bathing, weaving wreaths, jumping over the fire, fortune-telling, decorating a tree, and looking for a fern flower.

Jumping over the bonfire is the celebration’s culmination. Ukrainians light a huge bonfire and jump over it. This activity has a symbolic background. For example, a couple who held hands and did not separate them, jumping over the fire, will get married. And if a person's clothes caught fire, this is a sign that foretells trouble.

Unmarried girls weave wreaths and launch them on water. A wreath that floats far predicts a wedding, and the one that drowns means another year of single life.

The most unusual tradition is the search for a fern flower, which, according to legend, blooms only on Kupala’s night. The flower is endowed with magical powers. Whoever plucks it can understand the language of animals and plants and see hidden treasures. And, of course, a flower will promise love and happiness.

Interestingly, people in various regions of Ukraine have separate celebrating traditions. For example, bathing is not common everywhere. According to some beliefs, you can bathe only when the sun is at the same level as the water. In other areas, it was forbidden to even enter the water, as it was believed that this element needed a sacrifice.

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Superstitions and prohibitions

Since the magical component of this holiday came to the fore, Ukrainians have long believed in some prohibitions.

On the day of Ivan Kupala, Ukrainians do not recommend taking found money because it can cause financial problems. You should also not give or borrow home stuff as you can give away well-being.

It is better not to sleep on Kupala’s night. Be vigilant of an evil force that may enter the house. It is also impossible to work and get married.

Ukrainians don’t slaughter their domestic animals, especially those that produce milk.

Interesting facts that you might not know about the holiday

The Kupala holiday has several other names. In some regions of Ukraine, this day is called Kupaila or Sontsekres.

The Kupala bonfire was kindled with fire obtained by friction as such fire was considered alive. The oldest member of the community accepted the honor of fire lighting. Ukrainians believed that bonfires were magical, so they took the coals and ashes home or buried them in their fields.

All the girls and women of the village should come to the Kupala bonfire. Those absent from the celebration were accused of witchcraft.

During Kupala, Ukrainians had to beware of witches. For this, people hung garlic around their necks or hid it in their belts.

There are similar holidays in the world in honor of John the Baptist and the solstice. The biggest celebrations happen in Spain during the Bonfires of San Juan festival and in Brazil called Festa Junina.

By the way, Ukrainians are used to cooking ceremonial dishes on Ivana Kupala night. The Kupala menu includes barley porridge, dumplings, varenyky with cherries, kvass, and herbal tea. We offer you to learn more about the most popular dishes of Ukrainian cuisine by following the link.

Photo: Reuters

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