Kupala Night, also known as Ivana-Kupala, is a Slavic holiday that was traditionally observed on the shortest night of the year. This puts its traditional placement on the Gregorian calendar sometime around June 21st through June 24th in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia. In Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, this holiday was traditionally observed on the Julian calendar sometime around July 6th or 7th.
This is a day on which several different Slavic rituals are held including young women weaving wreaths to portend their future marriage, set these wreaths afloat in a symbolic bid for fortune and happiness, and when couples jump over bonfires. It’s also a holiday that holds many superstitions as some people believe it’s the night when malevolent spirits are on the prowl.
The History Of Kupala Night
The origins of this holiday go back thousands of years to a time when ancient people celebrated the peak of summer at the end of June. Kupalo and his sister Kostroma represented summer fertility and people sang songs to him and jumped over bonfires. This was an annual celebration of the summer solstice—a pagan tradition that would become infused with symbols from Christian traditions.
According to legend, Kupalo and Kostroma were twins that were born to Simargl—the god of fire, and Kupalnitsa—the goddess of the night. When they were children, they had run into a field to listen to two birds—Sirin the bird of sorrow and Alkonost the bird of joy.
Kostroma listed to Alkonost and Kupalo listened to Sirin. Kupalo was then kidnapped by Sirin and a magic swan under orders by the black god Chernobog and taken to Nav—also known as the underworld in English. As a result, Kupalo and Kostroma would end up growing up alone.
Years later, Kostroma would become a beautiful woman and Kupalo would be released from the underworld. Kostroma wove a beautiful wreath from local fauna, but the wind pulled it from her hands and tossed it into the water. Kupalo was passing by the exact same spot, discovered the wreath, and picked it up. He then returned it to her. The two didn’t recognize that they were brother and sister, and she fell in love with him at first sight. Not long after, they were married.
The god then informed the new couple that they were brother and sister and they both committed suicide out of shame. Kostroma ran to the forest threw herself into a lake and drowned. Kupalo jumped into the fire and was burned alive. In some stories, Kostroma became a water spirit known as a Mavka and in other stories, the gods took pity on her and her brother and turned them into flowers. The Slavs named these flowers Kupalo-de Mavka, but that name was later Christianized to Ivan-da-Marya.
Kupala Night Observations
Many of the traditions and rites that are related to this holiday are related to the role of water in ritual purification ceremonies and fertility ceremonies. Fire also plays a significant role in this holiday. Girls will float wreaths of flowers, many times wreaths that are lit with candles, and set them afloat on a river. By observing the flow patterns of the flowers on the river, they hope to be able to ascertain their romantic fortunes in the future.
Some men may try to capture one of these wreaths in order to get the attention of the girl who floated it in the first place. On this day, couples will also jump over bonfires while they’re holding one another’s hands. If they are unable to make the jump, then that is often seen as a sign that they are destined to be separated.
Another ancient tradition that’s tied to the modern celebration of Kupala Night is the belief that the eve of Ivan Kupala is the only time of the year when ferns bloom. It’s said that anyone who finds one of these ferns is going to have prosperity, luck, and power, so on that night, villagers will often head into the forest looking for the fern flower.
Usually, unmarried women are the first to enter the forest, and they are followed by young men. This can lead to some of the men and women working together to find these “fern flowers” and this may lead to romance among them. What it won’t lead to, however, is finding any fern flowers because ferns reproduce by spores, and as a result, they don’t flower.
This holiday is also usually celebrated with parades, songs, storytelling, and feasts between friends and family members. This is a holiday that’s filled with not only rituals and rites but also miracles as well, so it’s a day that the whole community wants to take part in celebrating. In other words, it’s a time of joy and celebration and is not a day that anyone is going to want to skip over.