Girls attempt to devine the future from burning wreaths laid on the water on the night of Kupala.

Russian MiniLessons: День Ивана Купала – Ivan Kupala Day

Published: June 13, 2020

The following bilingual Russian MiniLesson is meant to build your vocabulary by providing Russian phrases within English text.

День Ивана Купала (Ivan Kupala Day) or Иванов день is a народный праздник языческого происхождения (folk holiday with pagan origins) celebrated in connection with летнее солнцестояние, although not necessarily on the same day. It is today primarily celebrated in Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, Belarus and Russia.

Celebrations begin on the evening of July 6th and continue into July 7th. The holiday is always marked on the same day that the Russian and Urkainian Orthodox Churches celebrate праздник Рождества Иоанна Крестителя.

Because праздник Рождества Иоанна Крестителя is a church holiday, its date is marked by the Julian calendar, which is still used by most Orthodox churches, including the Russian and Urkainian Orthodox Churches. Most of the world switched to the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century. The Gregorian and Julian calendars currently differ by 14 days and thus the 6th of the July by the modern Gregorian calendar is the 23rd of June by the Julian calendar. Many sources will list that has the official date of the holiday.

There are different theories about the relation of  День Ивана Купала to Рождество Иоанна Крестителя. The name “Купала is derived from the word “купать” which means “to bathe” in Russian. Thus, some say that the name of the holiday is related to the fact that Иоанн Креститель купал Jesus Christ when baptizing him. The name “John” can be translated as “Иоанн” (the official version of the name that the Church uses for John the Baptist) or “Иван”, which is a far more common name in Slavic cultures. Thus, Иван Купала is a popular variation in Russian as it uses more common and accessible words.

However, celebrations of the holiday have obviously pagan roots. Купала (sometimes Купало in Russian) was a Slavic deity. While the mythology differed between geographic location, the name is pronounced nearly identically across various Slavic cultures and the deity is generally regarded as one with power over flowers, vegetation, fertility, sexuality, and/or the harvest. Some scholars suggest the Купала was the Slavic version of Cupid and that the names Cupid and Купала are actually related.

Others state that Ivan Kupala is a holiday celebrating  Ярила, a more powerful Slavic god of vegetation, fertility, and springtime.

Whatever the actual origin, Ivan Kupala is an example of a сочетание язычества и христианства, which is often referred to as двоеверие, a term used when Christianity and элементы язычества co-exist.

Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala

The biggest proponents of Ivan Kupala are the восточные славяне, but the holiday празднуется по всей Европе (is celebrated all over Europe) and is общенациональный и церковный праздник in many countries as Рождество Иоанна Крестителя.

There are a number of обряды on the eve of Ivan Kupala: сбор трав и цветов, плетение венков, украшение зеленью домов, разжигание костров, перепрыгивание через костёр, обливание водой, выслеживание ведьмы, купание нагишом and ночные бесчинства.

The key обряд is изготовление и сжигание чучела. Чучело делают из соломы, and then чучело сжигают; after that, пепел чучела сжигают для хорошего урожая. Пары прыгают через костёр, держась за руки на счастье.

A news report on moden-day celebrations of Ivan Kupala in Ukraine.

In addition to fire, many of the rituals for Ivan Kupala that are associated with water: к празднику все обязательно купаются до захода солнца, because on that day, из рек выходила вся нечисть, and it is possible to bathe without fear. Water on Ivan Kupala Day наделяется магической силой, so such bathing наделяет человека жизненной силой и здоровьем.

There is also a поверье that один раз в году, в ночь на Ивана Купалу цветёт мифический цветок, and anyone who picks this цветок папоротника приобретает чудесные возможности, such as understanding animals, being able to see treasure, and becoming invisible.

The famous Russian writer Nikolai Gogol wrote a short story called Вечер накануне Ивана Купала about a человек, который был проклят цветком папоротника after finding it.

Today, celebrations of this holiday survive by smaller groups celebrating in the countryside. Urban celebrations are rare.

For more on Russian folklore, click here.

About the author

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh lived in Moscow from 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS, until 2022. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Internship Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

View all posts by: Josh Wilson