If you have read War and Peace or Eugene Onegin then you are already a little bit familiar with the traditions and superstitions that are associated with the so-called ‘Svyatki’; the time between Christmas and Epiphany in Russia. In both novels these are an absolute highlight.
In Russia Christmas is only just beginning. The Orthodox Christmas Day is celebrated on the 7th and Epiphany is on the 19th of January. The period between the 7th and the 19th is called ‘Svyatki’, which means something like ‘holy days’. They’re sometimes divided up into two parts: the part from Christmas until New Year is the holy part and the part from New Year until Epiphany the unholy part.
A magical time
Although the name comes from the word svyatoy (“holy”), the Svyatki were in actual fact the most unholy and pagan time of the year. The period between the birth and baptism of Christ was a time when you were more or less free from the restrictions imposed by the Church.
As much as they tried the Church could not get rid of pagan superstitions, beliefs and rituals. Instead of banning them completely, they ’allowed’ the people to have their pagan ways during the Svyatki.
Before Christianity arrived, Midwinter was celebrated in Russia. The days were getting longer again and people focused on the new year, what would it bring? What kind of harvest? Will you get married? In order to predict the future you needed to call in the help from the ‘unclean’ spirits. And the best time to do so was between midnight and three in the morning.
The Svyatki in War and Peace
In War and Peace we have Natasha and Sonya, two young ladies of marriageable age. They try the method using two mirrors and two candles. You’re supposed to see your future husband in the mirrors, if they are positioned in a certain way and you concentrate. Neither see anything, but Sonya, compliant as she is, pretends to have seen something.
The Svyatki in Eugene Onegin
Tatyana from Eugene Onegin bravely tries everything. She drops molten wax into cold water and draws conclusions from the shapes. She plays a game with rings and singing. Rings are places in a bowl of water and taken out one by one singing. The song that is sung when your ring is taken out has a special meaning for you. She goes outside in the middle of the night to look at the face of the moon in the mirror and asks a stranger passing by his name. That should foretell the face and name of your future husband.
She has the table set for two in the bathhouse. You’re supposed to sit there alone after midnight and your future husband will appear to you. It has to be the bathhouse because there is no icon there and spirits can live freely there. Poor Tatyana doesn’t dare to go and prepares to have a dream that predicts the future instead. She takes off her sash, and puts a mirror under her pillow. The next morning she tries to make sense of her dream with the help of her dream book by Martyn Zadek, a famous dream interpreter of the time.
Both Pushkin and Tolstoy use the Svyatki to emphasise the Russianness of their protagonists. It’s also worth noting that the action takes in the countryside, which for both authors is somehow more real and authentic than the city.
Nowadays even in Russia most people now about theses ancient traditions only through War and Peace and Eugene Onegin. And so Tolstoy and Pushkin inspire new generations to try to predict the future during the Svyatki.
Picture by Konstantin Makovsky from Wikipedia and the Dream Book by Martin Zadek from the Hermitage website.
Books read: The Bathhouse at Midnight by W.F. Ryan; Eugene Onegin by Pushkin; War and Peace by Tolstoy
Text © Elisabeth van der Meer 2022