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Putin marking the holiday with an icy midnight plunge
Today, as the weatherman should have known, is the day before Theophany, or the celebration of the baptism of Christ. Today and tomorrow are supposed to be the coldest days of the year, according to Russian folk belief. There’s a perfectly logical explanation for this.
THE COLDEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR
So, it’s no surprise that on the night before the feast, every Russian peasant expected the bitter cold, and with it, a possible physical manifestation of the devil. The first response to this is defiance. Every self-respecting Russian muzhik would bathe in freezing water on this night. It’s a clear gesture of defiance against the evil one, and it was an opportunity to cleanse oneself in sanctified waters.
However, Russians still feared for their spiritual lives on this night. They made sure to draw crosses in chalk on their doors before the night came. If you forget to do this, even if you live in the big city, not the village, then you should expect something terrible in the night.
THE FIERY DRAGON
But what does he look like, exactly? Local custom in Tula is very specific, taking as their cue the frequent shape-shifting abilities that the devil exhibits in the lives of saints. Local Tula muzhiks say,
Everyone in Rus knows the terror of the Fiery Dragon. He has no mercy. A single touch means death. And what can you expect from the dark powers? You might think he has no reason to go flying about this night, but we know that he likes to visit the young ladies. Everyone knows that if he falls in love with one of the girls, then her affliction will never heal. Everyone can see how the Fiery Dragon flies in the air and burns with an unquenchable fire. But not everyone knows that as soon as he comes down the chimney, he becomes a youth of indescribable beauty. A girl only needs to see him, and she’s struck by love!”
This trope of the dragon coming to steal and eat the young girl is extremely popular in folk tales. In fact, one of the most famous villains in all Russian folk tales is Zmei Gorynich, who is a fire-breathing dragon with several heads. (By the way, an interesting take on this fairy tale is Naomi Novik’s recent novel Uprooted, which I reviewed here). Even more interesting is the proposed remedy for the visit of such a dangerous, enticing shape-shifter: snow gathered on the eve of Theophany.
I’ve heard an interesting variation on this old custom in current-day Belarus. A few years back I was visiting my wife’s family in Vitebsk. One of the “churchiest” of the ladies surprised me when she insisted that I had to take a shower at midnight, because water was “at its most holy” exactly for that minute following midnight. I think this is a left-over of the ancient respect for the snow of Theophany’s eve.
HOW MEDIEVAL MOSCOW CELEBRATED THEOPHANY
Of course, in the cities, such customs were less pervasive. The feast of Theophany was instead a day of especial pomp and circumstance. The Tsar himself would come out for the feast, and nearly every nobleman, even from the farthest places, made sure to come to the Kremlin. It was a rare chance for lesser nobles to actually see the face of their distant and severe ruler.
The rite of sanctification of the waters was performed by the Patriarch himself at the Moscow River. For this service, upward of four or five thousand people would attend. The Tsar himself walked in his finest robes, at first to the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin, then to the bank of the river, surrounded by an array of his personal guard of Streltsy, who were clearly seen in their velvet coats and festal long-sleeved kaftans called a feriaz.
The actual service of blessing the water is basically the same as it is done today. After it ended, the whole crowd would walk back to the cathedral. After the Tsar returned to his palace, the rest of Moscow began its last, wild celebration of the Sviatky, the holy days between Christmas and Epiphany. Nobles sat down to elaborate feasts, young people sang and danced in the streets until early morning.
Source: Nicholas Kotar