Major Russian Holiday Today - Baptism of Jesus - the Rich Cultural Background (Theophany)

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A few days ago, I checked the weather for the week. Today in Jordanville it was supposed to be in the forties and raining. But when I woke up, it was 3 degrees Fahrenheit. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The weatherman didn’t know he was dealing with the realities of Russian folk beliefs, even thousands of miles away from Russia!

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

The hymnography of the Orthodox feast of Theophany describes the baptism of Christ as a “stepping on the heads of the dragons who hide in the waters.” It’s the first salvo in Christ’s war against the devil, and it’s a devastating blow against evil.

Theophany

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

Theophany

Of all the possible forms evil takes, this night, it takes its most terrifying form of all: The Fiery Dragon. He flies over the villages, looking for a safe place to land. But if the village was prepared, all he’ll see is the white sparkle of crosses on doors. Then he explodes in a shower of sparks over the deep snows covering Mother Earth.

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!”

Theophany

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 Uprootedwhich 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.

MAGIC SNOW?

This snow is generally considered to be endued with special significance. You need to put it on your stove in the house (although this won’t help if you’ve forgotten to draw a cross on your door). You can also put a bit of this snow in your well. If you do, even a dry summer won’t empty your well, or so the old men say.

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

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.  

Theophany
Ivan Tsarevich in 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.

After all, Lent is just around the corner!


Source: Nicholas Kotar