Pagan holidays in modern Ukraine
A solar eclipse seen in behind a hammer and sickle placed on the top of a flagstaff in Kiev, Ukraine. (Associated Press)
If you grumble that online dating, decadent lounge bars and holidays around the world are still not enough to find the right partner, think how it was for your ancestors. Stuck in one village, they had little choice: would their spouse come from the blacksmith’s house or the potter’s? To gain insight they would rely on fortunetelling and other forms of divining Mother Nature. And these traditions have become so ingrained with Ukrainians, not even hundreds of years of Christianity or the influence of Communism could get rid of them.
For the most flavourful celebration of pagan rituals, visit Ukraine in the summer for the Ivana Kupala festival of making wreaths, jumping over bonfires and peeking into the future. In December, Saint Andrew's Day is another chance for some quality palm reading while saying goodbye to the sun for the winter. Epiphany, celebrated in January, helps wash sins away - in icy rivers and lakes - but not before another healthy dose of fortunetelling. And when decadent parades sweep European and American streets for Mardi Gras, Ukrainians stand by their forefathers munching on pancakes during the Pancake Week celebrations.
The easiest way to experience the supernatural is booking a trip to Kiev in July. Celebrated after the summer solstice on 6 July, Ivana Kupala refers to the god of the fruits of the earth. Legend has it that if you venture into the forest and find a fern in bloom - although it is nearly a botanical impossibility - start digging. This magic fern allegedly indicates a hidden treasure. The rite has found its way into films, cartoons and children's books, all contributing to its mass popularity across the country.
No one really ventures into the forest any more but 7 July starts off with a church service. With the advent of Christianity, churches adopted some elements of cult and folk tradition to coerce pagans into the new religion. The Orthodoxies celebrate it as the day of John the Baptist, when believers bathe in rivers and lakes. Yet the modern holiday is still associated more with magic than religion. People don traditional embroidered shirts and head to the Pirohovo open-air museum on the outskirts of Kiev. A model of 19th-century Ukraine, the museum sits on some 150 hectares of green land and lakes cuddling thatched roof huts, old windmills and authentic Ukrainian bars.
During the day, women weave flower wreaths and float them on water trying to guess where a future partner will come from. After testing their wreath-making skills, participants are challenged to insert a burning candle in the middle of this natural tiara. Those whose candles burn the longest and whose wreaths float the farthest are believed to have a higher chance of marrying within a year. Men do not bother with making wreaths; instead they attempt to catch them in hope of marrying a particular wreath-maker. In another ritual, couples jump over a bonfire, hands locked, for cleansing the soul and more good luck in life.
If, however, by 13 December your love life has not improved, St Andrew's may lend a hand to tickle the pagan gods. The holiday is celebrated across Europe but while in Scotland, Greece and Romania the saint (one of Jesus's 12 disciples) is honoured in church prayers, pubs or even with a bank holiday, in some remote western Ukrainian villages people will be throwing a boot over a rooftop and whispering chants in candlelight to find a husband or a wife. Before Saint Andrew, there was the sun, and pagans needed a date to throw a thank-you party in its honour before it goes to sleep for the winter. You can book an ethnic tour to a village in the Carpathian Mountains to see the rituals in action.
By Epiphany on 19 January, if you are still not happily married, there are more ways to pear into your romantic future. A popular rite instructs women to go outside and ask passers by their name, which is believed to become the name of their betrothed. Afterward you bathe in the icy water to wash away one's sins. Many Ukrainians, especially politicians who some joke have more sins than most, step inside ice holes - cut in the shape of a cross - to honour the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. Hydro Park in Kiev, the Soviet-built entertainment complex on the banks of the Dnipro River, is the place to be if you want to go for a dip yourself or to watch others.
In February and March the pagan spring is on its way, and so is the church's Great Lent. The holiday of Maslyana usually falls on the last week before the 40-day long fast that precedes Easter. Eating pancakes with meat, mushroom or sweet fillings and watching folk dances and games in Pirohovo museum in Kiev on this occasion is a more authentic alternative to dressing up for Mardi Gras.
Yuliya Popova is the editor of the Kyiv Post, a multilingual online and print newspaper.