Celebrating the Feast of Ivan Kupala

Celebrated each year on the night of July 6/7 in Ukraine, the Feast of Ivan Kupala marks the northern hemisphere summer solstice with various rituals and special foods being part of the occasion. While today Ivan Kupala celebrations are said to be dedicated to John the Baptist – Ivan being the Christian saint’s Slavic name, and Kupala being a reference to the Slavic word for bathing – many of the rituals, such as ritual cleansing, have roots which are associated with the Pagan god of harvest and fertility, Kupala/Kupajla. Some scholars claim that the name Kupala is derived from the name of the Roman god of love, Cupid. Whatever the origins of current customs, the Feast of Ivan Kupala is a popular event, with Ukrainians of all ages participating in it.

The night prior to Ivan Kupala night, known as Tvorila night, offers an opportunity for good-natured mischief-making and practical jokes. The following day, children play water-related games and pranks, including pouring water over unsuspecting persons. Associated with cleansing and purification, such as the water baptisms performed by John the Baptist, water plays an important role in Ivan Kupala rituals.

The highlight of Kupala Night is the building and igniting of a huge bonfire which people will jump over in the hope of securing good fortune and a long life. Couples hold hands and jump over the fire together, and it is said that should their hands part, it signifies their relationship is doomed to break up. Unmarried women may wear wreaths of flowers in their hair, and should they jump over the fire while wearing them, the wreaths are said to gain magical powers. Later, they may add a candle to the floral wreath and float them on a river, trying to gauge some significance regarding romantic relationships from the way the flowers move on the currents. A man may indicate his interest in a woman, by attempting to catch the floral wreath she floated.

Based on the ancient belief that Ivan Kupala Night is the only time that ferns bloom, and whoever manages to find one of these flowers will be granted prosperity, discernment and power, many believers will search in the forest for the mythical fern flower. In this ritual it is customary for unmarried women, a status signified by the wreath of flowers in her hair, will enter the forest first, followed by unmarried men. While finding the fern flower (ferns don’t produce flowers) is unlikely, finding love is a very real possibility at the annual Feast of Ivan Kupala.