FOLK CUSTOMS OF CARPATHO-RUSYNS
SUMMER FESTIVALS: ST. JOHN'S DAY
Originally published and copyright 1984. C-RA Vol VII #4. Unauthorized duplication or use is prohibited and in violation of international copyright law.
The summer months represented for the Carpatho-Rusyns the period of the most intensive work in the fields, and accoldingly the customs of these months were not as rich as the customs practiced in winter or spring. The central festival of the summer period was connected with St. John's Day which falls on June 24. The saint was variably called Jan, Ioan, or Kupala, and the festival itself in some places had the name of Ivanden' -- John's Day. It was a summer solstice festival, occurring when the sun reached its highest point and resulting in the year's longest day and shortest night. It was also the highest point for the crops, signaling the arrival of the most important event in the peasant's year-round schedule - the harvest.
It is perhaps no wonder that plants, and not only agricultural plants, were believed to be endowed with magical powers exactly at this time of the year. Women and girls would collect various herbs before sunrise, and having had them consecrated in church, they would keep them in their households until the next year. Most frequently the plants were hung near the icons, and since they were believed to have magical powers, the herbs would be used both for medical treatment and for magic rites. Sometimes the "St. John herbs" (zilja) would be tied with a whip in the hope that the symbolic gesture would help keep the cattle in the pasture together.
Of the many herbs used in Rusyn folk medicine the most - popular were ivanok (Hypericum perforatum), devjatsyl (Inula Helenium), odylja (Valeriana officinalis), mjata (Menta piporita), rumjanok (Matriria chamomila), and Nirobij (Hypericum perforatum). Even some poisonous herbs were used for curative purposes, such as rostopast' (Chelidonium majus) and nadragulja (Atropa belladona).
The eve of St. John's Day was a special day for the boys and girls of the village. They would meet at a particular place, usually at a hill above the village where they would make a bonfire, sing songs connected with St. John's Day, dance, and generally make merry. This custom known as sobitka was most widespread in the western part of the Presov Region. In the village of Jakubany near the district town of Stara L'ubovna, the custom is alive even today. The local boys dip torches in pitch, light them, and then walk with them up to the nearest hills where they start several imposing bonfires. Soon thereafter they are joined by village girls bringing each a bundle of straw with which to feed the fire. The ring of bonfires surrounding the village offers a truly unforgettable sight. In some villages in the past the bonfires were used also for burning discarded objects such as birch rods, baskets, straw binders, etc., in what was a symbolic purification of old bad habits. Also burned in the bonfires were the last year's "St. John's herbs." The sobitka celebrations in the village of Kruzl'ov near Bardejov also included the interesting custom of rolling a burning wheel wrapped in straw down to the village in a symbolic imitation of the movement of the sun.
An indispensable part of the festivities were the special sobitka songs. One of their most frequent themes were the requests addressed to St. John for a good harvest. As one of the songs recorded in the village of Makovica near Svidnik would have it:
A ty Jane, svatyj Jane,
Osvet ze nam syre pole,
Syre pole i pasnycju.
Zyto, oves i psenicju.
And you, John, St. John,
Bless our broad fields,
Broad fields and the pastures.
Rye, oats and wheat.
Another group of sobitka songs dealt with the joys and sorrows linked with love. Often these songs would make public even the more profane love secrets, such as the pregnancy of an unmarried girl, like the following song recorded in the village of Becherov near Bardejov:
A na Jana, na Jakuba,
Kapral'ova Marca hruba.
A od koho? Ta od toho
Od Jozka Lescysynoho.
On St. John's Day, on St. James' Day
Mary Kapral' came with child.
By whom? By him
-- Joe Lescysyn.
Another related theme of the sobitka songs was the mutual teasing between boys and girls. As research into the village customs of the past attests, the St. John's festivities were one of those exceptional occasions when a certain amount of sexual freedom was tolerated. The fact that the freedom sometimes went too far found its expression also in the lyrics of some of these songs recorded in the village of Kruzl'ov near Bardejov:
Na Ivana, na Kupala,
Hanca kabat zal'ustala,
Neznala ho vyrajbaty,
Musyla ho chlapcom daty.
Chlopcy kabat postelili,
A Hancu vinka zbavyly.
On St. John's Day
Annie soiled her skirt
She did not know how to wash it.
And so gave it to the boys
They spread the skirt.
And stripped Annie of her virtue
Some of the other customs connected with St. John's Day were, nevertheless, more serious in intent. After finishing the sobitka festivities, for instance, girls would throw wreaths into the stream in order to learn more about their future: the girl whose wreath was taken away the farthest by the stream was expected to marry the soonest. In another custom, young people would leap over fire with a double purpose: to purify their souls symbolically, and to "draw" from the fire the strength needed for the forthcoming harvest.
Among other things, the night of St. John's Day (like the nights of some other important days) was also believed to be the night of witches (bosorkanja). In many villages, legends were told about the "annual meetings" of the witches at imaginary places like "Black Mountain." "Bald Mountain," and "Devil's Hill." These meetings were believed to serve the purpose of accepting new arrivals into the witches' ranks and dividing the domains of their activity among themselves. Yarns were spun about the orgies which were supposed to accompany the meetings. According to legends many other strange things happened on that night: treasures hidden in the earth came to light (almost literally, because their appearance was first announced by fires bursting out on the surface); ferns began to blossom; trees would start to speak among themselves and move from place to place, etc.
After World War II, most customs connected with St. John's Day, especially the lighting of bonfires, ceased to be practiced. Recently, however, some of them have been revived on the initiative of folklore groups and with the endorsement of various cultural organizations. This revived tradition has, of course, a merely entertaining value, with the belief in the magic implications of the customs no longer extant.
Mykola Musynka - Presov
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