What do you think is the best day for a wedding? Maybe late spring or summer, I would say. Good weather, good wedding, right? So what are crazy Russians thinking when they choose, effectively, the first day of winter, also known as the Feast of the Protection, as the best day to get married?
On the first of October (the fourteenth of October according to the modern Gregorian calendar), the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates a feast known as the Protection of the Mother of God. You can read about the official church holiday here, if you are interested.
But here I’ll focus more on the way old Russians used to experience this feast. Everything I’ve included here is my translation (and adaptation) of a wonderful book I recently found, Folk Russia by Apollon Korinfskii, published in 1901. Here’s a link to the entire book in Russian, if you’re interested.
In the consciousness of old Russian peasants, the Protection was a moment of passage between fall and winter.
“Before the Protection—the fall, after the Protection—here comes the winter!” That’s what they used to say in Russia. This day is also close to the first snowfall of the year—a time pregnant with significance and potential.
As strange as this may sound, village weddings were only performed after the celebration of the Protection. This new reality provoked different reactions from different people. Thinking of how the much-labored-over harvest was going to go to waste at the wedding banquet, the fathers of the bride would complain: “Old grandfather October! The only thing you’re good for is reaching the bottom of a beer bottle.”
Of course, young women had a quite different reaction. For them, the first of the month was a longed-for day, a celebration that they anticipated the whole year. On the morning of the first, young women came outside while it was still dark and began to sing:
“O Father-Protection, cover our Mother Earth and me as well. The white snow covered the earth; will it not also adorn me for marriage? O Father-Protection, cover the land with snow, but give me a husband!”
In other places, the young women sang to “Mother-Protection.”
Then the girls would go to church in the morning and light a candle before the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. In Belarus, they would add a special half-prayer, half-invocation: “Holy Protection! You who have covered the earth and the water, protect me as well!”
If the day brought snow, it was good luck for any who got married on the day. If not, the bride could expect trouble: “If Protection (that is, the snow) didn’t cover her head, the Nativity certainly won’t!” they used to say in the villages.
“Leader-Mother-Mother of God, lead us to the other side (i.e. the foreign space of the husband’s home); Greeter-Mother-Mother of God, meet me there on the other side.”
This confusion of three major feasts of the Mother of God—The Protection, the Entrance into the Temple, and the Meeting in the Temple—is typical of such folk traditions.
In some areas, the young women would gather together on a day before the Protection, sing the proper songs, and weave a complete veil over the course of the day. Before the morning liturgy, they would come to church and offer the veil before the icon of the Protection. Whispering, they would pray,
“Mother of God! Cover me quickly! Send me a husband with wit! O Protection of Chirst, cover my poor head with a pearly cover (kokoshnik, a festal head covering), with a golden veil!”
If a girl was lucky enough to get married on the Protection, the entire village would sing their dear girl to the church, sharing in that special joy.
Nowadays, there’s still a strong connection between the feast of the Protection and wedding days. Many young, pious couples wait for this day to marry. Although they won’t be able to tell you why, it’s all connected to the old folk traditions surrounding the day’s festivities.
Next week, I’ll tell you about some other traditions connected with this feast, including an entire genre of songs unique to the day. Plus, you’ll find out what cranes have to do with long winters.
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