In last week’s post, I explained why Russians preferred to get married in the beginning of winter, on October 1 (October 14 by today’s calendar), the Feast of the Protection. But Russians did not merely get married on this day. There were many folk traditions and beliefs associated with this event. Here are five of the most interesting ones.
(As with last week’s post, this is mostly my translation of passages from Folk Russia by Apollon Korinfskii. You can read the entire book in Russian here).
The Pilgrim Songs of the Protection
As the white, fluffy snow (i.e. the “Protection”) covers the land, people in the faraway reaches of Russia start to hear the half-liturgical, half-folk songs of wandering pilgrims. Their songs concern events actually connected to the historical feast of the Protection. Here’s one, in my very rough translation:
The enemies came to the Kingdom of the Greeks,
They threatened them with war and destruction.
The surrounded Christians, inspired to repentant prayer, came to the church to ask for help. The prayer reached the ears of the Mother of God, who came down personally from Heaven. All the shocked people turn to the Mediatress of the human race and cry out to her: “Why have you come down yourself to us, you dove, you all-pure, all-gracious one? Has brilliant heaven become bitter with our sins? Have you come down from the Creator to punish us?”
But She answers thus:
For me heaven has lost its joy,
The firmament’s light has darkened.
For every hour the angels bring to me
Bitter tears of Christians.
How disturbed I become, how sorrowful!
So I came to you directly to give comfort,
To pray with you together to the Lord…”
And the most-pure one prayed “to Her Son, the Crucified One,” for deliverance.
The people’s imagination often combined the Protection of the Mother of God with the fairy tale of “the virgin Sun bearing a spotless sheet.” The sheet is a personification of the dawn and the twilight. According to the folk storytellers, the sun spins this sheet from silver and gold thread that come down from the sky:
“On the sea, on the ocean,
On the Island of Buyan,
Lies a stone, white as snow.
On this stone a table stands,
And on this table sits a maiden.
But she is not a maiden fair,
She is the All Pure Mother, the Mother of God…”
The image of the Mother of God on the stone is interesting, considering the Christian interpretation of one of the prophecies of Daniel (the stone cut out of the mountain without human hands). The stone, according to the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church, symbolizes the ever-virginity of the Mother of God.
The people used to pray to the goddess Dawn for protection, but Christianity changed the image of this goddess and transformed it into the face of Mary. Thus, they would pray,
“O beautiful maiden of the dawn,
Mother, all pure Mother of God!
Cover my sorrows and sicknesses with your veil!
Cover me with your protection from spirits dark!
Your veil is as strong as the stone of Alatyr!” (a legendary stone where pagan sacrifices were offered)
The Folk Version of the Christian Feast
The newly converted Slavs changed the actual historical event celebrated on this day (a miraculous deliverance of the city of Constantinople from marauding pagan Slavs, ironically enough) into an entirely different tale.
In the old times, the people used to say, the Mother of God was a pilgrim who wandered over the earth. She happened to enter into a certain village where all the people had long forgotten God and the works of mercy. She asked for shelter. But everywhere she heard the same answer: “We don’t take in wanderers!”
At that moment, Elias the prophet was flying by on his fiery chariot, and he heard these terrible words. He could not bear to hear such insults uttered against the holy lady, and he began to hurl down his thunderbolts and to pour down heavy rain that threatened to destroy the entire village.
The people were afraid and began to cry out. The Mother of God felt sorry for them. She covered them with her veil, and saved the same people who had insulted and wounded her. Her kindness melted their hearts, and from that moment they became the most hospitable of villages.
The Departure of the Birds
Just as the arrival of the birds in March/April heralded the beginning of spring, the last cranes left for the south (traditionally) on the Protection. If they leave on the day, it’s a good sign. If they leave earlier, it means the winter’s going to be a howler.
Preparations for Winter
If the Annunciation (March 25/April 7) heralds the end of the winter hut, the Protection is the time to prepare the house for winter. Every good husband takes care to prepare the stores of wood, to clean the stove. “Catch the warmth before Protection,” the saying goes, “or your house just won’t be the same!”
On the eve of the Protection, the dirty straw beds of winter must be burned. As I’ve written before, this action, for the superstitious peasant, was a kind of warding against the evil eye. Old ladies also burned their bark-shoes, hoping to “warm up their feet to walk faster” for winter. Children were prepared against winter colds by being doused with cold water on the porch.
Even the spirits of the forests, the leshye, stop walking about after the Protection. But they don’t go down without a fight. The folk tales tell how the leshye break trees, uproot bushes, send wild animals out of their holes, until the earth swallows them up until spring. With the melting of the rivers, they’ll come back up to do their usual mischief, or so say the tales.
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Do you or your family have any special traditions associated with the coming of winter? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!