As I’ve begun to delve deeply into my second novel, I’m considering using the time of the year as a contrast to the characters’ inner journeys. In my first novel, the change of season from fall to winter mirrors the development of the characters. But I didn’t want the coming of spring in the second novel to be that obvious. One of the main characters is suffering through a personal loss, a death on several levels. I needed to find some aspect of the coming of spring that would work as a good foil for his inner state.
Well, I found this great Russian article about folk traditions associated with the Orthodox springtime feast of Annunciation. Naturally, a late winter-early spring church holiday would be associated with the coming of spring. Some of these celebrations are very cinematic, and I thought they would work well in my novel. So as I work on incorporating these elements into the final story, here, for your reading pleasure, is the translation of the article in full.
Russians always met the bright holiday of Annunciation with cleanliness and good order. On this day, the Orthodox Church remembers the good news given by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary concerning the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here are seven ways in which Russians traditionally (in more or less pagan-inflected ways) celebrated the feast.
Out with the Old!
On the eve of Annunciation, the superstitious peasant, in preparation for the feast, would burn his straw bedroll, which would have become disgusting over the course of the winter. Then all the winter clothes would be smoked out, and sometimes the whole house. Thus all the “evil spirits,” birthed by the dark powers of Morana, the goddess of winter and death, would be banished in preparation for the coming of Spring the Beautiful. This was also the time to burn all clothing of people who had been seriously ill, to protect them from any dark magic.
“The Bird does not weave its nest; the maid does not plait her hair.”
In Russian folk consciousness, Annunciation was associated with the spring awakening of nature. To this day, many Russians, superstitious or not, will not do any physical work. In older times, peasants were forbidden from working the ground, because this was the time that the earth “opened up,” releasing to the surface all the snakes, mice, and insects that had been sleeping all winter. It was said, “If a bird weaves its nest on Annunciation, its wings will grow weak; never will it fly, but will live out its days by walking on the ground.”
“As soon as the birds arrive, the warmth will come back”
The beginning of spring was associated with the return of migrating birds, and it was considered that the birds literally brought back the warmth. So to make spring come faster, people imitated the flight of birds. One way this was done was to bake small breads in the shape of birds in flight (though this was associated not so much with Annunciation, but with the celebration of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste two weeks earlier, but the principle is the same).
Children and young people took these “zhavoronky” to elevated places—roofs, hills, trees—and left them there. Sometimes, the breads were tied to stakes in the garden, and the wind rocked them back and forth, making it look like they were flying. Sometimes they would be eaten that same day, sometimes left for the next year. If so, they would be left in houses and gardens—anywhere, really, in the hope that they would bring good luck.
“Pay to free the birds, and the birds will pray for you to God”
From time immemorial in Rus there was a custom on Annunciation to free birds from cages. In the cities, poor people caught birds in advance, and they would bring them by the hundreds to the public markets. They always asked for a little money before releasing them. Merchants and shoppers, hearing the voices of the bird-catchers, were lavish in their payment to release the birds. By doing this, they hastened the coming of warmth and spring, and the end of winter. They were, in essence, bringing a kind of sacrifice to mother nature.
As part of the custom of imitating birds, children would sing special songs while standing on high places. The songs were call and response, and would basically travel over the entire village from house to house.
Calling for Spring
While the children sang their childish songs, young men and women did the more important work of “calling for spring.” After lunch, they would take pies that they had baked in the morning, find a place under the open sky, face the East, say a prayer. Then someone would call out, “Bless us, O God, to begin calling for spring!” And all of those who had assembled would begin to sing the traditional song. They would sing it while sitting in a circle, eating, drinking, and having a good time. Then they would get up and dance in the circle and sometimes even pair off in dance.
From the Hut to the Upper Room
With the coming of Annunciation, young married couples left the main room of the hut to a smaller room. Unheated by the stove, it was almost like a porch. The small children and the older people remained in the hut. Basically all the work was now moved outdoors. Thus, Annunciation declared the end of winter work and the beginning of the work on the fields.
If you want to learn more about Russian folk traditions, be sure to sign up for my Readers’ Group. As a thank you, I’ll send you two chapters of my new novel.