Did you know that Groundhog Day is also a Russian holiday? Ok, not exactly, but February 2 (which is celebrated today on the Julian Calendar) is also when Russians “check for winter’s end.” I don’t think this is anything but coincidence, but the feast of the Meeting of the Lord falls on February 2, and in the conception of the Russian folk, this was the day that winter first receives notice that its days are numbered.
This week’s translation is from Apollon Korinfskii’s excellent book Folk Russia. The original Russian book is in the public domain, and can be read in its entirety here. You can read about other ways that Russians met spring in this post.
Old Woman Winter vs. Young Woman Spring
The freezing temperatures that often occur around the feast of the Meeting of the Lord (February 2) remind the peasant folk of Russia that winter doesn’t want to give in to spring. At the same time, it’s no surprise that the common folk consider the Meeting to be the last “meeting” between winter and spring in their battle.
On this day, according to folk beliefs, winter fights a final, desperate battle against sunny spring. After this day, Old Woman-Winter runs away, hurries, avoids even glancing at the fiery eyes of her antagonist-spring, who gets stronger by the day. Old Woman-Winter feels that the streets that she’s just covered with snow will soon be covered by the feet of people celebrating a new feast—the birth of spring.
In some places, this old song is still sung in the first days of February, especially by children:
Here comes the month that warms my sides
For a long time the earth’s been cold,
But now the cow’s sides get red with warmth
And the cow’s, and the horse’s
And the white-haired old man’s too!
Good old Frost, the son of Frost!
Don’t be grumpy, Old Man Winter,
Run away from our village,
Beyond the thrice-nine lands,
Beyond the thrice-ten seas!
There your own estates await,
They’ve been abandoned far too long,
Overcome in powdered snow,
Locked behind seven seals of ice,
Seven locks of metal,
Seven heavy bolts!
Guessing Winter’s End
All the older members of any village community know that if the eve of the Meeting of the Lord is clear, if the sky is filled with stars, then winter’s time “to weep” won’t begin for a while yet. Spring will be late this year, they say.
But this is only one of many folk beliefs that surround winter’s end. Most of them have to do with February 2 itself. For example, in the Tula region, it’s considered bad luck to travel far on sleds on February 2. You shouldn’t trust winter any more. If the day is especially warm, it’s considered to be a sign that the winter is going to be a rotten one (i.e. bring a lot of disease with it).
In Kostroma, the locals don’t quite agree with their Tula counterparts. They say that if on the Meeting of the Lord, “the walls are wet from sparrows,” that only means that spring is coming early, but not that it’s going to be pestilent. In Ryazan’, it’s said that if there’s snow on February 2, then it’s going to be a wet spring. If it’s a snowstorm, then they say that “the Meeting will pick up all the feed.” In other words, it’ll be a long summer with a short harvest season, and the animals won’t have enough food for the following winter.
A Cautionary Winter’s Tale
In the Kashyrsk region, an interesting story was often repeated in the local villages in the early 19th century. It was used to prove the folk belief that you shouldn’t travel far on February 2.
“Once upon a time,” they said, “there was an old man with his family. They lived well and ate well. He had a lot of everything, and the Lord gifted him with smart and talented children. Whatever the old man couldn’t think up himself, his children invented. And if they didn’t know something, the old man always taught them.
“The old man organized to have all his kids married on the same day. He thought it would be a good idea to feed all his in-laws, and so he prepared for them a mighty feast for Maslenitsa Week before Lent. So he thought it would be a good idea to travel far in search of fish, to make a buck or two, and to make his guests even happier.
“But he kept putting it off, waiting for good traveling weather. And—lo and behold!—it’s already the Meeting of the Lord, and Maslenitsa soon after that! So the old man took his whole family, save the old ladies and the kids, and filled seven train compartment with his goods.
“But as soon as the old ladies heard about it, they had a bad feeling. They moaned and cried to their husbands. ‘Don’t go!’ they said. But the men paid no heed. ‘They’re making it up, said the men. Always having bad dreams, always depressed. It’s the domovoi (house imp) that’s pushing them to this silliness. Don’t argue with the old women, that’s true enough! But don’t listen to them either!’
“No, though the old man. I’m going to go get my fish. I want to feed my in-laws proper this Maslenitsa.
“What can you do with a muzhik? He’s stubborn as an ox and has never listened to anyone! It was an ominous, warm day, that Meeting of the Lord. The old women moaned even louder, understanding the evil omen. ‘Look!’ they said. ‘Look outside, my dear one! It’s so warm! The freeze is over. Spring is coming. Nothing good can come of this!’
“But the old man still went. Seven compartments full of goods and sons left that morning. The old women waited for their men for a week, but not a word! They waited for a second week, and still no news. Another week’s gone by, and still their beloved haven’t returned! It’s already Meatfare Day, and then came the rumors. An old man drowned over there somewhere…
“The old women wailed louder than before. Everyone’s celebrating Cheesefare, but for the old women it’s already Lent! And then they heard. Their husbands fell into the cracking ice on the Volga together with all their goods. No one survived…
“But why are you surprised? Everyone knows that only bad things happen to those who don’t listen to the old beliefs and the old people’s wisdom!”
Calling the Sun
By the evening of the feast of the Meeting of the Lord, not long before twilight, all the kids gather together to listen to the tales told by the elders. Then they get together on a high hilltop and begin to call to the sun, asking it to show itself “from behind the hills.” If it does, it shows them that winter did indeed have its proper meeting with spring.
Here are the words to one of these songs that called to the sun:
O you bright sun,
Come, peek out
From behind the hills!
Look out, my sun,
Until the time of spring!
Have you seen, my sun
The beautiful spring?
Have you met, my sun,
Have you seen, my sun,
Have you seen how she
Ran away from spring
From the Beautiful One?
Has she carried the frost away in a bag?
Did she shake the cold over the land?
Did she run away,
Hiding under the mountain?
Did she meet the spring,
The beautiful sister of the sun?
If the sun did in fact “peek out” before sunset from “behind the hills,” then the joyful crowd of children ran back to the village with the news that the last freeze has passed. But if the sun didn’t come out, then there’d be another wave of sub-zero temperatures around the 11th of February.
Other than the mystical moments surrounding February 2, the traditional warming during this time is a reminder to the responsible head of household. It’s time to begin fixing the summer harnesses—both for riding and for work in the field. There’s even a special day dedicated to this work. February 3 is known among the peasants as “Fixing Day.”
On this day, the men got up before dawn to see to the horses—did the Domovoi mess with them at all on the previous night? This is connected with a superstition that if the house imp is somehow unhappy, he chooses the night of February 2-3 to “ride the horses all night.” So the usual “offering” to the Domovoi is even more extravagant than usual—a special pot of porridge set apart by a ring of burning coals.
After celebrating the Meeting of the Lord properly, after having worked all “Fixing Day,” the people get ready for “Vlas’iev Day” (February 11). This event has so many varied and unique folk beliefs and superstitions, that it deserves its own separate chapter.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more about Russian traditions and culture, consider joining my Readers’ Group. I’ll send you two chapters of my new novel as a thank you. Just tell me where to send them: