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The Epiphany: From Spiritual Practice to Tradition
The most amazing time during the Russian winter is the period between Christmas and the Epiphany, which is celebrated today. It is held (though the weather defies this tradition) that this is the time of the harshest cold spells. And as if the counter the cold, according to Russian tradition, it is also the height of winter revelries during the Christmas season.
Log and Bannister
By the way, the festivities leading up to the Epiphany have not been well received by those in power. Here is a threatening decree from Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich: “…it is known that…on the eve of the Lord’s Epiphany many people shout out Pluga, Kaleda, and Usen’… many people sing diabolically foul-mouthed songs…mummer players walk around with dombras, reed pipes, and bears… And those people who continue to evoke Kaleda, Pluga, and Usen’, and to sing infamous songs, these people…we will subject to great disgrace and severe punishment…” If you recall that the laws of the time assigned death sentences to a little over sixty (!) types of crimes, the words “great disgrace and severe punishment” look very threatening. But Pluga and Usen’ have long been forgotten. Meanwhile, the people continue to enjoy themselves, as people are made to do. And as a popular song goes, they “want to know what will happen.” Especially the fairer sex.
The range of fortune-telling methods in use on the eve of the Epiphany was quite vast just over a hundred years ago. We’ll leave to one side cards and the widely known practice of throwing a maiden’s shoe past the gate, as well as the mirror fortune telling so often depicted by painters.
There is also, for example, fortunetelling with logs. Standing with one’s back to the woodpile, one must pull out a log at random. If the log is smooth and even, one’s future husband will be meek and accommodating; if it’s shaggy and has a lot of twigs, he will be cruel, quarrelsome, and angry.
There’s fortunetelling with carriage poles, which you lead a horse down coming out of the stable: if the horse stumbles, the husband will be no catch. There’s also fortunetelling with a hen—you have to let the hen into the house, where there’s bread, water, and three rings: gold, silver, and brass. If the hen drinks the water, the husband will be a drunk. If it starts pecking at the bread, he’ll be a loafer and sponge. If it picks the gold ring, he’ll be rich; if it’s the silver one, he’ll be smart and modest; if it’s the brass one, he’ll be a beggar.
But where, you ask, would you find a log or even a living chicken in a contemporary city? A good question. In that case, you don’t need chickens or logs—you can tell the future with the bannister along your staircase. The young beauty walks up the staircase repeating the words, “widower” and “fine fellow.” Whichever word she says upon reaching the last baluster determines her future husband. And if the bannister doesn’t work for you either, young women who want to look into the future can just each take an onion and check a little while later whose onion grew first—this will be the first to be betrothed. But fortunetelling is an uncertain thing: will it come true, or maybe not… On the other hand, if a pretty girl goes out on Epiphany morning and rubs her face with snow, she is guaranteed a face more striking than a rose.
And the famed “Epiphany evening” has been thought to be a time when dark forces ran wild. In anticipation of the cross being submerged in the water, spirits flee from their aquatic lairs in horror and gladly hole up in human habitations. For this reason, there was also a custom of drawing the sign of the cross on all doors and windowsills, and above all apertures on the stove, with charcoal or chalk—this was considered a reliable defense against anything demonic.
Was There a Nip in the Air?
A similar symbol of this holiday is the so-called “Epiphany frost.” As specialists, who aren’t at all prone to mysticism and fortunetelling, will attest, this is not a meteorological phenomenon, but more of a product of legends and psychology. It is much easier to stubbornly find mysteries where there’s no sign of them. This may be judged by the statements of hydrometeorologists, people who professionally study the weather and keep corresponding statistics.
“The Epiphany frosts are a misconception,” they explain. “Very often natural occurrences are associated with certain religious dates, but concrete studies do not support this. Yes, there can occasionally be truly powerful frosts on Epiphany Day, but there can also be lengthy warm spells—let’s say up to three degrees above zero in Moscow, like this year, and most often there is a middling temperature. From a scientific point of view, there are not and cannot be frosts that come precisely on 19 January. This is simply an association with a certain idea that was adopted at one time.”
In other words, the onset of heavy frosts is determined not by religious holidays but by the occurrence of cyclones and anticyclones. But people are accustomed to thinking that in previous years the cold was worse and the ice was thicker. As for superstitions, it isn’t hard to discover that one often encounters totally contradictory examples. By the way, this is entirely unsurprising—after all, they were born in regions with varying climate conditions. So, the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Don’t Get in Over Your Head
Yet another symbol of the Epiphany today are the numerous ice-holes for bathing. In Old Moscow the main ceremonial location for sanctifying water was near the Church of Christ the Savior. A well-known legend is associated with this spot and the renowned Muscovite archdeacon Konstantin Rozov.
Allegedly, this Rozov—a man endowed with a phenomenal voice and no less outstanding physical strength—was out on a day of terrible frost (well, of course!). He was walking across Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge (which at the time was located across from Lenivka street) and noticed a thief’s hand in his pocket. Rozov easily caught the pickpocket by his extended arm, carried him over to an ice-hole, and – making the proper pronouncement “I baptize him to You, Lord!” – “baptized” him. History remains silent on what happened to the thief further…
By the way, according to the latest information, 150 thousand people went for a dip on Epiphany in Moscow alone. Do I need to remind you to be very careful with this folk tradition? Plunging into the baptismal waters, especially after the feasting of the holiday week, is not at all healthy for the human body and can even end in a heart attack or hemorrhage. And from the church’s point of view, such swims are not at all required and have no direct relationship to the holiday. What’s more, there is no need to take icy baths if you haven’t undergone a specific spiritual, and especially physical training, to prepare for the immersion.
In a word, decide for yourself…