By Susan Kessler
The Orthodox Christmas is here and dozens of Russian schoolgirls are getting giddy, but presents are not the only things on their minds. Two weeks of Christmas celebrations, called Svyatki in Russian, is the time for age-old rituals, which some still believe can offer a glimpse into the future. While the Russian Orthodox Church officially condemns all types of fortune telling, ancient pagan traditions, peasant superstitions and Christian beliefs have fused together to produce numerous recipes for predicting what the future has in store.
It is highly unlikely that your Russian lawyer or accountant busies himself with conjuring spirits every winter after January 6, which marks Christmas Eve for Russian Orthodox believers, who observe the old Julian calendar for religious holidays. However, teenage girls and older village dwellers, are less likely to pass Svyatki —which begin on January 6 and end with Kreshcheniye, or Baptism of Christ on January 19 — without trying a hand at fortune telling.
Svyatki has long been regarded as a magical time when spirits return to earth, offering the living a look into the unknown. Nineteenth century writer Nikolay Gogol illustrated this side of Russian folklore in his colorful “The Night Before Christmas” story, part of his famous “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka” anthology. A broom-wielding witch and Satan, who steals the moon, are characters in this love story about peasants, who find the appearance of these mystical creatures on Christmas Eve, or Sochelnik, to be just as natural as putting on costumes to go from house to house singing Christmas carols, a tradition called kolyadki in Russian.
Just like kolyadki have evolved from songs to the pagan sun goddess, Kolyada, old rituals for predicting the future were also molded by the onset of Christianity in ancient Russia. Peasants mostly relied on interpreting accidental sites and sounds, instigated by them, to foretell the future. All subjects — including whether the coming harvest will be plentiful or whether an unexpected misfortune is in store for the coming year — were fair game for fortune tellers. With time, however, matters of the heart became the usual topic for conjuring up answers during Svyatki.
An unmarried woman would run onto the street and ask the first man she saw for his name, in order to find out the name of her future husband. Some ran outside naked after sundown on Sochelnik, threw snow over their shoulder, and strained to hear the direction from which any sounds would come next. This was meant to signify where they would move after marriage or where the future husband was from.
Olga, 24, a business consultant, scoffs at the idea of running around her dacha naked to get a glimpse into her future love life. “This is not anything I would ever do,” she says, but admits that when she was in middle school, trying old fortune telling rituals was great fun.
One such ritual involves going alone into a dark banya, or any other pitch-black room, with several mirrors and a candle. The mirrors have to be positioned, so that one mirror reflects the other. Then, a girl would light a candle and stare at the multiple reflections of her face, until a stranger’s face appears in that mirror. Presumably, this new face is the countenance of her future husband. A less eerie tradition has a person pour melted wax into a bowl with cold water and then interpret the meaning of the various wax shapes produced.
While many other elaborate rituals exist, few educated urbanites still take Christmastime fortune telling seriously. An old joke goes: “vse 18-i letnie devushki gadayut, no k 30, ponimayut chto ne ugadali”, which can be loosely translated as “all 18-year-old girls try to tell their fortune, but at 30, realize they are not that fortunate.”
Among educated adults, the mystical rituals have become something of a party favor, not to be taken too seriously. Vladimir, 31, an IT professional, says he was bored on a skiing trip with friends one evening, so conjuring up spirits seemed like a good way to pass the time.
“We summoned the spirit of Yuriy Gagarin [the first man in space] and asked him when a man will land on Mars,” Vladimir said. The bored skiers sat in a circle, held hands, and watched a plate move by itself, pointing in the direction of various letters and numbers written beside it. This ritual called tarelochka actually worked for Vladimir, who said he was baffled when the plate moved, pointing to numbers that made up the year 2061.
Vladimir declined to disclose how much alcohol was consumed at the ski lodge before the Russian superstition and the dinner plate opened the communication channel with Gagarin, who then also told the group that the first man on Mars will be a German.
The skeptics out there have two weeks of Svyatki to try out some fortune telling rituals for themselves, provided they are neither bound by the recommendations of the Orthodox Church nor afraid to be strapped for conversation, in case Gagarin, or another spirit, actually does appear.