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Lesia's Kupala

‘From my childhood I remember the three most important events of the year: Christmas in the winter, Easter in spring, and Ivana Kupala in the summer.

‘We always prepared in advance for Ivana Kupala. A few days before the celebration we would go around looking for flowers, memorising where they were located, and where the best ones were. We would pray to God that they wouldn’t wilt and that they would bloom by the time we needed them to make a wreath.

‘On the morning of Ivana Kupala, we would go to pick those flowers. My grandma always used to help me; we would make wreaths together. We would always try to include some daisies or cornflowers, and some yellow flowers, we called them kashka [lady’s bedstraw]. We would also use periwinkle, guelder-rose or cherries.

‘When the wreaths were ready, we’d split into groups to find a suitable willow branch. It would then be our hilechko [ceremonial tree or branch]. It was decorated with small bouquets of flowers hung from the branches. We would also hang some sweets on it. The top of the hilechko was decorated with a nice big bouquet.

‘And then the celebrations started! We would start a circle dance and sing Kupala songs.

‘I also remember that an important part of the celebrations were varenyky [dumplings]. Strawberries and sour cherries were in season, so they’d be the most frequent choice of filling.

‘Then, closer to the evening, we would all go together to the river. At the front, of course, had to be a guy carrying the hilechko, and we would all follow behind singing Kupala songs.

‘At the riverbank we would lower our wreaths into the water and see where they’d end up. There is an ancient belief, that where a girl’s wreath ends up, that’s where she will get married. If the wreath stays where it is, it means it’s not yet time for the girl to get married. If it sinks, it might mean that the couple will break up. But I honestly don’t remember a single time that a wreath sank.

‘There was also a belief that you can wet your wreath in the river, bring it home, and put it on garden vegetable beds to increase their yield. In the same way, we would break up the hilechko, collect the sweets from it, wet them in the water and bring them home. I would give them to our grandmother, and she would go into the garden and put them on the cucumbers or other vegetables to improve the yield. And I remember that it was a sight to see, how in a few days it would start to wilt and dry out, but still lasted for a long time.

‘Closer to dusk, we would start a bonfire, and, following tradition, we would celebrate by the fire and jump over it.

‘We also had a tradition of setting car tyres on fire, like a symbol of the sun! We’d light them, and they’d burn for a long time. They would be launched from a small hill, and they would tumble downhill, looking like burning spheres, resembling the sun.

‘It was a bright and colourful celebration, with unforgettable emotions. I am really happy that we keep up the traditions of celebrating Ivana Kupala and are passing them on. My daughter also celebrates it every year.’

Lesia Kyrylenko, translated by Violetta Korbina

Watch Lesia talking about Kupala (in Ukrainian with English subtitles)