When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

The Witch-Eve of St. John

Holy russia! The words are the keynote to every Russian life, and through them, memories of childhood bring back clearly some of the most wonderful of all my happy days. Holy Russia! In these two words are held, as in a priceless casket, some of the most subtle threads of Russian feeling.

Other lands have other ideals, but the true Russian,—especially the Russian of my childhood, responds most quickly by the heart-strings when the deeper notes of life are touched. Though many years have passed since the church itself has played any part in my life, the beauty and symbolism of the quaint forms and religious customs linger with me yet, and I feel anew the mystery and the enthusiasms of childhood come over me at the two words of magic—Holy Russia!

The great celebration is Eastertide, for in no country in the world does the Festival of the Resurrection take so deep a hold on the life of the people as it does in Russia. It is truly a season of joy, a time when everyone is happy, when quarrels are forgotten, when enemies become friends and peace and goodwill reign throughout the land.

When, in retrospect, I think of my happy boyhood in Little Russia, the remembrance of Eastertide brings me memories as of a Land of Holy Things and of a time of happiness and rejoicing.

The church was near our house, since the clergy in Russia were practically attached to the estates, so although we went there on big occasions, as a rule the services were held at home. During the long Lenten season (when the moujiks fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays for seven weeks) we all looked forward to Easter eve, when the joyous spirit of the season would become manifest after weeks and weeks of repression.

On the evening before Easter there was always a special church service, and at midnight the fast was broken with great rejoicing. In each household, for weeks before this night, the housewives were busy preparing the luscious special dishes—never eaten at any other time—with which Easter is associated in the minds of all Russians. During this period Ksenia was inexorable.

"You can't come into this kitchen," she announced every time we attempted raids, meanwhile standing solidly planted in the doorway.

"Ksenia, golubushka" (dear), pleaded Ivan, "just a peep!"

But even flattery never attained the desired end and we could do nothing but watch the dozens and dozens of eggs taken from our cellar, and see the pans of homemade cream-cheese taken to the forbidden territory of the kitchen. However, we did go to watch the little pigs being specially fattened for the occasion. It was all most thrilling.

As the great time drew near, we were allowed to take part in one special joy—the painting of the Easter eggs. The whole family gathered around the dining room table, and for hours we sat dipping the eggs, mostly in cochineal, so that they were a bright red. Others were boiled with colored rags, and came out dyed with all the colors of the rainbow. There were many planned secrets.

"Vania," I would whisper to him, while Mother was out of the room, "help me write 'Mahma' on this egg—it's for her."

So Ivan lent his aid in tracing the letters on the egg in wax. When the egg was dipped it came out red all over, except where the writing was. We also often drew pictures or wrote inscriptions, and these came out so white and clear that the process was in itself a source of great excitement. Hundreds of eggs were prepared during the week before Easter, and each one of us had a surprise for every other member of the family.

At last the wonderful evening came. I still feel the thrill of expectancy and anticipation that pulsated through the neighborhood. As the dusk drew in, the peasants brought to the church, for a blessing, the food which was to be eaten when the fast was broken. There was a rough hedge around our little church, and beside this, on the ground, the people laid the roasted meats, the baked cakes and the Easter eggs they had prepared. After the midnight service the people went outside the church, and stood beside the food, each one holding a lighted candle. The still night, the hushed expectancy of the gathered peasants, the light streaming out from the church and the distant barking of dogs—it was Russia—the Russia of the happiest time of my life. But a rustle swept over the people.

"Batiushka (Little Father) is coming!" went the whisper, as the tall, lanky figure of the priest appeared, clothed in flowing robes, with his servers in procession. He carried a small asperges or broom in his hand, and a server followed him with a vessel of Holy Water. As Batiushka passed between the rows and rows of food to be blessed, he dipped the asperges in the holy water and lightly sprinkled the offerings. And as he passed and returned to the church the tension of the mystery fled, and the people turned to each other with the glad words, "Christ is Risen!" They chatted excitedly and gradually dispersed, all carrying flickering candles and the food that had been blessed. The village was athrob with the sense of relief and joy; sounds of laughter and merriment filled the air, and the dark roads were alive with the moving candle-lights, the consecrated will-o'-the-wisps of the Russian people. As each family of serfs or peasants entered the izba, the head of the family always made a cross of lampblack just inside the door, by holding the holy candle close to the whitewashed ceiling. Then the candles were put out and kept until the next year.



We, gathered in the big dining-room, also waited anxiously for the coming of Batiushka, for our food, as well, had to be blessed.

"He's coming!" We all rushed in with the news to our parents and the assembled relatives.

After the ceremony, Batiushka always remained to break his fast with us. The long dining-room table was covered with a home-made damask cloth, specially woven for this great occasion. The dishes stood on wonderful embroidered doilies, decorated with hand-made lace. Nothing was overlooked to make the festival different from every other season.

There was always a young pig, roasted whole, and stuffed with rice, prunes, and raisins. A young lamb was also prepared in the same way. Think of Ksenia's kitchen and the fire big enough to roast these whole! There were all kinds of fish, most of which had been caught nearby, besides caviar from the Volga and all sorts of pickled dainties. Yet it was the Paskha, looming high above all the other delicacies, one of the national dishes of Russia, which I remember as the chief dish of Easter. Beside it always stood the cheese Paskha, another indispensable tribute to the season. The Paskha is a kind of cake that stands about one and a half feet high on a base of eight inches. It goes straight up, and on top my mother would make shiny sugar decorations, and mould either a sugar lamb with a flag, or a sugar double cross. About sixty eggs were used to make the Paskha, and its taste was such as only the Russians know how to produce. Nowhere are the candies and cakes equal to those made in Russia.

The cheese Paskha was made of our home-made cheese in the form of a truncated cone, with crosses moulded along the sides. These two Paskhas are the greatest delicacies in Russia, and no Easter is complete without them.

As decorations for the table, during Lent, Ksenia used to plant wheat and oats in small dishes, and these sprouted to make pretty green islands in the midst of the Easter feast.

Wherever there was room, stood dishes filled with colored Easter eggs of every tint and shade. Many of the eggs had our names written on them, while others were covered with designs and pictures. It was indeed a night of surprises.

On that great night, we children went to bed near morning, and Mother and Father did not retire at all. The next day the full spirit of joy and happiness reigned everywhere in Russia. Even to strangers the greeting was addressed: "Christ is Risen!" To which the response was made: "He is Risen, indeed!" The kiss of peace was always exchanged, and then each person took out an Easter egg and gave it as a token. No one went out without carrying Easter eggs. Many of the eggs were made of chocolate or other candy. Others were valuable, sometimes, indeed, being made of gold with precious stones, and these were used as gifts, like Christmas presents.

Always also there were wooden eggs inside wooden eggs, with yet smaller eggs inside, all brightly colored, for this delight of finding one thing inside the other is very general among Russian children. We had boxes inside boxes, sometimes as many as seven. The girls had wooden dolls inside wooden dolls, from a big doll two feet high to the littlest doll inside, perhaps not as big as a finger. And all were alike in shape.

On Easter morning the streets of the village were full of these old-time customs, and nobody refused a greeting. In the house Father and Mother also received greetings from their peasants.

During the whole of Easter week the dining-room table was never cleared; Mother and Ksenia kept it supplied with a never-ceasing flood of dainties. On the first day after Easter we were visited by young people, who flocked to our house in dozens, often passing the night with us, for traveling was a difficult problem in those days of rough roads, and sometimes the snow was still on the ground. The second day was usually the day of visits on the part of the older people, who went to exchange greetings with their friends. The roads were musical with the tinkling of troika-bells, as callers sped from estate to estate at topmost speed.

With so many hard-boiled and prettily decorated eggs at our disposal, we spent a great part of Easter week playing games with the eggs (and eating them when they broke). We had many traditional games with them, the favorite being one in which a trough of boards was made, tipping slightly on the floor. A dozen eggs were then placed on the floor. Piotr, as eldest, set his eggs down first. Aniuta was usually given the initial chance to roll one of her eggs down the trough, to try to hit whichever egg of Piotr's row she most fancied. We all stood around expectantly, for the game was an uncertain one. If the eggs met without mishap, Aniuta won, but if one of the eggs cracked, the good egg went to the sufferer. It required skill to roll gently and in a straight line. We all battled for the possession of a special egg given every year by Father, and the one who was lucky enough to hit it, kept it for many months as a memory of the year's most glorious festival.

Since in Russia religious interpretations govern most festivals, birthdays were not celebrated. We did not look forward to our birthdays as do American children, but our "name days" were triumphantly celebrated. These brought us parties and presents. All our playmates were named after the saints of the calendar, so that each had a patron saint, with a special day assigned. Instead of having to write down birthday dates, if one knew a friend's name one could always send a gift or a message on the feast day of that saint after whom the friend had been named. On St. Vladimir's day, therefore, I always had a party. The boys from the neighboring families used to drive to the house and Ksenia strove her hardest to prepare good things in my honor.

Even in the most excitable "name-day ' party the symbolism was not forgotten. An ikon hung in the corner of the dining-room. It was a painted representation of the Virgin Mary, with all the picture save for the hands and face covered with a gilt plaque. Before sitting down to table, we all crossed ourselves, turning slightly to the ikon. Mother poured out the Russian tea, taking the water from the boiling samovar, which stood on the table. It was like a large, brass urn, with a little stove in the centre of it in which charcoal burned, to keep the water boiling all the time. We had plenty of home-made jam, and the cakes abounded.

At last the feast came to an end, and everyone was ready for a noisy game.

"Let's play blind-man's-buff," I shouted.

"Yes, yes, let's," everybody responded, for that was a game the zest of which never waned. But we did not jump up immediately. For one moment there was a silence, while we all crossed ourselves once more, and then we were free to go to our games.

There were also several ikons in the bedrooms, with incense-burners swung before them, suspended by a thin chain attached to the ceiling. In Mother's room there was a triangular table in the corner, on which ikons stood, with a light always burning before them, and a faldstool, on which she knelt to pray. Religion was very simple in the Russia of my childhood, and it was universal. We were not taught reverence as such; we grew up in it. It was a part of our lives.

There were many other celebrations in which the church took part, but Russia is an old country, and many of the customs are far older than Christianity. They date back to a time when people believed in witches and sprites and evil fairies even more than they do now, and when they thought that the powers of darkness needed to be remembered and warded off. One such celebration, especially, is sharply defined in my memory. This is St. John's eve.

On June twenty-third, almost the longest day of the year, we children were allowed to stay up late to watch the fires of St. John, as they were burned through the evening by the peasants.

In our woods there was a "circle," believed to have been used for many centuries for this purpose, to which the peasants hauled brushwood. Ivan and I, always together, watched the dark figures with awe and fear. They were getting ready to make the fire, which would cleanse them from all evil spirits and sickness.

At last it burned. The flames rose high in the centre of the clearing, casting weird shadows on the assembled peasants in their bright-colored holiday costumes, and on the surrounding forest, sunk in the darkness of the warm, still night. I did not dare look behind, for I felt certain that between the faintly lighted trunks of the trees lurked those goblins about whom Nikola had told us so many tales. And yet I wanted to meet them.

As the fire crackled, the ,divchata and the hloptzi pressed close to it, and every sudden spark raised little subdued giggles and a little stampede.

"You go first—no, you—no—" fluttered from one or the other of the eager peasants. All wanted to be clean from evil spirits and from disease, but it took courage to jump through the uncertain fire, with its hungry flames.

Old Nikola, the man who knew everything about the Unseen World, was the priest that night. Stern, with his fur cap firmly pulled over his forehead, he watched for the mysterious hour, when tradition allowed the beginning of the ceremony. "It's almost one hour before midnight," he announced solemnly, and the tense excitement grew.

I pressed closer to Ivan, watching the fire and the dark background beyond. The hour of fairies was fast approaching, the hour when they came to earth. I longed and yet I dreaded to catch a glimpse of the dream-beings, flitting in the darkness beyond.

Holy Russia


"It is time," said Nikola, suddenly, guessing the moment by some instinct, for he had no other means at hand.

"Who goes first—you, Stepan?"

And with this direct challenge before him, I saw my old friend, Stepan, step forward before the fire and hesitate.

"Go on—jump!" came the encouraging whispers.

The fire crackled and sent bright sparks among the encircling people, and he jumped, leaving in the fire both evil and disease. The peasant girls followed, with embroidered skirts held tight, while on the other side of the cleansing fire waited those who were willing and ready to catch the jumper, and to beat out the little sparks that settled on the clothing.

Holy Russia! The Russia of tradition and fairy tales, the Russia which was a part of us when we, too, jumped the sparkling fires on St. John's Eve.