Zeleni Sviata in Ukraine: the Mysticism of the Festival

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A black and white illustration by Tkachenko depicts a Ukrainian family in the 19th century, decorating their home with tree branches for Zeleni Sviata.
‘Trinity Eve in Ukraine‘ by M. Tkachenko, in “Vsemirnaya Illiustratsiya” (1898, no. 22).

Today, 23 June 2024, is Zelena Nedilia in the Ukrainian folk calendar. Some of our readers may have come across Zeleni Sviata (Green Holidays) in our books. This holiday is mentioned in at least three of Sova Books publications:

Zeleni Sviata is one of Ukraine’s most vibrant festivals. It blends pagan traditions with Christian customs. Celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter, it marks the arrival of summer. In fact, Zeleni Sviata marks the first three days of Zelenyi (or Rusalnyi, Rusalky’s) Week. The most celebrated day is the first day – Zelena Nedilia (Sunday). Other names of this festival include: Rosalia, Rusallia, and Troitsia.

This ancient celebration brings together nature, folklore, and spirituality. It is one of the most enchanting and culturally rich festivals of the year.

The Origins and Significance

Historically, this festival was a pagan celebration of nature and fertility. It honours the arrival of summer and the lush greenery that accompanies it. With the advent of Christianity, these pagan traditions were interwoven with the religious significance of Pentecost. As a result, we have a unique blend of customs that continue to be cherished today.

Another significant aspect of Zeleni Sviata is the cult of the dead ancestors. This holiday is a time to honour and remember deceased family members.

The Rituals and Traditions

This holiday incorporates some of the most enchanting rituals, traditions and beliefs. Here are some of them: 

Adornment with greenery

One of the most iconic symbols of Zeleni Sviata is the decoration of homes and churches with green branches and flowers. Birch, oak, linden, acacia, and willow branches are popular. These branches and flowers are often woven into wreaths and garlands. Also, in rural areas, people often cover their floors with fresh grasses and field flowers. This practice is aesthetically pleasing, creating a fragrant and festive atmosphere. But most importantly, the folk believed performing this ritual brings protection and blessings.

Wreath rituals

The wreath ritual is another fascinating tradition. Young people weave wreaths and gather by a river in the evening. The atmosphere is festive and somewhat mystifying. The young women carefully place their wreaths on the water, eagerly watching to see if they float. This action is accompanied by special songs. Through this tradition, unmarried girls try to divine their future spouses. If a girl’s wreath stays by the shore, it means she will remain unmarried that year. However, if the wreath drifts away, she can expect her future husband to come from that direction. Young men often watch from the riverbank or boats, sometimes trying to catch a particular wreath, which can be a playful and romantic gesture indicating interest in the young woman who made it.

People also believe that the movement of the wreaths can predict the future. If a wreath floats smoothly and far, it is said to bring good luck and a bright future. If it sinks or gets caught, it might suggest obstacles or challenges ahead.

Honouring ancestors

People visit the graves of their ancestors, cleaning and decorating them with flowers and greenery. They light candles and say prayers, believing that the spirits of their ancestors are close during this time. This practice reflects a deep respect for the past and a belief in the ongoing presence of ancestors in the lives of the living. 

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions

Book cover of a collection of Ukrainian spells

Zeleni Sviata is rich with folklore and superstitions. One such belief is that the holiday is a time when the veil between the human world and the spirit world is thin. People take precautions to protect themselves from malevolent spirits, the mythical water nymphs known as “rusalky”. 

Rusalky are believed to be the spirits of young women who died untimely or tragic deaths, often by drowning. During Zeleni Sviata, it is thought that these spirits emerge from their watery abodes to roam the forests and fields. They are said to be most active during this time. 

People believe that to appease these spirits and avoid their mischief, they need to respect certain rituals and customs. This includes placing offerings of bread and salt near water sources to keep the rusalky content, and at bay. There are also specific spells to ward off rusalky. You can find some of them in our book, “A Collection of Ukrainian Spells” by Petro Yefymenko.

In essence, Zeleni Sviata is a time when the boundary between the human world and the spirit world becomes thin, allowing for a unique and mystical connection with nature and the ancient spirits that inhabit it.

A Living Tradition

Zeleni Sviata is more than just a celebration; it is a living tradition that continues to thrive in the heart of Ukrainian culture. It is a time when people reconnect with nature, celebrate their history, and look forward to the future with hope and gratitude. As Ukraine fights off the bloodthirsty Russian occupier, festivals like Zeleni Sviata serve as a reminder of the enduring power of community, tradition, and the natural world. Soon, the day will come when Ukrainian families will be able to decorate their homes with greenery without fear of destruction by a Russian shell.

As the green branches sway in the summer breeze and the fields echo with songs of old, Zeleni Sviata invites everyone to partake in its magic and embrace the timeless beauty of Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

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To learn more about Zeleni Sviata and Rusalky, see our other articles.