The purifying power of water

Water has long been at the centre of traditions and ancient rites, not least the ceremony of baptism. While in Judaism immersion is a symbol of purification and consecration, the Orthodox church gives thanks to water and its powers of creation in the Blessings of Waters. As an offering at Buddhist shrines, water stands for our aspiration towards purity, while Hindus believe that bathing in the holy river Ganges washes away sins.

National Sleepy Head Day

Water is also at the core of Unikeonpäivä or ‘National Sleepy Head Day’ in Finland, which dates from the Middle Ages and is possibly linked to the biblical story of the seven sleepers.

Unikeonpäivä is a day of fun and pranks. As the last person in the house to wake up is considered the laziest, he or she is ‘encouraged’ with a sprinkle of water in the face or, more radically, gets thrown into a lake.

Marzanna and Morė

Water is not only regarded as a source of life and purity, but as a force of wrath and destruction. In Slavic culture, water is the ultimate weapon against Marzanna or Morena, a goddess associated with the end of winter and rebirth of spring.

During Jare Święto, the ritual drowning of an effigy of Marzanna is intended to hurry up the arrival of spring and to ensure a rich harvest.

The tradition - today more an occasion to have fun with children - involves a straw doll being carried by a procession of people singing to a river or pond where she’s thrown into the water.

Walking away, the procession continues to chant but mustn’t look back or stumble or they’ll have bad luck.

Marzanna’s counterpart in Lithuania is Morė, whose straw figure is not drowned but burnt at the climax of Užgavėnės.

Considered an evil demon who induces nightmares, Morė stands for destruction and death. Instead of being carried, Morė is usually driven to the stake on a sleigh with a carriage wheel made especially for her.

Swaying from one side to the other during the ride, it looks like the demon is waving her hands, defending herself against a masked man with a whip. The burning of Morė symbolises the victory of light over darkness and implies that people possess the power to revive their tired spirits and worn-out bodies after the winter.

Bonfires

Walpurgis Night is celebrated with bonfires on the night of 30 April into 1 May (a moment believed to coincide with the witches’ Sabbath) in countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia. The feast is named after the Christian Saint Walpurga, who offers protection from witchcraft and diseases in both people and animals.

In Sweden, too, the Walpurgis fire or ‘valborgsmässofirandet’ is a staple of May traditions, celebrated the evening before May Day.

The feast received a boost after World War II when workers' movements organised bonfires in local neighbourhoods.

As well as bonfires and parties, contemporary Swedish customs on May Day include young people taking the opportunity to break rules and conduct pranks.

Bonfires are also a feature of solstice celebrations, occurring when one of the earth's poles is at its maximum tilt towards the sun. In northern Europe in particular, summer solstice is among the year’s most important occasions.

While exact dates of this pre-Christian feast vary among countries and cultures, summer solstice celebrations usually take place between 19 and 25 June.

Adopted by the Christian church as an occasion to honor St John the Baptist (24 June), Denmark and Norway know the feast as St Hans Day.

On Sankthans / Jonsok, people light bonfires and come together to drink, sing, enjoy barbeque food, ride fairground attractions and attend concerts.

Saint Martin Fires

St Martin of Tours (‘Sint Maarten’) is commemorated on 11 November, and also known as Martinstag, Maartensdag, Martinmas, Old Halloween or Old Hallowmas Eve. But long before any religious meaning was attached to it, this day in November was celebrated as the end of autumn wheat seeding and the time to slaughter well-fed cattle.

Bonfires are an important part of traditions connected to Martinstag, as is the custom of children carrying lanterns and collecting sweets in return for their songs - a practice particularly strong in The Netherlands.

In France and Sweden, goose is often eaten on the eve of St Martin’s Day. Legend has it that the saint, trying to avoid being ordained as a bishop, had hidden in a goose pen, but was betrayed by the animals’ cackling.

Fireworks

To this day, fire exerts a magical attraction that makes it part of many celebrations, such as New Year’s Eve.

Fireworks are customary in quite a few countries, but the Dutch are perhaps the most enthusiastic of all spending millions of euro on fireworks just for New Year’s Eve. This is partly due to the fact that this night is the only time when citizens without training or licence are allowed to deploy fireworks.

Thousands of people set off fireworks in streets, parks and gardens, causing the skies to light up for hours. Such excessive fireworks have a down side as well, often causing damage to people, properties and valuable cultural heritage, such as a 19th-century windmill that went up in flames in 2019.

Elemental fire

In Orthodox Christianity, fire is at the centre of the most sacred event of the year, the Holy Fire Easter celebration in Jerusalem.

The ceremony dates back at least 1,200 years and involves celebrants entering the Edicule - the chamber marking the site of Christ’s tomb - to emerge with candles lit with ‘holy fire’ as a message from heaven to the faithful. The details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret.

In the audio clip below, we listen to the Holy Fire chants at Easter as celebrated at the Fener Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Holy Fire / Kutsal Işık, Pınar Çevikayak Yelmi, Koç University, CC BY-NC