Key Public Holidays in Belarus
In Belarus there are numerous national and religious public holidays. Among the most important national public holidays are Constitution Day (15th March), the Day of Unification of Belarus and Russia (2nd April), Victory Day (9th May, Russian: Den Pobedi), Independence Day (3rd July) and the Day of the National Coat of Arms and the National Flag (on the second Sunday in May).
The 9th May is one of the most important national public holidays and is celebrated ceremoniously in Belarus. The day commemorates the victory of the Soviet Army over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in the former Soviet Union. A large military parade is held in Minsk on this occasion and reviewed by the president in person. This holiday is still of great significance for the national consciousness, as every third person lost his life during the Second World War. Another large parade takes place on 3rd July. On this day in 1944, the Belarusian capital was liberated from the German occupying forces: today this day is celebrated as Independence Day. Echoes of the Soviet past persist on 1st May (Labour Day) and 7th November (Day of the October Revolution).
Christmas is celebrated twice in Belarus: the Catholic Christmas on 25th December and then the Orthodox Christmas on 7th January. New Year’s Eve is far more festive than in Western Europe and the USA. Ded Moroz (Russian: Jack Frost) is the counterpart of Santa Claus and brings presents for Belarusian children on New Year’s Eve. He is traditionally accompanied by his granddaughter and a helper called Snegurochka. At midnight all the members of the family sit around the festively laid table and drink to each other, listen to the bells chiming, wish each other well and congratulate each other. This is the time of “Kaljady”, the name for the 12 days of Christmas, from 25th December to the 6th of January. This was originally a pagan custom but the Church integrated it into its own festivities. Going from house to house, singing and performing, is a widespread tradition on Christmas Eve. Evil spirits and monsters are supposedly frightened away by cheerful songs, the so-called “Kaljadki”.
Easter is also an important celebration for Catholic Belarusians. The day before the festivities the traditional Easter cake is baked (Belarusian: Kulitsch). As a symbol of the festivity, eggs are traditionally dyed red with onion skins. The eggs are consecrated in the church and laid in water at home. Then one washes one’s face with the water so as to become (or to stay) healthy and beautiful. A popular game at Easter is similar to a game of conkers: eggs are knocked against each other and when one egg is broken, the other person has won. This game is called “Bitki” (from the verb “bit” – to hit),
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the Radonitsa festival nine days after Easter. This is a commemoration of the departed and families assemble at the cemetery after a service of remembrance. It is an ancient custom to lay cloths on the graves and place an uneven number of different dishes on it. This is a symbolic invitation to the relatives who have passed away to partake of a meal. In the autumn there is another day of remembrance called Dziady (Belarusian for ancestors).
In Belarus many cultural festivals have survived. The best known is the summer solstice festival (Belarusian: Kupalje, Russian: Ivan Kupala), which is celebrated on the night of 6th/7th July. Like many pagan customs, Kupalje is associated with fire, water and burgeoning magical powers. By burning old things, one is supposed to cleanse oneself and free oneself of all tribulations. Fire is believed to scare off evil spirits. The tradition of jumping over fire is intended to promote inner cleansing. It is tradition to dance round the fire and sing special Kupalje songs. Young women usually weave wreaths of flowers and blades of grass and let them float away on the rivers. If a young man manages to retrieve a wreath, then he is destined to marry that girl.
Paparz-Kwetka (Belarusian for fern flower) has a special role to play on this day. It was widely believed that ferns flower in the Kupalje night and so people used to search for the magic ferns in the woods at night. According to pagan belief, all treasures buried in the ground would be revealed to anyone finding these flowers. Likewise they would have a long life and happiness.
At the end of winter, Maslenitsa is celebrated in Belarus. Festivities last for a week and end with the beginning of Orthodox Lent. The name comes from the word “Maslo” (Russian: butter). During that week believers may not eat meat, but milk products, eggs and fish are allowed so that pancakes (Russian: blini) are particularly popular. Traditionally, they are made with different fillings such as quark or fruit. Blini are a symbol for the sun, which supposedly shines stronger at the end of the winter after the festive week. Therefore in some regions this festival is called “Bliniza”, derived from blini.
Sunday is the last day of “butter week”. A final farewell is said to winter and spring is welcomed in. The highlight of the festival is the burning of the Maslenitsa doll, which is usually made of straw. The doll symbolises all that is dark and negative experienced during winter. This last Sunday before Lent is a very lively affair, with traditional folk songs, dancing and plenty to eat and drink.
Other important folk festivals originate from peasant traditions, in particular “Zazhinki” – the start of the harvest – and Dazhinki – the end of the harvest. In former times, these festivals were celebrated in every village. However, traditional peasant folk festivals are gradually losing their significance in a Belarus which is becoming more and more urbanised.