“The religious holiday simply overlapped with a huge cycle of folk pagan rituals connected to the plant cult,” says Yulia Nikishenko, a historian of Ukrainian culture at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “The Green Holidays – the name calls for making plants sacred, because this is the period when crops, and all plants, bloom and come into their power. It’s the culmination of plant growth.” She adds, “People have finished their fieldwork and what they need to do now is pray for the plant spirits to help them gather the harvest.”
Among the very strict taboos that characterised the Green Holidays among pagan-inclined farming Ukrainians of yore was a prohibition forbidding children to play in the fields, as that could annoy the forces of nature. People held to the animist belief that the spirits of the natural world, if annoyed, would rise up and take revenge. Mermaids and river-nymphs, wood-goblins and other mythical creatures, were believed to be stronger during this period and on the hunt for poor innocent souls to harrass. Most vulnerable were young girls and unmarried boys. To protect themselves women made such sacrifices as hanging up pieces of white cloth for mermaids in the forest – gifts for the supernatural creatures.
“The plant cult is directly connected to the ancestor cult, since people believed that your departed ancestors were responsible for a rich harvest,” Nikishenko says. “Spirits of dead relatives gathered around the family during the Green Holidays. They could either help the family or harm them, so the living had to honour them by making symbolic donations of food. At the same time people were afraid of evil spirits, which is why they carried fragrant herbs with them - to scare away all the evil forces.”
Interestingly, Trinity Day was considered the only day of the year when people could commemorate suicides and those who had been murdered.
On these days people also used to cut green branches and place them at the entrances to their houses, decorating them with flower garlands. Each member of the family got his own garland and the next morning the person whose garland had faded would be revealed as the person who would not live until the next Trinity Day. Today, however, many of these rites are no longer practiced. The only one that still is is the “baptism” of green plants and fragrant herbs like tatar-zillya. In ancient times people believed that on Trinity Day these herbs had outstanding magical powers and could treat numerous diseases.
“Today, especially in urban places, all these traditions have lost their practical meaning and magical sense. Even on Trinity Day, baptised herbs can’t cure illnesses in the city, as [the city] is already poisoned by poor ecology,” says Nikishenko. “I personally don’t baptise herbs as I know you can’t throw away things you’ve sanctified. Our ancestors wouldn’t have done that, because magical power is transformative. They would have given them to their cattle or buried them in the field, to enrich the harvest, or they would have burned them. Today nobody does that.”
Nikishenko continues, “These traditions have been de-actualized in the city, though a small part of them remains as a rite that doesn’t need any explanation. People still do certain things without understanding where they come from. The part that’s left over is part of our national identity.”
Again, paganism crept into Trinity Day because it was easy for people to understand. Let the theologians at the Lavra meditate on the mystery of the Trinity – normal people would be content with their vibrant plant cult. Incidentally, the difficulty of the concept of the Trinity explains why you don’t often find images of the Trinity in the Ukrainian iconic tradition.
Nikishenko doesn’t consider the fading away of the old pagan ways to be a tragedy. “These traditions came to life in a rustic agrarian society that has changed drastically, especially over recent years. And as a way of life withers away, so do traditions, and we shouldn’t be grief stricken about that. Instead of crying that the traditions are lost, we should look at our urban culture and see what it proposes in exchange.” She adds, “Today we can see the slow transformation of both traditions and worldview, and that means the evolution of Ukrainian culture.”