Anya Stork

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Svyatki! Russian Winter Fortune-Telling


We lived in such an interesting culture which mixed secular Soviet, Christian, and ancient polytheistic traditions. During Soviet times in the 1970-1980s villagers especially adhered to the ancient pagan traditions (along with the Christian traditions).

Today more and more old Slavic traditions are returning to Russia and the winter period called Svyatki. Russian Christmastide is once again being celebrated. It traditionally begins on the night of January 6th (the night before Russian Christmas) and continues through January 19th (this year, January 18th).


Коnstantin Тrutovsky. Christmastide festivities
Коnstantin Тrutovsky. Christmastide festivities

There’s a lot to Russian Christmastide tradition, from pagan caroling and Christian praising songs sung together, to traditional sledging down the mountain. However, the absolutely mysterious highlight to it all remains the traditional Slavic fortune-telling.
The Christian Orthodox Church always stood against the pagan traditions, such as pagan caroling and fortune telling, but the two traditions are so interwoven they are just too hard to separate. Also, people refused to give up their old traditions passed down from generation to generation for centuries.

Villages especially adhered to the ancient tradition of fortune-telling. Many were doing it even during Soviet times.

With the help of many magical rituals (the use of candles was just one way!) young and older women villagers tried to look into the future to learn about their marriage, fate or harvest. In most cases, it was women trying to fortune tell. Not that the men weren’t curious about what happens next, but men usually had other priorities and “rituals”: to get drunk, for example, and to forget the present hardship.

Women, on the other hand, would get sophisticated and use many household objects, candles, needles, rings, mirrors, shoes and more, to tell the future. There was, for example, fortune-telling on a raw egg, fortune telling on shoes (and for the brave-hearted only) looking into the reflections of multiple mirrors–to name just a few.


Karl Briullov. Fortune-telling Svetlana

Karl Briullov. Fortune-telling Svetlana


If you are fortune-telling from January 14th through 19th, brace yourself. It is traditionally considered the period of “scary fortune-telling” as the fortune-teller is interacting with the “devilry.” Bring the traditional metal object with you for your personal safety and defense: a knife, rake, or skillet. The places of fortune telling on such dates are also scary—a crossroad, an ice-hole, a bathhouse and a barn. Only the bravest girls and women participated in such fortune telling activities.

To be safe, just try to fit in your fortune-telling between January 7th and January 13th, if you can.
But back to safety…

For example, there was a method of “listening-in” or interception (not to confuse with the KGB wiretapping):
Climb under the neighbors’ window and listen.
If they have a showdown with the smashing of dishes,
expect a “fun” year.
If the house is quiet – your year will be peaceful and harmonious.

Of course, one must have certain household items to properly fortune-tell: a glass of water and a ring and candles were a must. Needles and threads would also be very handy…

Younger women, naturally, always wished to know how soon they would marry.
Threads were burnt to tell how quick you’d marry and the order in which young women would marry.
The fastest thread to burn indicted the first woman to marry.
With a great rush of adrenaline, young Russian women, “the villagers,” were future telling to learn about their future husband…
Here’s how you would do it with a rooster:


Fortune Telling With a Rooster (and Chicken)

Grain is poured into one plate; water is poured into the second (or money is placed) and a mirror is placed next to it. Sometimes a chicken is brought in.
If the rooster approached the mirror, then the groom will be beautiful and gentle.
If rooster is interested in grain or money – the groom will be rich.
If rooster is interested in water – the groom will be prone to drunkenness.
If rooster is interested in a chicken – a groom will be a womanizer.

How old is the groom? – Just listen to the barking of a dog and count!
Note the quality of the bark! A hoarse bark promises an old groom, and a sonorous bark promises a young one.


К. Макоvsky. Christmastide divination

К. Макоvsky. Christmastide divination


In the Soviet city environment without roosters and chickens, and with hardly any apartment dogs, candle melting was probably most common.

If you lived in a city in the 1980’s, it was still somewhat risky to fortune-tell. Someone could still potentially report you to the local communist organization. After Khruschev’s “melting period,” people were relaxing, copying by hand some prohibited poetry of Russian dissidents and trying other totally inappropriate things such as pagan telling of the future. However, most people in our family were devoted communists. Sincere believers in the Communist Future. And, above all, they were scientists.

How surprised I was then to see my mom (a scientist in the communist regime and an atheist) with some of her friends and colleagues from work, doing what?! Telling fortunes from a melting candle!

It was in January, in the early 1980s. Several women gathered in our tiny Moscow apartment. I was so curious to find out what they were doing in the dark, with long burning candle sticks… Devoted communists, they were fortune-telling!
All women in the circle were married, with children. Nevertheless, they were curious about their fate. There they were in the dark with dripping long candles. Melting candles were forming some fancy patterns in a saucer filled with water… From time-to-time women “Ooohed” and “Aaahed.” I think they detected something big and significant in that melted candle wax—the fall of the Soviet Union, perhaps!

“Next time, let’s try it on coffee grains!” – someone suggested finally.

“Not on my coffee grains, – Mom sullenly objected, – I’ve been saving for that cup of coffee for the entire year!”

Coffee, indeed, was rare and very expensive in Soviet Russia, and a very rare treat. But candles were fairly common and not terribly expensive. With the entire country electrified, who needed them!

Whether with candles, or coffee grain, dear friends, it’s still not too late for you to fortune-tell and see the future.
You have until January 18th!

Best Of Fortune!

A. Stork

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