Rosalia (Rusallia, Troitsia, Zeleni sviata). A summer feast held 50 days after Easter, and associated with the pagan cult of the dead and the rusalky. The name ‘Rusallia’ is derived from the ancient Roman festival of the roses (23 May), which reached Ukraine via the southern Slavs and was incorporated into its pagan folk calendar as a fertility festival.

The first mention of Rosalia on Ukrainian territory is in the Primary Chronicle under 1067. On the eve of the feast, houses were adorned with green branches and linden or maple leaves. In church the floor was covered with fragrant grasses, including wormwood. On the feast day itself green branches were set up in the fields to protect the growing grain from thunder and evil spirits and to ensure fertility. For this reason the festival is also known as Zeleni sviata ‘Green Feast.’ In some regions the young people walked about the fields with torches, cracking whips and firing guns into the air to drive away evil spirits. For several days young men and women met in the fields, usually between villages, for games that were frequently erotic and were condemned by churchmen as ‘demonic.’ The young women collected food and carried a decorated tree into the woods or to a stream, where for days and nights they entertained and frolicked with the young men. The Rosalia was a youth festival from which adults (with the exception of young childless wives) were barred. In some regions this pagan festival survived into the 20th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries mass pilgrimages to certain monasteries in Western Ukraine took place during this season. Foreigners called them ‘girl markets’ because many young couples met and married during the pilgrimages. In such a way the church legitimized folk traditions of pagan origin. In eastern Ukraine, particularly in the Poltava region, a personified Topolia (‘poplar’) was led through the village. In Volhynia the figure was known as Lialia (‘doll’), and in Polisia, as Kusta. The favorite rites included dressing girls up as rusalky, wreath weaving, dancing rusalka group dances, and singing rusalka songs. A bachelor who fancied a girl planted a mai (a green birch) in her yard. In the Prešov region this custom is still practiced. Until the 18th century, in Western Ukraine the bachelors of a village elected a rusalka reeve, who ran the village for three days.

Rites honoring the dead (see Ancestor worship) were an integral part of the Rosalia. In Volhynia a seven-course commemorative feast was held on Rosalia Saturday. According to folk belief the souls of the departed (called rusalky) came out of their graves on this day. To win their favor, food and drink were placed on the graves. The rusalky were believed to leave the streams on Rosalia Thursday (called rusalchyn or mavskyi Easter) and to spend a week in the forests and fields looking for foolhardy bachelors, whom they tickled to death. In some localities Rosalia week concluded rusalka games or a rusalka farewell procession. These rituals served as an inspiration for composer Mykola Leontovych to compose an opera Na rusalchyn velykden' (On Rusalchyn Easter).

Various rituals were conducted to protect livestock from spells cast by witches; smoke from herbs was directed at animals, for example, and wreaths or green branches were hung on the horns of cattle.

Today in and outside Ukraine the Rosalia is closely associated with remembrance of the soldiers who fell in the struggle for Ukrainian independence.

Maksimovich, M. Dni i mesiatsy ukrainskogo selianina (Kyiv 1858)
Kylymnyk, S. Ukraïns’kyi rik u narodnikh zvychaiakh v istorychnomu osvitlenni, vol 4 (Winnipeg 1957)
Dei, O. Ihry ta pisni: Vesniano-litnia poeziia trudovoho roku (Kyiv 1963)
Voropai, O. Zvychaï nashoho narodu, vol 2 (Munich 1966)

Mykola Mushynka

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]

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