ST. GEORGE'S DAY
Photography by Pavieł Hancar
Text by Karin Svadlenak-Gomez
Pavieł Hancar is based in Minsk, Belarus. He enjoys finding beautiful and uplifting scenes, and he considers finding beauty with his lens his calling. Pavieł shared a series on the Belarusian traditional St George's day celebrations in the countryside. He visited Cividaūka village in the Minsk region in May 2021 and documented the festivities.
St. George's Day is a Slavic religious holiday, the feast of Saint George. Depending on the country, it is celebrated either on April 23 by the Julian calendar or on May 6 by the Gregorian calendar. In Belarus St. George is called Jur’je. Similarly in Croatia and Slovenia, a Roman Catholic version of Saint George's Day, Jurjevo, is celebrated.
In the Eastern Orthodox church, Saint George, who is held to have died for his faith and who is usually depicted as killing a dragon while riding his horse, is one of the most important saints, a patron saint in military tradition. Christian synaxaria hold that Saint George was a martyr who died for his faith. But the celebrations have meaning beyond Orthodox Christian tradition, they are also more generically a spring festival, since it is at this time of year that the farmland turns green again and the cattle can be led to pastures.
The festivities, although now part of Christian tradition, actually have a relationship with pagan customs. In Slavic folklore and Baltic mythology, the god Jarilo is associated with death and rebirth and agricultural fertility, much like the Greek gods Adonis and Olympian god Dionysus. In Christianity Jarilo became identified with St. George and St. John as the festivities of those two saints fall in the period between the first growth of grass and leaves and harvest, which made them suitable as Christian interpretations of this god. There are other variants of the names of the holiday dedicated to this deity, such as Jarylavica, Jarylki.
In Belarus villagers go out with songs and dishes of offering to inspect their fields turned green. The first grazing of cattle is also connected with Jur’je. The spring feasts’ cycle includes holidays such as Shrovetide, Easter and the celebration of St. George. Each of them is characterized by specific cycles of spring songs. The oldest one is "Jur’je" (Jura, Jury, Jehory), a traditional holiday celebrated on May 6 (April 23 in the old style).
It is one of the most distinctive holidays of the agricultural calendar, furnished with a series of solemn ceremonies. The holiday is celebrated in honor of St. George the Victorious - the patron saint of livestock and peasant fields.
Spring Jur’je marks the true beginning of spring. A typical ritual, which is reflected in "St. George's Day" songs and calls to find the keys and release his mother (Earth, Nature), is to give free rein to grass, flowers, and animals (a symbol of life in most Indo-European cultures), and to serve pancakes (the wheel is an important magical form - it reflects the sun.)
St. George's Day is celebrated in Belarus by all people, but it is especially considered to be a holiday of shepherds. On this day every sheep owner gives the shepherds bread, lard, eggs, vodka, and they, after having driven the animals into the field, set up a feast for themselves there and necessarily bake scrambled eggs in the afternoon, with the participation of all the shepherds of the village. If there is the least bit of disturbance to this ritual of the preparation of scrambled eggs around the gathered herd, it is said that St. Yuri will consider himself offended and will give the flock and shepherds to the wolves. St. Yuri is considered the ruler of wild beasts, and predators have the right to eat the animals he allows them to have.
A camel, horses and a donkey also live at the farmhouse in Cividaūka, where “Koła” club decided to organize a festival. After the Jur’je celebrations, local girls made a short performance - unrelated to the St. George´s festivities - with a pony dressed up as an angel and a "demon"-horse.
The role of Yury in the livestock business is very eloquently evidenced by charms chanted during the grazing of cattle to ward off various dangers:
“On the blue sea, on the lukomor there is an oak, under those oak there is a white stone. As no one eats a stone, so no one eats or takes our cattle: neither a reptile crawling, nor a running beast. I beg you, I beg you, St. George, to come out with your locks, your golden keys. Lock your servants unfaithful teeth, lips: the first, the middle, the last. That our cattle seemed in a field - a mint, a stone, in a valley - a mound, and in wood - a log, a bush, on the road - a falcon. Save, save our cow. Safely, calmly, until it comes back from the field.”
St. George´s day is celebrated not only in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, but also in Western European countries such as the U.K. and Spain, in somewhat different manifestations. In fact in the past St. George's Day was a major feast and national holiday in England, as important as Christmas from the early 15th century, though now it has waned in importance by comparison.
All photographs © Pavieł Hancar
Discover more of Pavieł's work by following him on Instagram at @pavielhancar. You may also read an interview with Pavieł and see more of his black and white documentary photography from Belarus right here in the Mag.
Wikipedia articles on Jarilo and St. George, information received from Pavieł Hancar