Rusaliya: Green Saturday of Pentecost

During my youth, I periodically travelled to Lemko Park in Monroe, New York with my Godparents to celebrate the Feast of “Rusaliya” (Pentecost). The Bishop assigned to St. Nicholas Patriarchal Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan would celebrate the Liturgy in the outdoor chapel. Afterwards the faithful were invited to a festive trapeza followed by Carpatho-Rusyn Lemko music and dancing.

The ancient Slavic cults involved Mother Earth, the forests, the trees, the grasses, the flowers and the waters and the propitiation of the spirits which inhabited them. One cult believed to have been derived from ancient Greek and Roman sources, called RUSALIYA in the Slavic languages. The spirits associated with this cult are called RUSALKI which in Christian times were considered the souls of children and others who died unbaptized, or who drowned or who committed suicide or were executed. Such spirits dwelt variously in the forests or the waters and could be benevolent or harmful depending on mood.

The Rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during the Green Week (Russian: русальная неделя), and were supposed to have left their watery depths in order to swing on branches of birch and willow trees at night.Peasant women sometimes hung offerings to appease them. A cross, a magic circle, incense, garlic, wormwood, a pin or poker and verbal charms were used to render the rusalki harmless. Swimming was strictly forbidden, lest mermaids would drag the swimmer down to the river floor.

The conversion of the Eastern Slavs by St. Vladimir the Great in 988 AD did not result in the Slavs’ abandonment of the old beliefs in exchange for the teachings of the new religion. The hierarchs of the Church soon realized that real conversion was more than a matter of simple baptism; rather it was an arduous task requiring generations, if not centuries.

Lemko ParkGreen Saturday (Zelena Subota) is the Saturday of Remembrance of the Dead immediately preceding Pentecost Sunday. On this day the faithful visit and decorate the graves of their ancestors and pray for the repose of their souls and their release from their sins. In memory of the dead, flowers, wreaths and green branches, all representing life and the liberation from death (resurrection) are used not only at the grave sites but also to decorate the homes and churches. This is the origin of our custom of decorating the churches on Pentecost with green branches.

Green Sunday, also Pentecost and Holy Trinity (P’yatidesyatnitsya and Nediliya Svyatoi Troitsi) are the combined feastdays of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Trinity. Interestingly, the iconography of the day refers only to the descent of the Holy Spirit in form of tongues of fire on the heads of the Apostles. Neither the iconography nor the liturgy of the day contain any special reference to the Holy Trinity. In the Western Roman Church the vestments of Pentecost are red as tongues of fire, while those of the priests and deacons of the Eastern Church of Byzantine/Slavonic liturgical tradition are green in acknowledgement of the overwhelming preoccupation of the Eastern Slavs with life, their lives, the success of crops and the wellbeing of livestock, and by extension, the lives and resurrection of those who had passed on before them.

Thus, when we decorate our churches on Pentecost, Trinity Sunday or Green Sunday with green branches of trees and shrubs, we acknowledge the beliefs and customs of the Slavs who infused into the religion of Byzantium new meanings to edify and enlighten our minds and to beautify our rites. Green is the color of spring and summer, the color of life, and life is an attribute of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of Life” who animates us all.

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