I have discussed icons of this fellow in some detail previously, so he should be very familiar to you:
He is of course Ioann Predtecha — John the Forerunner, better known in the West as John the Baptist. Often he holds a vessel containing the child Jesus, represented as the Eucharistic “Lamb.” But in this Russian example the vessel contains his own head, symbolizing his martyrdom under Herod
You know all that if you are a long-time reader here — so why am I talking about John again? Because June 24th is the commemoration of his birth. And that is roughly at the time of the Summer Solstice — Midsummer’s Day (it happens on June 20th this year). And Midsummer is significant because in pre-Christian Russia, the Solstice was the time to celebrate the god Kupalo — who manifested the fertility of summer.
I mentioned that John’s name in Church Slavic is Ioann, but in ordinary Russian it becomes Ivan. And because the Church did not like the idea of people celebrating Kupalo, they wanted them instead to celebrate John — Ivan. The masses, however, did not wish to give up their traditional celebration, so a kind of compromise took place. That is why at the time of Midsummer, there is a Russian celebration called Ivan Kupalo, pronounced Ee-vahn Koo-pahl-ah — combining the name of John the Baptist and that of the ancient Slavic fertility god.
Traditions vary somewhat from place to place, but the night before Ivan Kupalo was often a time when unmarried young women would go into the forest — often casually followed by young men, in keeping with the fertility aspects of the festival. There were rituals to decide bonding or separation, such as the maidens floating wreaths on ponds or rivers, and young men trying to retrieve the wreaths of girls they favored. Also there was much bathing in water, and jumping of bonfires by couples, as well as other traditional practices. The fire represents the sun, as well as purification.
Ivan Kupalo was considered the ideal time to gather medicinal herbs, which were believed to be at their most potent, and there was also the notion that on the night preceding Ivan Kupalo, ferns would bloom. If one were lucky enough to find such a magical fern flower, one’s success in life would be certain. The catch, of course, is that in today’s world we know that scientifically, ferns simply do not bloom, whether on Ivan Kupalo or at any other time — so it is just a folk belief.
There is some difference in the time of celebrating Ivan Kupalo in modern Russia, depending on whether one is a traditionalist emphasizing the non-Christian “nature” aspects of the holiday, or whether one follows the preference of the Russian Orthodox Church. The “naturalists” celebrate it in June (usually June 23-24), which is closer to the Summer Solstice. But the more “Orthodox” tend to celebrate it on July 7th, due to the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars.