January in Russia is the most magical and joyful time, full of hopes and expectations. At all times it has been treated as a border zone between the Old and the New, between winter and spring. The ancient belief states that unearthly powers and spirits become available for contact during this time. In the past, people tried to use this opportunity to foretell the future by interpreting secret signs. This was carried out during the two-week period straight after the Russian Christmas until Epiphany Day. Since the early 90s, when Christmas became an official holiday in Russia, fortune-telling has regained its popularity, though now it is done mostly for fun.
Fortune-telling has always been a favorite Christmas activity for young women and teenage girls. They would usually choose dark, non-residential premises, often a bath house or “banya”. There they let their hair down, took off their necklaces, rings, and bracelets opening themselves up to the spirits. Basically all of the unmarried girls were usually interested in one thing: if they were going to get married any time soon, and to whom. Other typical questions for fortune-telling are related to life and death, illnesses, wealth, and family well-being. The most popular time for foretelling comes on the first Svyatki night or January 13th. The best time for gathering is around midnight.
It is almost impossible to list all of the known fortune-telling methods. During Svyatki even the most ordinary things acquire a special connotation; nothing seemed accidental, any detail could become a sign, a messenger of something from the future. Some popular fortune telling techniques use wax, paper, onions, a rooster, a boot, or a mirror. For example, in one famous ritual a girl should melt wax and pour it onto water. The wax will solidify into a shape, and from this shape, a girl could predict her future. If it is a shape of a house, she will live well this year. If circles, she will have good fortune. If some kind of fruit or animal, she will have good health. If it is a man, then the girl could get married soon.
Another simple and wide-spread fortune-telling tradition is throwing a boot over the gate. By the direction the boot points, the girls finds out where a future husband will come from. To complete ‘husband profiles’, the girls go outside and ask the first person they meet for their names. They believe that those will be the names of their future spouses.