I promised that today I’d tell you about what I did last Friday night.
On a Sunday evening in early December, I was at bridge club. One of the regular bridge players is a friend of one of the bridge-playing local teachers from school, and is also a part of the Russian Orthodox church. She mentioned that Russian Orthodox Christians get what they call “christened” – but which I surmise means re-baptised – every year in mid-January, if they want to, by dipping three times in a body of cold water. Here in Yakutsk, they do that by going to one of the nearby branches of the Lena River, where the ice has been cut out specially for the occasion. She told us that non-religious people do it as well, for health reasons. She wanted to know if we wanted to go and get re-baptised.
After marvelling at the wonder of people willingly going down into the river when the temperatures are below -40⁰C, those of us foreign teachers in attendance at bridge club that evening told her, “Thanks, but no thanks.” My reason is that baptism is a once and done activity. Plus no-one could explain to me what was healthy about dipping in cold water. Also, I despise cold showers so I didn’t find the idea of purposely submerging myself in freezing cold water particularly compelling.
That was several weeks ago and I promptly forgot about it. Last Thursday night, I was winding down for bed when I got a message from the bridge-playing local teacher that her friend wanted to know if I wanted to go see the dipping going on down by the river that night or the next evening. After a little deliberation, I told her that I’d go on Friday evening, just because I wanted to see this practice for myself. G said she would go as well.
Four of us ended up going – G, the local bridge-playing teacher, her friend and me. Her friend’s husband drove us there. They picked us up from school just after 8 pm and we set off to see what this was all about. It was the first time going to something like this for the three of us teachers and I had no idea what to expect. We questioned our host of the night as we drove to our destination but I still didn’t quite know what to expect. I think I envisioned it all happening in the open air, people splashing down into the water then climbing out again. It was quite different from that.
The four of us piled out of the car once her husband had parked and settled back into his seat for some relaxation. To get to the main activity, we entered through a security tent then through the ice-sculpted main entrance. At this point, we were outside the main tent, beside an ice-sculpted fountain from which we could get collect holy water. The bridge-playing local teacher’s friend had told us to bring a bottle to get holy water but the line was long when we were entering so we proceeded to the main activity. To get to the dipping pool, which was cut into the ice, we had to go through a heated anteroom tent where the women who were dipping got undressed and re-dressed. That room was really warm and I imagine that people dry really quickly once they get out of the water and go back to that room. Our evening’s host had, in fact, said earlier that you dry quickly but with her limited English, I hadn’t understood how.
We walked through that tent and directly into the main tent, which covered the baptism pool. Here, have a look.
The men formed a line on one side of the pool and the women formed a line on the other side. One person from each side would walk down the steps and into the pool – so there were two people in the pool at a time, a man and a woman – hold onto a wooden shoulder-height crossbar, and dip down three times. The religious people would make the sign of the cross after each dip. Some people went all the way down, covering their heads, while others dipped only to their shoulders. No-one stayed longer than was absolutely necessary. I timed a couple of people from the moment their first foot touched the water until the moment their second foot left the water. The longest one that I timed was twenty-eight seconds; the shortest was about fifteen seconds. Once they came out of the pool, they could have some free hot tea, which was available for everyone who dipped.
People of all ages went into the icy pool, including a young boy, taken by who I assume was his dad, and a young girl, taken by who I assume was her grandmother. Most of the men stripped down to their underwear in their corner of the tent and went on into the pool. Most of the women stripped down to bathing suits or their shirt-covered underwear in the heated anteroom. Our host asked us a few times if we wanted to go in. None of us did. For me, I hadn’t come prepared with a bathing suit or a towel and, as much as no-one was making a big deal of everyone milling around in their underwear, I’m not about that life.
To be perfectly honest, if I had adjusted my mind to just having the experience of going into 4⁰C water (the water under the ice is warmer than the air temperature), I absolutely would have done it, not for a re-baptism (because, as I said, one and done) but just for the experience of going into water that cold; my mind is nothing if not more flexible these days. Plus, as I told the local bridge-playing teacher in the car as we drove away later, I may be Yakutian in my heart (I love it here!) but I’m not sure if my body knows that yet and I’m not trying to get pneumonia or bronchitis. Still, if God keeps me here beyond the end of my contract in a few months, I think I’ll take the chance and the opportunity for the next go round and have three dips in that icy water. Who knows, it might build my character to do something like that.
Anyway, we stayed and watched for about twenty minutes, then we left. When we went back outside there was no holy water line so we pulled out our bottles and collected some. I asked what caused the water to be holy and was told that a priest from the Russian Orthodox church had come some days before and prayed over the water. Now, please understand that I don’t believe in holy water, but I couldn’t resist the novelty of collecting some water from the river. It was sort of my souvenir of the night. Our host says that we can do anything with it, including drink it. I have no interest in drinking it but I have no clue yet what I’ll do with it. For now, it’s sitting on my kitchen window sill.
As we drove away at around 9 pm, more people were arriving to get their dips and our host told us that, even though it the entire event was supposed to close off at 10 pm, they’d likely stay open until the last person who came had a chance to get their dip in, since it was the last of the three days that this was happening and it won’t happen again until next January.
So that was my Friday night: an icy baptism. It was quite interesting to watch. Whereas I don’t fully understand the religious reasoning behind the practice, there does seem to be evidence that there are health benefits, so let’s not be judgy and dismissive and assume that people who do it are crazy. And if those two kids can do it, so can I!