The tree was once worshipped as a goddess. It was believed to ward off evil spirits and make wishes come true. Tributes to the birch are found in Russian art, songs, poems and folk tales. Ancient Slavs used its bark to make everything from writing paper to footwear, and birch bark crafts are one of Russia’s biggest traditions.
“Traditional birch footwear is something people used to wear every day. And many still use these shoes at home,” Tatyana Oleinik, from the All Russian Museum of Decorative and Folk Arts, told RT. “Birch bark was also used for making toys and musical instruments.”
No wonder that when in 1948 a new Russian dance group was created, Berezka happened to be the first name that came to organizers’ minds.
The name proved a success. Since the 1940s, Berezka has dazzled audiences around the globe. For over six decades, each of its performances has begun with a special dance, featuring birch tree branches and the group’s trademark step – so smooth that the girls seem to float.
“Since the very first time this dance was performed, the audience has always fallen under its charm – not only because of our trademark step, but because this dance captures the very spirit of Russian beauty, of Russian women,” Mira Koltsova, artistic director of the Berezka state academic dance company, told RT.
However, Russians’ love for birch is not just about art. For centuries, berezka has been famed for its healing qualities.
Just strolling in a birch grove is thought to help you stay happy and healthy, and touching a birch tree is believed to restore emotional balance and reduce stress levels. So those of us living in the hustle and bustle of big cities might be in need of a lot of birch-tree hugging – or drinking of birch tree juice.
“We have an advertisement that says we offer freshly squeezed birch tree juice,” the chef of the Expedition restaurant, Aleksandr Gavrilychev, told RT. “A lot of people were baffled by this. Of course we did it for fun. But you know, those who live in big cities often forget that there’s nature out there – so we try to remind them of it!”
If you’re up for some outdoor thrills, here is how to tap yourself a glass out in the wild.
“First you pick a place where you’re going to drill, place your bottle, then you drill a hole – and the juice will now start to leak,” birch tree juice fan Ivan Koren told RT. “This way of gathering juice doesn’t harm the tree. Some people use an axe, but that’s very bad, whereas a small hole like this can be easily healed. You plug it with a piece of wood, then cover it with some earth – and next year there won’t even be a trace left!”
The tapping season only lasts for a few weeks, before the leaves come out in early spring – after that the sap stops leaking.