Getting out the door ahead of a vacation can be hectic. Nevertheless, here’s a proposal: Take a beat. When your suitcase is packed and you’re ready to leave, stop for a moment. Sit down. Be still and silent for a minute or two.
“Sidet’ na chemodanakh” or “sitting on suitcases” is an ancient custom that will be a familiar ritual to anyone who grew up in Russia, a former Soviet country, or any diaspora household that adhered to motherland traditions. Often perched on chairs instead of actual suitcases, many still practice the pagan custom, which is rooted in ideas of domestic spirits, either as a matter of habit, or truly believing it will bring good luck.
“We had to do it every time,” says Mikhail Karadimov, 30, a filmmaker and production editor in New York who was born in Ukraine, but grew up in the Bronx. Before any road trip, he recalls, his family would haul all their luggage to their foyer and his father would say, “Let’s sit on suitcases.” Dressed to leave, per the informal rules, they would sit in complete silence for a few moments—for his family it was five to 10 seconds, for others it might be a full minute—and then stand up to go.
“Sitting on suitcases” is one of many Russian customs connected to the symbolism of passing over a threshold and traveling, says Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies Russian folklore. It is first mentioned in texts from the early 1800s, when historians began to document folklore culture, but the tradition is no doubt much older. The exact reason for sitting on suitcases, she says, has been debated.
According to one theory about the custom’s beginnings, in pre-Christian Russia, your fortunes were influenced by house spirits. If you ever crossed the threshold to start a journey, then returned to retrieve something you forgot, the spirits would be offended and they’d spoil your trip. Taking a moment to sit and think, therefore, would help call to mind that potentially wayward item, saving you from triggering misfortune. If you remember something as you sat on a suitcase, you might say, that’s the house spirit letting you know “By the way, you’re not quite ready for that journey,” she says.
Other evidence suggests that some villagers would have used their moment sitting on suitcases to pray to a religious icon, asking it to bless the journey, says Rouhier-Willoughby.
“Sitting on suitcases” is also used idiomatically to mean “I was just about to leave,” she adds. As in, “I was sitting on suitcases when the phone rang and I got the news.”
Karadimov says he’s pretty sure that if he had ever asked his father why they were sitting on suitcases, he wouldn’t have had an answer. It’s the kind of tradition, he said, that is “set in the bones.”
Rouhier-Willoughby finds it soothing to follow the tradition whenever she’s leaving for a trip from her home in the US, she said. “Psychologically, it’s kind of nice,” she says. “It’s just a moment of repose.”
There’s no reason we all can’t do the same thing, taking up this pre-travel ritual as an opportunity to be still and “live in yourself”—to quote the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev—before a potentially noisy journey. You might meditate for a moment, go over your list of essentials, or simply allow your mind to wander to your days of travel ahead, imagining them blissfully free of your own domestic demons.
Indeed, consciously looking forward this way every morning, not just before travel, may have a great psychological payoff, science suggests. Thinking about the future is what makes humans unlike other beings, some psychologists argue, and our view of the future, more than the past, influences our mood in the present.
There’s one other spin on the “sitting on suitcases” custom: It’s also done before a houseguest says farewell. “Everyone present grows serious, silent and contemplative,” writes Torbjörn Lundmark in the 2009 book Tales of Hi and Bye. He continues: “It is simply a few minutes’ reflection amongst people who will soon lose each other’s company for some time: ‘I will miss you’—‘I will miss you too.’”
This is a beautiful idea, especially in an age when we rush from experience to experience, without the respect or dignity of a moment of emotional processing. Besides, a lot can change in the lives of family and friends—for better or worse—between one visit or vacation to the next.
Sitting on suitcases won’t stop time, but it can bring some calm, and mark the moment of departure in memory.