Yesterday, February 28, Orthodox Christians observed the feast day of John Cassian, the fourth/fifth-century monastic saint known for his writings on the Desert Fathers and his responses to Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works.
Technically, however, his feast day is February 29, a distinction that inspired many curious Russian folktales explaining why his was the awful luck to be feasted only on leap years. From Linda Ivanits’ Russian Folk Belief:
Cassian, behaving with characteristic lack of compassion, refuses to help a poor peasant pull his load because he does not wish to appear in heaven with soiled garments; [Saint] Nicholas, on the other hand, helps the peasant and arrives in heaven dirty. As a result, God rewards Nicholas with two feast days per year, and punishes Cassian by granting him only one every four years.
“Characteristic lack of compassion” because, in the Christo-pagan syncretism of the early Russian Church, the saint somewhere became a quasi-demonic figure. While elsewhere John Cassian was called “the Roman,” in Russia he became Kas’ian Nemilostivyi, Kasyan the Unmerciful.
According to one belief, Cassian sits motionless on a chair with downcast eyebrows that reach his knees, unable to see the world. On February 29, however, he lifts his eyebrows and looks at the world. . . .
His true feast day was called “Kasyanov Day,” on which peasants often refused to leave the house or do any work at all for fear of attracting his evil eye. “Касьян на что ни взглянет – все вянет”—whatever Cassian glances at, wilts (it rhymes in Russian).
I don’t at all mean to dishonor the venerable saint, of whom I am personally quite fond, but the chance to pass on a story about ungroomed eyebrows protecting superstitious peasants from the evil eye of a persnickety saint is much too good to pass up.