Voices from Russia

Friday, 6 January 2012

A Multimedia Presentation. “Ukrainian” Christmas Traditions

Kutya… THE ritual dish of the Christmas Eve dinner…

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Editor’s Foreword:

There are NO distinctive “Ukrainian” Christmas customs… NONE. Most Christmas customs are common amongst all Slavs, from the Carpatho-Russians, Sorbs, Slovaks, and Czechs in the Far West to the Russians and the converted Native peoples in the Primorsky Krai, Magadan Oblast, and Alaska in the Far East. What follows goes equally for Russians and Byelorussians, too. You only find “Ukrainian” customs amongst Uniates in Galicia, where they’re Polish contaminations brought in by the Catholics. That is, mostly everything below is true… except that it’s NOT distinctively “Ukrainian”. Caveat lector…

BMD

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Christmas Eve… 6 January

Amongst Ukrainians, the most beloved of all festivities is Christmas, which covers a cycle of important fest days, centring on family and agricultural life. Its main feature is the evening meal called “Holy Supper” (Svyatya Vechera) in literal translation. According to custom, all members of the family should be there that night for a family reunion. The supper on Holy Night differs from other evening meals, having twelve Lenten dishes, symbolic of the Twelve Apostles who gathered at the Last Supper. The dishes are prepared with a vegetable shortening or cooking oil, omitting all animal fat, milk, and dairy products because Christmas is preceded by a period of fast which ends on Christmas Day after midnight or after the end of morning services. Christmas Eve is a strict fast in commemoration of the hardships endured by Mother Mary en route to Bethlehem {not so… it’s merely the last day of the Christmas Lent: editor}.

Firstly, the father of the family strews a handful of fine hay over the table in memory of the Christ Child in a manger, then, they lay the very best tablecloth adorned with native embroidery over that, finally, it’s set to according to time-honoured custom. Bread (kalach), symbolising prosperity, constitutes the central table decoration. The mother places three round braided loaves one on top of the other with a candle inserted into the top loaf, and tiny twigs of evergreen encircle the bottom loaf. Candles on both sides of the loaves complete the table decoration. A place is set for family members who’ve died during the past year, in the belief that the spirit of the deceased unites with the family on that magic Holy Night. A lighted candle is always placed in the window as an invitation to any homeless stranger, or, perchance, a lost soul, to join the family in celebrating the birth of Christ.

Prior to the evening meal, the family mixes a spoonful of each dish into the feed of the domestic animals, because animals were the first creatures to behold the new-born Christ. The first star in the eastern sky announces the time for the commencement of the meal. The children have to watch for the star. Each member of the family, dressed in holiday attire, awaits the customary ritual opening. The master of the household brings a sheaf of what called the ded or didukh (grandfather), a symbol of gathering of the clan, and greets his family with traditional salutations, expressing joy that God has favoured them with good health and general well-being. He places the sheaf in the corner of the dining room, and it remains there until New Year’s Day when he takes it out and burns it. In the cities, this tradition has seen modification, and a few stalks of wheat take the place of the sheaf, which one places in a vase, or uses as table decoration.

Family-members and their servants gather around the table. The meal begins with the Our Father, and, then, a thanksgiving grace appropriate to the occasion. The first and indispensable dish is kutya; a preparation of cooked wheat dressed with honey, ground poppy seed, and sometimes chopped nuts. This ritual dish, of a very ancient origin, has survived hundreds of generations without losing its importance in the Christmas festivity. It starts the meal in a ceremonial manner. The head of the family raises the first spoonful of the kutya, invoking God’s grace, and greets the family with the traditional Christmas greeting, Khristos rozhdayetsya (Christ is born), to which they all reply in unison, Slavite yego (Glorify Him)! Following this ritual, everyone must partake of the kutya, if only but a spoonful. The exact meaning of kutya has been lost. However, scholars of folklore generally believe that originally it symbolised the spiritual clan unity of all living and deceased members. Agricultural prosperity may have been a secondary symbol. After the kutya, there comes an appetizer of pickled herrings or pickled mushrooms, or a serving of borshch, after which comes one or more preparations of fish and various other traditional dishes, ending with a dessert of stewed dried fruit, or fruit vareniki, and Christmas pastries and nuts. Everyone must have at least a small serving of each dish.

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Carollers from Byelorussia… proof that there are NO distinctive “Ukrainian” Christmas customs…

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Carolling

While many Christmas Eve customs are of a solemn nature, the custom of caroling is joyful and merry. Ukrainian Christmas songs or carols have their origins in antiquity, as do many other traditions practiced at Christmas time. There are two main groups of Christmas songs in the Ukraine, kolyadki, whose name probably derives from the Latin “calendae” meaning the first day of the month and which are sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; the second group of Christmas songs are shchedrivki, which is a derivation from the word meaning generous. The latter are sung during the Feast of the Epiphany. Both kolyadki and shchedrivki have pagan elements in them, but many took on Christian elements. For example, one pagan carol tells of a landowner who’s awakened by a swallow and told to prepare for three guests coming to his house… the sun, the moon, and the rain. In the Christian version, the three guests become Jesus Christ, St Nicholas, and St George. The very popular Ukrainian carol in the United states, Carol of the Bells, was originally a shchedrivka; it tells of a swallow (herald of Spring) that came to a landowner’s house and asks him to come out and see how rich he is, how many calves he has, and so on. The themes of Ukrainian Christmas songs vary. Many, of course, deal with the birth of Christ and its joyful celebration; many of them have apocryphal elements. Another group of carols contain purely pagan mythological elements. Still another group deals with history of the 9th to 12th centuries, mostly with the heroic episodes in the lives of the princes that the people favoured. One of the largest groups of carols is glorification songs… glorifying the landowner, the farmer, his wife, his sons, his daughters, every member of the family. These songs glorify their work as well as their personal traits.

Carolling required extensive preparation. Each group had a leader. One member dressed as a goat, another was a bag carrier, the collector of all the gifts people would give them, and yet another carried a six-pointed star attached to a long stick with a light in its centre, which symbolised the Star of Bethlehem. In some places, people even used musical instruments, such as the violin, tsimbalom (dulcimer), or the trembita (a wooden pipe about 8- to 10-feet long, used in the Carpathians by the Hutsuls). Caroling was not a simple singing of Christmas songs; it was more of a folk opera. The carollers first had to ask for permission to sing. If the answer was yes, they entered the house and sang carols for each member of the family, even for the smallest child. Sometimes, they even performed slow ritualistic dances. They also had to present a short humorous skit involving the goat. The custom of the goat accompanying the carollers has its origin in the pagan times when the goat represented the god of fertility. The skit showed the goat dying and then coming back to life. This also symbolised the death of winter and the birth of spring. The carolling always ended with short well-wishing poems, appropriately selected for each home. Kolyadki and shchedrivki are the oldest groups of Ukrainian folk songs. Ukrainians sing them at Christmas time throughout the world.

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The Vertep (Cave)… the Christmas Puppet Theatre

The vertep is a venerable form of Ukrainian puppet theatre, regarded as distinct from the Polish szopka, the Belarusian betleika, and the Russian petrushka {actually, the author probably means “rayok”, “petrushka” is a character, not a genre. Also… one finds the vertep from Sorbia to Russia… sorry, Charlie: editor}. The origins of the name vertep may come from the verb vertitysia (to whirl), as do rays about a star {no, it comes from the Slavonic, vertep… “cave”: editor}. The vertep performance is a standardised enactment of the Nativity with merry interludes depicting secular life, in the style of an intermezzo. There are 10 to 40 vertep characters, typically among them a sacristan, angels, shepherds, Herod, three kings, Satan, Death, Russian soldiers, gypsies, a Pole, a Jew, a peasant couple, and various animals. One person, the vertepnik, usually operates all the hand puppets. The vertep is also a two-level stage in the form of a building in which the performance takes place, the religious part on the upper level and the secular part on the lower.

Vertep performances date back to the late 16th century. They reached their height in popularity in the second half of the 18th century. Many students from the Kievan Mogila Academy contributed to the development of vertep puppet theatre; its two-part performance was in part a reflection of the academy’s style of theatrical productions. Itinerant precentors were also responsible for popularising vertepi. In time, the specifications as to vertep stage architecture, the number, character, and construction of the puppets, and costumes, music, and scripts became stereotyped. The foremost centres of vertepi were Sokirintsy and Baturin in Chernigov Oblast, and Mizhgiria Raion in Carpatho-Russia (Zakarpatsya). The secular part in vertep performances often contained references to contemporaneous events; a Zaporozhian Cossack puppet, for example, appeared during the reign of Yekaterina Velikaya. Vertep theatre declined in the mid-19th century. It has retained symbolic significance, as in the miniature Nativity scene displayed in Ukrainian homes during the Christmas season and in the Christmas carollers dressed up as vertep characters. In the 20th century, vertep theatre revved as zhivy (live) vertep, with live actors faithfully re-creating the traditional village vertepi.

5 January 2012

RISU

http://risu.org.ua/en/index/exclusive/holidays_and_customs/46234/

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