Winter AS XLIX (2015)
Volume XX, Issue 2 (#75)

From the Nachalnik

Just a brief note to accompany this issue. Our theme is Christmas and, in particular, Christmas in Ukraine with not one, but two articles on the subject. Consider this a challenge to other ethnic groups: we're overdue for an article or two on Russia, Poland, Czech, Ruthenian, Lithuanian, or any number of other groups. Consider writing up something for an upcoming Slovo.

I'd also like to make a plug for another Slavic U. It's been over a year since our last one and we definitely have interest. It was unfortunate (but entirely coincidental) that both Slavic Us planned for last Fall fell through. There is honestly no curse hanging over the event. If you'd like more information, reach out to the Group and we'll be happy to offer what assistance we can. And, as I have previously promised, no matter where you schedule it, I will make an effort to personally attend.


Ukrainian Christmas Eve Dinner and Customs

By Vasyl Jula

Have you ever stopped and wondered about the origin of the Christmas Eve dinner called Svyata Vechera, Vyliya, or Kutya, or of its various customs? These customs are very archaic folk practices that originated with the winter solstice.

The winter solstice takes place on or near December 21st and marks the longest, darkest night of the year. No one is really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began heralding it as a turning point, but a guess is about 4000 years ago. To ancient Europeans this was an event of the waxing solar light, the day that marks the return of the sun. In the time of pre-history, winter was a very difficult time for the agrarian aboriginal peoples of the northern hemisphere. The growing season had ended and the tribes had to live off of stored and preserved food. These tribes would be troubled as the life-giving sun dipped lower and lower in the sky each noon. Fearing that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and cold they would perform various rituals to conjure back the sun during this anxious vigil. After the solstice event, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising higher and strengthening once more - the rebirth of the new solar orb. These aboriginal people had no special instruments to detect the solstice, but they were able to notice an increase in elevation of the sun's path within a few days after this event.

There have been people living in what is now present-day Ukraine since Paleolithic time. This winter holiday was called Sviatky (today called Sviatiy Vecher) by the tribes of Rus' and lasted for about twelve days. Other names for this event used by the various western, eastern and southern Slavs (and by northern, quasi Slavic clans) included Korochun, Krachun, Kolyada, Rozhanitsia, Kucios, and others. During this period hearth fires were extinguished, and then a “live” fire was created by friction. This practice was also done at the spring equinox and later transferred to Easter time when baking the Paskha/Paska and Babka (ritual breads).

For the Solstice, special celebratory breads were baked and a cereal dish embellished with honey was prepared. Thirteen prepared foods representing the full moons of the lunar calendar were put on the table at one time for the whole family was to share from a communal dish (today we use separate place settings for hygienic reasons).

Various divinations were practiced to foretell the outcome of the forthcoming year. Ritual songs were also performed at this time. Being animists, the Paleolithic proto-Slavic people always strove to actively influence their gods and spirits of nature by prayers, supplications, and offerings. Feasts were held in honor of these Deities and they were always invited to the celebration. The ancestral spirits of the clan were also invited to the feast.

Today this practice is still observed by an extra place setting or empty seat left at the contemporary Christmas Eve table. A small live evergreen tree was cut down and brought into the home during the bitter winter as a reminder that soon their crops would grow again and be bountiful. This tree was hung upside down from a rafter of the house and decorated with nuts and dried fruit to honor the spirit of the tree. Today only a shadow of this practice survives in Poland, Slovakia, and Carpatho-Ukraine. These are only scattered fragments of information on the solstice practices of the ancient Slavs.

Christianity swept Europe and the feast of Christmas was established on December 25th to replace any other celebratory practice. Because of the placement of Christmas at this time it usurped the winter solstice commemoration, but all the customs of the solstice were just moved to the eve of this new festival.

The Church dictated the contents of the meal that would be consumed on Christmas Eve but the people tweaked it to their own specifications. Christmas Eve for the church was a fast day so no meat or dairy products were to be eaten, although later the church introduced fish and even allowed dairy products. The animals that were killed, cured, and preserved for the Solstice celebration were feasted upon on Christmas Day.

Although the Church did a thorough job on eliminating many of these pre-Christian practices, some still survived into the 20 th century. Here are some examples:


Ukrainian Christmas and Malanka Celebrations

By Juliana Jeo Vousdy

[Editor's note: And now for some notes on how the celebrations are practiced in the modern day from one of our members]

Ukrainian peoples, as with many of the Orthodox Christian Faith, follow the old Julian Calendar, resulting in Ukrainian Christmas being celebrated on January 7. Many Canadian Ukrainians celebrate both regular Christmas and Ukrainian Christmas, which results in two Christmases and two awesome meals! How can you go wrong with that?

As Ukrainian Christmas is more of a religious and family occasion, it is more common to give gifts on December 19th - St Nicholas Day (known as Svitae Nicholai ) - and at this time, small gifts such as oranges and candy are given to the children, often by someone dressed as St Nicholas in bishop's robes and attire, rather than the North American, jolly, fat Santa in red.

Jan 6 is Sviata Vechera or "Holy Supper.” It's a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve meal consisting of twelve meatless dishes, representing the twelve apostles. The meal starts when the youngest member of the household spots the first star of the evening, representing the Three Wiseman and the trek they took. The table is covered with two table cloths with a layer of straw placed in between, in honor of the manger where Jesus was born. Placed at or under the table, or under an icon in the house is a didukh ( “grandfather spirit”) - wheat sheaves tied in a bunch. The didukh symbolizes the family's ancestors and represents prosperity in the year, as the Ukrainian society was traditionally an agrarian one. At the table is an empty setting for the ancestors, and a candle is lit and set in the window to invite all travelers and lost spirits or souls to the home.

The start of meal is kutia (boiled wheat with honey and poppy seed). It is tradition for the head of the household to flick a spoonful of kutia at the ceiling. If it sticks, it will be a prosperous year, indeed (and watch out if you are below it, if it falls)! The meal is followed with such items as borscht (beet and cabbage soup); fish such as salmon or pickled herring; various types of pyrohy (perogies – tender dumplings stuffed with potato, cottage cheese and dill, sour kraut, mushrooms, or cheese and potato, etc); meatless holubsti (cabbage rolls filled with rice or buckwheat); and kolach (Special Christmas bread).

For religious folks, the meal is prepared with no animal products at all, but many of us will use animal products, so one might also see helesnika (dough wrapped with beet leaves and baked in a cream sauce) at the table and various items for the perogies such as onions and butter, mushroom cream sauce with dill, and sour cream. The meal is finished with such deserts as krushcheka (little bow knots – light fluffy, airy pastry, deep fried as a donut would be and sprinkled with icing sugar) or fruit compote (dried fruit that has been stewed). For families of a religious nature, church is in order next, and after midnight (when one is able to eat meat again) there may come another meal, this one consisting of roast duck.

During the Christmas season, carolers may come to the house to sing various Koliadky (Ukrainian Christmas carols and epiphany carols). Puppet shows are also common, as are short humorous skits involving a goat (don't ask me why the goat is there! I have no idea!)!

Following the Julian calendar means that Ukrainian New Years Eve – Malanka – falls on January 13/11. This is a time of much revelry and it is common for mummers to go door to door singing carols and performing skits. The theme for these skits involves the New Year – Malanka, a young girl (usually performed by a male dressed as a female) being stolen by the wicked witch (the Old Year) and then rescued so the year can begin. Characters often portrayed in the Malanka skit are those of a bear, a goat (there's that goat again!), an old woman (played by a man) and an old man (played by a woman).

Many Ukrainian communities in Canada celebrate Malanka with a New Year's dinner and dance and local dance groups perform for the audience at these events, sometimes putting on a Malanka play as well.

The dance performance often ends in a Kolomeyaka – a big circle dance where everyone, including the audience, gets up and takes turns going into the circle to show off their favorite steps… it's not uncommon to see old timers jump into the fray and forget they aren't as young as they used to be…and not be able to get up off the floor after trying some of the acrobatic steps they used to do in their youth!

And on a side bar, did you know that a carol commonly heard at Christmas, "Carol of the Bells" is actually a pagan Ukrainian song called Shchedryk Shchedryk?. The ancient song tells a tale of swallow coming to the home at the end of the winter season, to wish the master and mistress of the house, prosperity and has nothing to do with bells! In the 1930's or so a Ukrainian fellow thought the rich harmonies and melodies of the song reminded him of bells, so he put completely different English words to it, resulting in the commonly heard words of today. The traditional version, although not necessarily sung at Christmas, it is often sung as an epiphany carol around or after New Year's, as the end of winter draws nigh.

Xristos Razhdayetsya!



Some items picked up on SIG-L (our Yahoo!Group), off of the Facebook SIG group, and from other correspondence:


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