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Ukrainian traditions, Rites and Ceremonies

The Ukrainian people’s native customs are primarily connected with the traditional way of thought and outlook on life that have been forming throughout the ages, and preserved quite a few features of the pre-Christian beliefs.

Two main types of ceremonies are distinguishable: the domestic (family) and calendar ones. The former were the rites of passage marking a significant transition in a human life, while the latter performed to celebrate achievements or milestones in the lives of individuals or groups of people. Every conventional celebration and every ritual were closely connected with the folk-believes and legends of yore.

The Family Rituals and Rites

Puerperal ceremonies that accompany delivery of a child are part of especially delicate spheres; hence, they are being surrounded by magic actions and charms. While helping deliver babies a midwife was seeking to inculcate and instill in the child the important elements of character. For a child to grow healthy sviachene zillia (consecrated herbs and flowers) were made use of: for girls to be beautiful honey and, sometimes, milk were added to the font or put roots of elecampane there for boys to enjoy good health, or an axe placed to be become proficient in various skills. Everyone who happened to drop in during the ceremony was to drop a lucky penny into the basin holding baptismal water.

Wedding among Ukrainians was indeed a solemn stage play accompanied by music, singing, dancing and games that grew into s folk feast. It all has been starting with wooing and seeking marriage (that is, towel presentation, proposing, towel taking and arrangement) when elders, representatives of the brides-to-be came to an agreement concerning wedding. (Instances happened when the intended bride said no to the marriage seekers. In such cases, she gave back the loaf of bread that seniors brought with them and ‘presented’ the man seeking marriage with either a pumpkin or makohon (a wooden club-shaped, hand-held tool for grinding or mashing poppy seed, cereals, etc. in a mortar).

Soon thereafter, the betrothal was arranged that began with a posad ceremony-the expression of mutual consent by those to be married and consecration of it by both parentages with bread and towel being the symbols of unity. With the betrothed seated at the head of the table, the elders covered the bread with a towel, then placing the girl’s hand there and overlaying it with that of the boy, tied up the both hands with a towel.

This was followed by tying up of the seniors with towels and presentation of all those in attendance with kerchiefs, pieces of cloth or shirts.

In between the betrothing and wedding preparation the celebration continued with a series of rites, of which the principal were the hen and stag parties (or ‘periwinkle’ ceremonies), loaf baking and invitations. The hen and stag nights symbolizing parting with single life were held on the eve of the wedding party separately at places of residence of the affianced. Meanwhile, married and highly honored women were baking the karavai, the principal bread at Ukrainian wedding, as well as varied bridal cookies.

The most dramatic moment of the marriage was the pokryvania (bespreading) ritual that symbolized transfer of the young bride to the category of women and under husband’s authority and after which the general revelry started. The archaic rite is still preserved in Hutsul region. There, close to the end of the dinner party young bride was called to the barn to a sad tune played by musicians. When the groom heard the sound of a violin, he ran into the barn and bit through the ribbon that held metal decorations in the plait of the bride, thus making the entire splendid headdress spread. From this moment on she had to plait two braids, wind them around her head in a circle, and put on ochipok (a kind of a bonnet worm by married women), tying peremitka ( a shawl of fine fabric) or kerchief over it.

An important component of the marriage ceremony is the nuptial service consecrating the marriage by the church.

Funereal Rites and Customs were directed to reversibly transfer the souls of the deceased into the world of ancestors as well as protection of the living from detrimental influence of the spirits of the dead. The rituals comprised the burial and commemoration.

When a person died, all the relations and fellow-villagers were notified. For that purpose white kerchiefs and peremitka were hanged out on the windows of the house where the dead stayed. Among the highlanders it was customary to kindle a big fire before the hut of the deceased or to blow trembita (Hutsul folk music instrument in the form of a long wooden tube without vents).

The soul of the deceased was treated especially delicately. One should not drink water in the room since it was deemed possible to be consumed by the soul of the deceased; those wanting to sit down on a bench had to blow there to avoid crushing the soul of the dead.

The carrying-out of the coffin was marked by special magic since it was connected with protection of the family and the farm from detrimental influence. To bar finding the way back home, the demised was born out feet first predominantly through the back door knocking on the threshold with coffin thrice so that the departed bid farewell to the ancestors and never returned. As soon as the chest was brought out from the room, a new jar was broken over the place it stood on as a symbol of life renovation while the way it was carried out was sprinkled with rye or barley so that nobody else died in the house.

Ukrainians strictly kept the rite of semi-official church ‘sealing’ the grave unknown to other peoples: to a chant, the priest marked a cross over the grave with a spade, and then threw soil crosswise over the coffin.

After the burial ceremony had been over, a meal was arranged for all those present which mandatory dish was kolyvo, a dish of wheat cooked with honey. It was customary immediately after the meal to put a glass of horilka (vodka) and a piece of bread intended for the deceased on the windowsill: in popular belief, he returned home during the following nine days. The next day luncheon was carried to the grave (‘to wake up the deceased’. By this, the funeral ended and commemoration began.

Marking of certain commemoration days are linked with popular ideas about life and death. Hence, the belief was that soul leaved the body on the third day, spirit on the ninth, while on the fortieth day the body ceased its existence.

Calendar Holidays and Ceremonies

A calendar rites are divides into four principal seasonal cycles: winter, spring, summer and autumn with each of them timed on the one hand with the natural phenomena and to the correspondent types of agricultural activity on the other hand.

The winter cycle of popular calendar ritualism of the Ukrainian folk starts with Koliada marked on the eve of Christmas on January 7, ending with Vodokhresch on January 19. In general, the winter cycle includes the following holidays: Koliada (or the Holy Night); the Birth of the Sun Holiday (Christmas); the Old New Year’s Day (Malanka or Saint. Basil’s the Great Day), Vodokhresch (or Epiphany), Stritenia, and Obritenia.

The Christmas night (the Koliada, Holy Night) was also called bahata kutia accompanied by extensive preparations: the stove was kindled with 12 logs that dried for twelve days, 12 ritual dishes were baked and boiled, of which the principal ones were the Christmas kutia (boiled wheat corn with raisins and honey) and uzvar (dried fruits compote). Towards the evening didukh (reaped sheaf) was brought into the house since, in accord with a belief, together with other home objects it acquired miraculous power bringing luck and providing for fruitful toil. In the evening children were sent to relations and kinsfolk with gifts and kutia to commemorate the souls of the dead.

Starting with the Holy Night until the Vodokhresch the ritual wish-singing continued addressed to the hosts of lodgings and habitations, and to all their folks.

Connected with the most vitally important business – laying foundation for the future harvest, the Spring Cycle of the calendar ritualism was of special significance among Ukrainians. For this reason, the people with the help of rituals and magic actions tried with all their might to speed up the coming of spring, warm weather and rain. In addition, the season is also famous for the alchemy of spring and awakening of human feelings. Hence, the spring ritualism was directed at recreation of the youth, telling fortunes and magic signs of supernatural protection. The characteristic colors of the spring rituality in Ukraine were vesnianky, highly poetic folk singing that penetrated more than one holiday and ceremonial actions.

The Velykden (the Great day) was always seen among the people as the principal spring holiday that later was established by the Christian Church as Easter, a Christian festival commemorating Resurrection of Christ. Quite organically it combined pagan rites and canon ceremonies. The Velykden is a complete ritualistic cycle, which comprises the following chief elements: the Maundy-Week that in its turn divided into Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday; Velykden (Easter) and Svitlyi Easter Week including Radunytsia (veneration of ancestors) and Svitlyi Monday. On Palm Sunday, withes of willow were consecrated in church to be used at home for whipping the house folk and domestic animals. On Velykden, paskha (the Easter cakes) and decorated eggs, which were prepared in advance, are also consecrated.

The most diversified is the Summer Ritual Cycle that lasted from the holy day of rusalii at the end of May until the Day of Holovosiky (beheading of St. John the Baptist) and included the following: rusalii, Trinity Sunday (the Green Feast), Kupaila or Ivan Kupala (St. John the Baptist Day), Petriv Den (Saints Peter and Paul Day), Maccabeus, Elijah and Saint Panteleimon the Healer Days, and the Savior Day, as well as quite forgotten today holydays of Thunder and pagan gods Lada, Yarylo, etc.

Within the Summer Ritual Cycle two ideas were prominent: water and plants. Special appeal of romance and magic distinguish The Ivan Kupala Feast. There is a folk-belief that to anyone who is lucky to pick the flower of fern (assumed to bloom at midnight, take fire and fall there and then) the hidden treasures are revealed while the person himself acquires miracle-working powers and knowledge. Hence, during Midsummer Night brave people were looking for fern in the wood, girls were telling fortunes by wreaths, young country folk lighted fires on the water and jumped over them presumably in a belief that Kupala fires and water had curative and purifying properties.

The autumn cycle of the calendar holydays does not present itself as an integral order, but instead incorporates separate customs and omens with their general character defined by the nature going to sleep and preparation for winter. Ceremonial actions move predominantly indoors acquiring the form of evening sessions.

The cycle starts with Simeon feast that formerly coincided with the canon New Year’s Day. The whole cycle comprised of the following holidays and ceremonies: Simeon Day, Pokrova, saints’ days of Dymytriy, Kuzma and Demian, the Feast of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, Kateryna, Saint George and Saint Andrew Days, as well as Saint Barbara and Saint Nicholas Days. The ceremonies of the autumn cycle were oriented predominantly at domesticity. Weddings started with the Pokrova with other holidays of the season also connected with marriages or divination about those to wed. Engagement in fortune telling was also intensive during the Feast of presentation of the Blessed Virgin, as well as on saints’ days of Kateryna and Andriy with the stock of techniques extremely diverse.

Presently, traditional customs and rites are gradually becoming the thing of the past; however some of the elements still stay in the ceremonies of today to be used during celebrations of the most popular folk holidays.