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Easter Holidays In Ukraine: Traditions And Beliefs

Easter is the main event of the year for Christians, the main Christian Orthodox Holiday. In 2016 Easter starts on the 1st of May.

The word “Easter” comes to us from Greek and means “deliverance”. In Ukrainian, Easter is called Velykden (The Great Day), a term used in early Rus’ translations of John Damascene.

According to the New Testament, the Savior was resurrected on the third day after his death on the cross to atone for human sins. This event marks the victory of the Gospel of the Lord over sin and death and the beginning of a new world, redeemed by Jesus Christ.

Belief in the Resurrection is at the heart of Christianity. According to the Apostle Paul, “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile.”

The date of Easter is usually determined by the Church calendar and calculated according to the so-called “Paskhalias” (the name for the “special tables”.)

The last Sunday before Easter (Palm Sunday) is called Verbna nedilia (Willow Sunday) in Ukraine. Prior to this day and on this day you can see many Ukrainians carrying pussy-willow branches. So, on the Willow Sunday these branches are blessed in the church. The people tap one another with these branches, repeating the wish: ‘Be as tall as the willow, as healthy as the water, and as rich as the earth.’ They also use the branches to drive the cattle to pasture for the first time, and then the father or eldest son thrusts his branch into the earth for luck. Consecrated pussy-willow branches are used to decorate people’s homes as a protection against the evil spirit. Some of the branches are planted. The misbehaving children and even grown-ups who do something impious, are beaten lightly with pussy-willow twigs, with such words accompanying the punishment, “It’s not me that’s beating you, it’s the willow! You must have forgotten that Easter comes soon to bring us a great boon!”

Willow Sunday or Verbna Nedilya

The week before Easter, the Great (Velykyi tyzhden) Week (Holy Week), is called the White (Bilyi) or Pure (Chystyi) Week and also Strasnyi tyzhden (Passion week). So, before Thursday people try to finish all works in the field, since from Thursday on work is forbidden. Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday, Covenant Thursday, Great and Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday, and Thursday of Mysteries, in Ukrainian it is called Chystyi (pure)) is the Christian holy day falling on the Thursday before Easter.

The liturgy held on the evening of Maundy Thursday “Passion Service” initiates the Easter Triduum, the period which commemorates the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ; this period includes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and ends on the evening of Easter. Maundy Thursday, called ‘the Easter of the dead’ in eastern Ukraine, is connected with the cult of the dead, who are believed to meet in the church on that night for the Divine Liturgy. People hold the lit candles during the service. These candles are then taken home and no effort is spared to prevent them from being blown out by the wind.

On Chystyi Chetver (Clean Thursday), people washed themselves in rivers, lakes or in the absence of any lakes or rivers, they poured on themselves water taken from wells. It is believed that if you wash yourself early Thursday morning, then all next year you will be healthy. Water on Maundy Thursday not just heals, it clears all your sins. After cleaning yourselves people clean the house. It means that you clean your house from evil eye, damage, dirts, quarrels and troubles, and find complete joy and comfort. After the Maundy Thursday, the house were not cleaned and the floors were not swept until the Easter.

Traditionally on this day Ukrainians are baking Easter cakes (Easter bread). Paska (or Easter bread – buisquits with raisins) is not just a ritual bread, it symbolizes the body of Christ, so the process of cooking must be treated with great enthusiasm and trepidation. Before you bake Paska, you should pray to purify your thoughts and intentions. When Pasky were being made, no one was allowed to make any noise in the house, or swear, or talk too loudly. The one who makes Pasky should be wearing a clean shirt and should ask God’s blessing for the success of Pasky baking. A wooden shovel, made especially for taking Pasky out of the oven, was used to make the sign of the cross over the stove, doors and windows, with the following words uttered, “Sacred bread — into the house, the evil — out!”

If there were still unmarried girls in the family, their mother who was presiding over the Pasky making, would say, “Pasky into the oven, and you, girls, don’t sit — get moving, get married!” Then the floors were swept in a ritual starting from the stove towards the door (on usual days, it was done in the reversed direction) — “Pasky in the oven, get baked, and you, roaches and millipedes, and flies and mice — out with you!”
When Pasky were being put into the oven, no one was supposed to be lying down anywhere in the house, “for Pasky to grow high.” Once Pasky were in the oven, the mother would tug at the boys’ ears (if there were boys in the family, of course) saying, “grow tall and healthy, as our sacred Pasky!”
If Pasky turned out right and were what they were expected to be, it was a good sign — the household would do well in the coming twelve months, but if Pasky were too brown, or had cracks on them, or did not rise enough, it spelled all kinds of possible misfortunes.

On Passion (Strasna) Friday or Good Friday, no work is done. In some localities, the Holy Shroud (plashchanytsia) is carried solemnly three times around the church and, after appropriate services, laid out for public veneration.

On Holy Saturday everything comes to a standstill — both the people and the nature are preparing for the Resurrection of Christ.

On this day people are making hand paint eggs pysanky (decorated Easter eggs) and krashanky (colored Easter eggs). For krashanka the red color is mainly used, because it symbolizes the blood of Christ.

According to the legend, the custom of painting eggs is associated with the name of St. Mary Magdalene, who gave the emperor Tiberius a white egg with the words: “Christ is risen!”. “I do not believe it, – said the Emperor – it is not possible like it is impossible for the white egg in your hand to become red.” And at the same moment the egg changed its color.

The krashanky and pysanky are an old pre-Christian element and have an important role in the Easter rites. They are given as gifts or exchanged as a sign of affection, and their shells are put in water for the rakhmany (peaceful souls); finally, they are placed on the graves of the dead or buried in graves and the next day are taken out and given to the poor. Related to the exchange of krashanky is the rite of sprinkling with water, which is still carried on in Western Ukraine on the second day of Easter (Wet Monday, Oblyvanyi ponedilok); it is practiced by young people, the boys usually splashing the girls with water.

Easter Holidays In Ukrainephoto by Andriy Semenyuk

In all Orthodox churches the solemn Easter services are held during the Sunday night. On Easter night people go to their local church, spending the entire night in Church services. Usually they take with them Easter cakes, painted eggs, and bottles of wine. In the morning (about 4 am) the service concludes with the clergyman sprinkling all food with sacred water which is believed to give strong healing powers. Butter, lard, cheese, sausage, smoked meat, and little napkins containing poppy seeds, millet, salt, pepper, and horseradish are also blessed.

After the matins people exchange Easter greetings, give each other krashanky, and then hurry home with their baskets of blessed food (sviachene). In Eastern Ukraine they place the sviachene on the table, and the oldest member of the family opens the cloths in which the food is wrapped, slices pieces from each item, and distributes them to members of the family along with a piece of unleavened bread that has also been blessed. In Western Ukraine, especially in the Hutsul region, the people first walk around the house three times, go to the stable, extend Easter greetings to the cattle, touch them with the sviachene, scatter pieces of Easter bread and salt in the manger, and send holiday greetings to the bees. Only then they enter the house, ceremoniously open the bundle (dorinnyk) over the heads of the children, and sit down to the table to break their fast.

The candles lit during the Easter night service in the church are taken home (it was very important not to let the wind blow off the flame on the way home). At home, crosses were painted on the window frames, doorframes, stoves and other places in the house with the soot from the candles’ flame. The crosses painted with soot and the burning candles were believed to be protection against evil forces, lightning in particular.

From the day of Easter until Ascension of the Lord, which is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter, people greet each other with the words: “Christ is Risen! – Truly He is Risen!” followed with kisses and the exchanging of gifts. (“Khrystos Voskrese!” – “Voyistynu Voskrese!”)

For three days the community celebrates to the sound of bells and to the singing of spring songs — vesnianky.

In Western Ukraine at Easter the girls perform special choral dances on the church grounds. These are the haivky or hahilky, which have retained a number of motifs that are older than those of the ordinary spring songs (vesnianky). They have a greater amount of ritual in them and contain elements of the round dance, of mimicry, and of choral composition.

There are many Ukrainian traditional customs, beliefs, legends and stories connected with Easter. It is said that the sun that rises on Velykden is shining in a particularly bright and playful way, so people open all windows and the curtains are pulled apart to let the sunshine in. The Easter sunshine is believed to give people happiness and health.

It is also believed that when the members of the congregation with the priest at the head of their procession go around the church during the Easter service, the Saints and the Angels come down from their icons and exchange three kisses.

After the Clean Thursday and till the Easter, you cannot give anything from your house.

On the Easter day everybody should celebrate and be happy, as it is believed that who will mourn this day, will mourn the entire year. If someone dies on Easter, it is considered that a happy soul will fly straight to heaven, as on this day the “sky is open”.

During the Easter season in Ukraine the cult of the dead is observed. The dead are remembered on Maundy Thursday and also during the whole week after Easter (called the ‘Week of the Nymphs’ (navskyi tyzhden), especially on the first Sunday following Easter Sunday (called Khomyna [Thomas’s] or Providna [Seeing-off]). For the commemoration of the dead (provody) the people gather in the cemetery by the church, bringing with them a dish containing some food and liquor or wine, which they consume, leaving the rest at the graves.

Cover photo by Andriy Semenyuk