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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Svyat Vechir

Tonight, for those of us still on the Julian calendar, is Christmas Eve. Throughout Ukraine (and the world) families are preparing their Svyat Vechir feast. Some will gather as family; others, particularly in the diaspora, will gather together at a church hall for a communal supper after Christmas Eve service.

I'll be at my parents' house.

For the Ukrainian people Christmas is the most important family (as opposed to religious) holiday of the whole year. It is celebrated solemnly, as well as merrily, according to ancient customs that have come down through the ages and are still observed today.

Ukrainian Christmas customs are based not only on Christian traditions, but to a great degree on those of the pre-Christian, pagan culture and religion. The Ukrainian society was basically agrarian at that time and had developed an appropriate pagan culture, elements of which have survived to this day. The ancient pagan Feasts of Winter Solstice and Feasts of Fertility became part of Christian Christmas customs. This is perhaps why Ukrainian Christmas customs are unique and deeply symbolic.

Ukrainian Christmas festivities begin on January 6, Christmas Eve, and end on the Feast of the Epiphany. The rituals of the Christmas Eve are dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family, and to the remembrance of the ancestors.

With the appearance of the first star, which is believed to be the Star of Bethlehem, the family gathers to begin supper. They would have fasted all day in preparation for this feast, so it is a particularly anticipated one.


Although there were regional variations, the rituals of Christmas followed a set pattern in former days. Except for the preparation of the ‘holy supper,’ all work is halted during the day, and the head of the household sees to it that everything is in order and that the entire family is at home.

Towards the evening the head of the house goes to the threshing floor to get a bundle of hay and a sheaf of rye, barley, or buckwheat; with a prayer he brings them into the house, spread the hay, and placed the sheaf of grain (the didukh) in the place of honor (under the icons). In Ukraine, this is a very important Christmas tradition, because the stalks of grain symbolize all the ancestors of the family, and it is believed that their spirits reside in it during the holidays.

For Christmas Eve Supper or Sviata Vecheria, the table is covered with two tablecloths, one for the ancestors of the family, the second for the living members. In pagan times ancestors were considered to be benevolent spirits, who, when properly respected, brought good fortune to the living family members. Under the table, as well as under the tablecloths, some hay is spread to remember that Christ was born in a manger. The table always has one extra place-setting for the deceased family members, whose souls, according to belief, come on Christmas Eve and partake of the food.

Garlic is placed at the four corners of the table while iron objects — an ax and a plowshare (or the plow itself) —and a yoke, a horse collar, or pieces of harness, are placed under the table. A pot of kutia is placed high up on the shelf in the corner of honor; the pot is topped with a loaf of bread (knysh) and a lighted candle.

A kolach (Christmas bread) is placed in the center of the table. This bread is braided into a ring, and three such rings are placed one on top of the other, with a candle in the center of the top one. The three rings symbolize the Trinity and the circular form represents Eternity.

After all the preparations have been completed, the father offers each member of the family a piece of bread dipped in honey, which had been previously blessed in church. He then leads the family in prayer. After the prayer the father extends his best wishes to everyone with the greeting «Христос раждається» (Christ is born), and the family sits down to a twelve-course meatless Christmas Eve Supper.

Svyata Vecherya

There are twelve courses in the Supper, because according to the Christian tradition each course is dedicated to one of Christ's Apostles. According to the ancient pagan belief, each course stood was for every full moon during the course of the year. The courses are meatless because there is a period of fasting required by the Church until Christmas Day. However, for the pagans the meatless dishes were a form of bloodless sacrifice to the gods.

The order of the dishes and even the dishes themselves are not uniform everywhere, for every region adheres to its own tradition. In the Hutsul region, for example, the dishes are served in the following order: beans, fish, boiled potato dumplings (pyrohy or varenyky), cabbage rolls (holubtsi), dzobavka or kutia (cooked whole-wheat grains, honey, and ground poppy seeds), potatoes mashed with garlic, stewed fruit, lohaza (peas with oil or honey), plums with beans, pyrohy stuffed with poppy seeds, soup containing sauerkraut juice and groats (rosivnytsia), millet porridge, and boiled corn (kokot).

In the diaspora, the first course is often kutia. Then comes borshch (beet soup) with vushka (boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and onions). This is followed by a variety of fish - baked, broiled, fried, cold in aspic, fish balls, marinated herring and so on. Then come varenyky (boiled dumplings filled with cabbage, potatoes, buckwheat grains, or prunes. There are also holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), and the supper ends with uzvar.

There are many rituals associated with the meal as well. Traditionally, when the kutia is served, the head of the house takes the first spoonful, opens the window or went out into the yard, sometimes with an ax in his hand, and invites the 'frost to eat kutia.' On re-entering the house, he threows the first spoonful to the ceiling: an adhesion of many grains signifies a rich harvest and augurs a good swarming of bees. The head of the house then takes some food from every dish and, placing it with some flour in a trough, carries it out to the cattle and gives it to them to eat.

At the evening meal fortunes are told.

After the meal three spoonfuls of each dish are placed on a separate plate for the souls of the dead relatives and spoons are left for them.

(Note: some of the text above was taken from the Brama web site, who in turn got it from the Ukrainian Museum. Other bits came from the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, a much better source, but much longer. Being too lazy to write more today, I have mixed it up for you to read.)


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