Ukrainian Easter Traditions
The day when Christ resurrected is one of the most important Christian holidays. But in Ukraine, as in many other countries, Christianity existed side by side with pagan rituals for a long time. At first, the church tried to wipe them out, but eventually accepted them, giving them new Christian meanings.
Until Christianity came to Kyiv Rus, Velykden or the Great Day (now a common name for Easter in Ukraine) was celebrated on the 22nd of March, the day of the spring equinox. It was the New Year’s Day in ancient Slavic calendar, the first day of spring, the reawakening of nature, the victory of life over death. It isn’t surprising that it easily merged with the symbolic of Easter. Easter absorbed all of the ancient spring rituals.
The Palm Sunday is celebrated to honour Christ’s arrival to Jerusalem. But in Ukraine the palm tree (which doesn’t grow here) is replaced with the willow tree. The willow is very important in native Ukrainian tradition. It was endowed with magical properties. The tradition of beating each other with willow twigs with wishes of good health goes back to pre-Christian times.
The Holy Week before Easter is very important. This is the time of the strictest fasting, of preparation of body and soul to the great holiday. But it is also interwoven with ancient lore, especially with the cult of ancestors, which in Slavic tradition was very strong. It is believed that on Thursday the ancestors come back to celebrate their own Velykden, called Nava Velykden (Nava is the ancient Slavic place of afterlife), and come back to the paradise – Vyriy – on the next Sunday after Easter. The Good Friday is the saddest day, the day of the Crucifixion. People go to churches to see the Holy Shroud, and you can’t eat before going to church.
The greatest mystery takes place at night before Easter, during the all-night vigil, after which the priest announces that Christ has resurrected and starts to sprinkle the baskets with Easter bread with holy water. If you fall asleep during this night you will miss your happiness for the whole year to come. The Easter bread – paska – is central to the ceremony. It is the ancient ritual bread, connected to solar cults and fertility cults. It is usually baked on Thursday and on Saturday before Easter. Nobody is supposed to be present while the hostess is kneading the dough.
Other usual items of Easter basket include sausages, roasted and smoked meat, butter, horseradish, and coloured eggs – krashankas and pysankas. In Galicia people don’t usually make cheese-paskas, though this tradition is present to some extent in Central and Eastern Ukraine.
On the Easter Sunday after the holy breakfast people gather around churches for traditional haivkas – songs, dances and games, the remnants of some very ancient spring rites, now just an entertainment for the young. The haivkas are held for three days. Their lyrics contain both Christian and pre-Christian symbols, as well as mentions of historical events. This is a rich material for research.
During Soviet times these traditions were violently wiped out; much now is lost. But nowadays some of them are coming back to life, especially in Galicia which was annexed by Soviet Union later. If you want to see it all with your own eyes, come to Lviv for Easter (celebrated here according to the Orthodox calendar) and take part in haivkas in the Shevchenkivsky Hai Skansen.
Pysanka deserves a separate part in our short review. The egg is a very ancient symbol. Many peoples have a myth of the birth of the world from the egg. It’s a symbol of the sun, fertility, renewal and eternal life. It was used in rituals long before the Christian times.
There are numerous legends about krashankas – eggs, painted with one colour. One of them tells that Holy Mary came to the emperor with the news that Christ had resurrected. She brought eggs with her in token of it, and they turned from white to red to testify her words. Other legend tells that Christ took the eggs from his tomb after the resurrection and gave them away as a token – that means, they were put into his tomb according to the old Jewish custom. Eggs are important in Easter rites of many countries. But pysanka is unique to Ukraine.
During the excavation of ancient Kyiv sites the stone eggs painted with patterns were found in the tombs. The patterns of pysankas have very ancient roots. Some symbols, especially the solar signs, date back to the times of the Indo-European tribes that dispersed from the steppes north of the Black Sea to east and west and gave rise to many modern peoples. Some of the symbols are closely connected to the rites, preserved in haivkas. Unfortunately, it’s very hard now to figure out their exact meanings.
Pysanka had many different roles in Easter rituals. One of them was connected to the spring rites of love – girls gave pysankas to lads, and the best ones to those whom they loved. This was a way to tell about your feelings. There were also numerous children games with pysankas. And magic rituals, of course.
Today this ancient art lives through its renaissance. Modern artists reinterpret old symbols. At Easter celebrations in Lviv you’ll have a possibility to see these works of art and to learn how to make your own.
Easter in Lviv
Easter celebration in Lviv after the holy breakfast usually concentrates in the ShevchenkivskyHai Skansen. For many years already the haivkas are being held here. Everyone can join the dances and the games.
Also Lviv is one of a few Ukrainian cities that preserved the tradition of the Wet Monday. Water is the symbol of purification and renewal, and also of the rain, critical for fertility. Some time ago lads poured water on girls on Monday, and girls did the same on Tuesday. But later this differentiation disappeared. This ritual was an important part of wedding rites – lads usually poured water on the girls whom they liked, and whom they later married. Today the Wet Monday is just fun for the young. Some years ago it was uncontrolled; you couldn’t safely go out of your house regardless of your age. But now the city authorities restricted thepractice to the specially designated areas. Rynok Square is one of them. Here you may go to dry your clothes and get warm in any of the surrounding cafes. The other area for fun is the ShevchenkivskyHai, of course.
And if you visit Lviv this Easter, you will also have a possibility to see artistic pysankas of annual Pysanka Festival on Museyna sq. in front of the Museum of Religion and the Exhibition of Folk Instruments in the ShevchenkivskyHai. More detail of the celebration program will be available soon. Don’t forget to check our Events page for more information in a week or two.