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Traditional Hutsul wedding in Western Ukraine
Love gives lovers all kinds of inspirations — to invent all kinds of unusual wedding ceremonies, among other things. Marriage rites are performed during scuba diving, at the depth of many feet below the surface of the water; at the top of mountains; in the snow or sand deserts at temperatures above a hundred Fahrenheit below or above zero; in the air, jumping with parachutes at the altitudes of thousands of feet. Some travel to exotic countries to go through the wedding ceremony, local style. Others prefer the ceremonies of their native land, tested by time and sanctioned by tradition.
Our story is about the traditional wedding ceremony still practised in the land of Hutsulshchyna, in the west of Ukraine where the Carpathian Mountains are.
We, several students of the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, went to Hutsulshchyna, to attend the wedding of a friend, also a student of this university, that was to be conducted in strict accordance with age-old traditions of the land of the Hutsuls. We shared a conviction that all those exotic weddings, Thai or Indian or whatever other distant-land style with all their colourful accoutrements, cheap trinkets, lines of falsely cheerful couples waiting to face a weary official, wearing a garb of a local priest, who will pronounce them husband and wife, a glass of “extra dry” bubbly in the expensive hotel room may be fine but nothing could compare with the traditional Ukrainian wedding in the spiritual uplift it can give. There is definitely something in our blood that makes the call of our Ukrainian ancestors irresistible.
The land of the Hutsuls is full of mysteries. There is no established or generally accepted opinion as to the ancient ethnic background of the Hutsuls whose culture contains elements of the pagan and Christian traditions (on Easter, they pray always facing east, and on Christmas they invite the Frost to come in and partake of their holiday feast), and reflect the Ukrainian and Celtic and even nomadic past. Their relative isolation in the mountains must have contributed to the uniqueness of their culture which has developed over the centuries.
Their wedding ceremony is a sacred ritual which reflects their age-old attitude to the eternal human values, to the world and to God. Every word of the wedding songs and every little detail of the wedding ceremony are pregnant with meaning. Every generation in the long line since time immemorial added something of their own, at the same time retaining the most essential part. After my visit to the Carpathians, I became convinced that some of the cultural information must have gone down into the genetic code of the people to become as essential as the colour of the hair or of the eyes.
I felt the first touch of something mysterious at the moment when a dress decades or may be centuries old was put on me (every guest at the ceremony was supposed to wear one). I felt as though the hands that once had woven the fabric, that had embroidered it, were ready to protect me against any evil. The corals of the traditional necklace gave me the warmth of the hands that had once polished the corals. The embroidery patterns on the dress had meanings rendered in a pictorial language which I did not know but which nonetheless passed some of their hidden message on to me.
The same can be said about all the other items used at the wedding ceremony. There is a special embroidered towel, for example, which is spread on the floor of the church for bride and groom to step on — the embroidery on it must not contain any black or yellow threads since these colours symbolize death and separation. The blue is the colour of abstinence and fasting and thus no blue shirts are to be worn. The red — the colour of love — in all of its shades, is the colour of the wedding which must be such a memorable event that will remain a guardian of Love to the very end of the married couple’s life. This — and many other things — was told to me by a very old woman whose stories were like patterns of the embroidery that her wrinkled hands must have done hundreds of.
The traditional wedding dresses are colourful and diverse in all the parts of Ukraine but in the land of Hutsulshchyna they seem to be the most impressive. In fact, every village in Hutsulshchyna seems to have a style of its own as far as the dress and everything else that makes part of the wedding ceremony is concerned — the differences are not considerable but they do exist. In Kosmach, for example, zapasky (woolen skirt) are brightly red and seem to emit bright light when hit by the sun rays, and in Verkhovyna they are more subdued with silver thread dominant. The girls present at the ceremony wear zgardy (small- and large-sized crosses on chains around their necks), necklaces and corals. With the Hutsuls, it is not only the girls present at the wedding who put a lot of effort into making their appearance the best attainable, but also the young men do their best to make themselves look as good as they possibly can. Traditionally, men sew all kinds of things onto their dresses — coins, pieces of tinfoil, pieces of glass, pom-poms, multicoloured buttons, feathers painted in different colours, metal fasteners and other things in the same line.
The bride wants to put on as many necklaces as possible because together with peremitky (embroidered headscarves) their number is significant in showing the richness of the bride (the bride can cover her head with several peremitky, one on top of the other). It takes several hours to get the bride properly dressed, with women wailing all the time as though in mourning. To my great surprise, I discovered that the Hutsul wedding songs are more mournful than their dirges. I was told that it is because the parents and relatives bemoan the hard work and life their daughter will face after the wedding. Also, the young wife in many cases will not be able to see her husband too often since he may be working far away from home, returning to her only once in a while. By contrast, the Hutsuls dance gaily at the funeral, thus celebrating the deceased’s happy departure to a better world, to God.
The traditional Hutsul wedding goes through several stages: svatannya (match-making); zaruchyny (engagement); pletennya vinka (making of the wedding wreath); zaplitannya molodoyi (the braiding of the bride’s hair); vyazannya derevtsya (decoration of the hiltse); shlyub (the actual marriage ceremony); zavyvannya (wailing); perepiy (drinking the health of the newlyweds) and other stages, and the wedding party may last up to two weeks.
The wedding we attended followed the traditional pattern and looking back at it I kept asking myself whether I would be prepared to go through all the things that the bride should be prepared to go through in order to comply with the requirements of the traditional wedding ceremony.
Four days before the wedding, the hiltse — the tips of pines — were brought to the houses of the bride and groom, and put into the kalach (the wedding cake with a hole in the centre) on the table covered with a table cloth. The hiltse are symbols of the fun the wedding will bring. The tops of the hiltse were decorated with little tufts of oats or with guelder-rose berries, symbols of good harvest and well-being; the rest of the hiltse was decorated with garlic, basils, periwinkles, fragrant grass, carnations, red, white and blue strands of wool, pieces of coloured paper, coloured feathers, gilded nuts and coins. The decorating was done in turn by the father, mother, brothers, sisters, other relatives and then by friends and other guests.
Wool and woollen threads symbolize the warmth, human and physical (winters in the Carpathians can be very severe). The bride’s mother who put several woollen pellets under the bride’s dress, kept chanting, “May it give warmth to your breast,” and expressed a wish that her daughter’s husband’s love would always keep her warm. The periwinkle is another feature of great importance at the traditional Hutsul wedding. We made periwinkle wreaths for the newlywed’s good fortune and the making of them was a ritual in itself — the women were singing songs appropriate for the occasion, and each member of the family and female guests of honour added their contributions to the wreaths.
The groom was also dressed and prepared to go to church to be wed. The young men danced arkan, the dance performed only by men. According to the Hutsul tradition, during the dance, the men performing the dance should stomp their feet so hard that the earth and sky would shake. The sky would thus be induced to pour rain upon the earth which would be good for the next harvest and falling upon the newlyweds it would make them fertile so their family would have many children. It took the young men who were to perform arkan four weeks to learn how to do it properly, and their stomping and wild cries did provoke rain — though, of course, it could have been just a coincidence.
After they were pronounced husband and wife in church, the newlyweds went back home, each to their own, with the husband having to go to his wife’s house later to “ransom” his wife from her brothers. There is a similar tradition observed in many ethnic groups and peoples, but this “ransom” is usually paid before the wedding rather than after as it is with the Hutsuls.
The young husband arrived at his young wife’s house on horseback, passing into the yard under a long rushnyk (towel) attached to the kalach. His young wife was sitting at the table with her head resting on the kalach and one of the brothers holding the braid of her hair. The young husband and his friends kept putting silver coins on the braid, asking the young wife’s brothers to “give her to him,” and when at last they managed to talk the brothers into letting their sister go, the kalach which has a hole in the centre is lifted from the table and put in front of her face. The young woman looking through the hole answered the question put to her, “Do you see anything nice?” by saying, “Yes, everything is fine, particularly so at the place where the moon has risen.” The same question is put to the young husband who answers, looking at his bride, “Yes, I see nice people around, and the best is where the sun is shining in this house.” Then both of the newlyweds look through the hole together. Looking at this scene, I remembered what one Hutsul sage once said, “To be in love is not to look at each other but to look in the same direction.”
After the looking through the hole bit is done, the kalach is broken in two and the one who gets the bigger part is be head of the family.
The wedding party is a tradition known and observed in many parts of the world. With the Hutsuls it begins from the moment the newlyweds arrive home back from church. The propiy (drinking ceremony) at the wedding we observed began with horilka (vodka) and medovukha (mead) being poured into earthenware and wooden bowels, and then all those present were invited to have some from two spoons attached to each other by a ring (the symbol of a married couple). Everyone wished the newlyweds the best, and the toasts were accompanied by words “I drink your health,” and in reply the one toasted said, “May this drink be good for you.”
The wedding train added its own characteristic note. It was headed by a group of young men on horseback who were carrying the hiltse; they were followed by the bride and groom, also riding horses and holding hands; riding behind them were bridesmaids and best men. The next came all the relatives and guests, on foot, accompanied by the musicians. This noisy and cheerful procession hardly left anybody who happened to be around indifferent.
The Hutsul dances are something special indeed — you need a lot of physical stamina to perform them, not only because of the time they last but also because of the almost acrobatic steps they involve. One of the dances, kolomyika, is so vigorous that only well trained dancers can hope to raise their legs and jump from foot to foot in the way and as long as the dance requires, but even for those who could not join in, it was a most exhilarating spectacle to watch. In another dance, the young men, standing in a wide circle, hold the girls tight by the waste and the girls put their hands on the young men’s shoulders, and the circle begins to rotate, moving faster and faster, until the girls’ feet lift from the ground pulled up by the centrifugal force. In still another dance, the young men form a circle, hold each others’ hands firmly with the girls sitting on these linked hands — and the circle begins to rotate at a speed which makes your head spin even just watching it.
Not all the Hutsul weddings follow the traditional arrangements to the very last detail — instead of traditional dresses many brides and grooms put on modern white dresses and black suits, and instead of horses, they ride in cars, and instead of silver coins pay the ‘ransom’ with Ukrainian hryvnyas.
At the time when globalization and standardization keep making inroads into the local folk traditions, I was very gratified to learn that there is a place in Ukraine where beautiful traditions that have come down to us from the immemorial past are still being maintained. It gladdened the spirit to see for myself the tradition being kept alive.
By Dzvinka Kachur
Photos by Radek Bartnik,
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