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Easter traditions and cooking
Easter in Ukraine is a movable feast but it often falls on mid-spring, the time when nature begins to revive after a long winter. Celebrations of the vernal equinox must have begun in the pre-Christian times — nature’s final turn toward summer was a welcome event.
After the introduction of Christianity in the tenth century, many of the pre-Christian feasts were substituted for Christian ones, Velykden, or Easter, being the most important one. It combines in itself the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and resurrection of Nature. Velykden (literally — “Great Day”) is often called Paskha, from the Hebrew word pesakh, that is “a sacrificial lamb.” When the long period of Pist, or Lent is over, rozhovinnya — “eating again” — begins.
Bread can be called a major feature of the Velykden’s meal. Paska, the central Velykden ritual bread, is made with yeast, though there were times when bread used to be unleavened.
Pasky (plural from Paska) are made in quantities that should be sufficient for the family, friends and relatives and for possible guests, several days before Velykden, but no later than Thursday, before Easter Sunday, because Friday (Strasna P’yatnytsya — Passion Friday) before Easter Sunday is a day when no work should be done.
When firewood was lit in the oven, a willow twig, which was blessed on Palm Sunday, was thrown in it (what in English is called Palm Sunday, in Ukrainian is Verbna Nedilya, that is “Willow Sunday”; palms, unknown in Ukraine, were substituted for willows). 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.
In some regions of Ukraine, in western Ukraine in particular, after the Velykden church service, food and water that had been blessed, were given away to other members of the congregation and to beggars right near the church “for the salvation of the souls of the dead relatives.” Rozhovinnya was then begun with Easter eggs.
At home, the hostess of the house would put an Easter egg into a basin filled with water and the children would wash their faces with this water “to be healthy and strong.” Girls, who washed their faces with this water, hoped it would help them to be beautiful. Performing this ablution, the girl might say, “I wish I were as krasna (beautiful) as this krashanka (Easter egg).
When everybody gathered at the Velykden table, the host would remove the shell of one of the Easter eggs and then cut the egg into as many tiny pieces as there were people present at the table. Eating that piece would begin the Rozhovinnya.
The Ukrainian writer Oleksa Voropay described the ritual of Rozhovinnya in the Land of Slobozhanshchyna, “All the family members gather in front of the icons in the icon corner and pray. After the prayer, when everybody sits down at the table, the host picks a piece from the top of the central Paska and gives it to the hostess. She takes it to the cow (or saves it until the cow calves). The host cuts the Paska into pieces for everyone at the table to take one piece and eat it, thus starting Rozhovinnya. After eating Paska and Easter eggs and ham, people at the table proceed to other dishes, the central one of which is the roasted piglet. It is considered to be not good to get drunk at the Rozhovinnya because “God will punish you.”
The nineteenth-century ethnographer O. Tereshchenko left this description of the Velykden’s Rozhovinnya: “In Ukraine, people celebrate Velykden in a merrier and richer fashion than they do in the north [that is, in Russia]. Pasky are lined up on the table with a willow twig stuck into each one and a wax candle fixed on top; there are bowls filled with Easter eggs painted yellow, blue, and red; a roasted pig sits in the centre of the table with a horseradish in its mouth; vegetables and parsley and other green things are placed on both sides of it as well as roasted geese, turkey, ham, sausage, lard, black bread, sweetmeats, cheese, a carafe of horilka (vodka), nastoyanky and nalyvky (alcoholic drinks made at home from fruit and berries). The table is so laden with food it sags in the middle; the celebrations may continue for several days.”
The food, which was blessed in the church, was eaten little by little; crumbs were saved and given to the chickens “for them to lay eggs.” Pieces of the blessed Pasky were given to the cattle — it was believed to make them stay healthy and bring offspring.
In fact, all the blessed food had to be used in some way; if it was not actually consumed as food, it should be put to some other good use — blessed food or poppy grains, for example, were thrown over the walls and roof of the barns as a protection against the evil forces.
In the Land of Podillya, women used to plant tiny pieces of Pasky in their vegetable gardens before dawn, “for no one to see them doing this,” in the hope that marunky flowers (a sort of daisies) would grow; these flowers were believed to have medicinal properties.
The pealed shells of Easter eggs were also treated with respect; in some regions of Ukraine, they were buried in the grain fields for the grain to grow well; they were buried in vegetable gardens at such places where they would not be trodden on, to chase away pests and for vegetables to grow thick; they were pounded in mortars and given to the sick for them to become well again.
But more often, the shells of Easter eggs were put into a tightly woven old basket or into a duck’s nest and then taken to the river for them to go all the way to Rakhmaniya, “a dream land beyond the sea where time stands still.”
The Ukrainian ethnographer V. Shukhevych wrote, “The Hutsuls believe that Rakhmany live like monks somewhere in the east, they pray for us and thanks to them, we can live in this world because they take upon themselves all our sins; they are fasting all the year round, and only on Velykden they eat a piece of an Easter egg which is shared among twelve of them.” Some Hutsuls believe that the shells of Easter eggs are carried by the currents across the sea to Turkey where they remind Christians, who toil there in captivity, that Velykden has come.
There is no generally accepted explanation of the origin of the belief in Rakhmany or of the origin of the word itself, but they evidently symbolize self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Some of the Velykden traditions and rituals have been preserved, others died and remain only in the ethnographers’ descriptions, books of fiction and in the memory of older generations, but the feast of Easter remains to be the time of resurrection and forgiveness.
Photos by Ihor Haiday
The Easter procession that goes
After the blessing of the Pasky,