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Velyky Pist — Lent in Ukrainian tradition
Velyky Pist, literally — Great Fasting, begins seven weeks before Easter. It is one of the four periods of fasting in the Christian calendar in Ukraine.
This tradition of fasting for a certain period of time before certain religious feasts goes back to the early stages of the development of Christianity in Kyivan Rus, but it may have had a pre-Christian, pagan origin.
In Christian tradition, Lent was more than just eating only limited amount of specified food — the faithful were to abstain from all the earthly pleasures thus cleansing the soul from sin and preparing it for celebrating Easter — the Feast of Resurrection of Christ.
In later centuries, women with infants and badly ill people were allowed to eat some of the food that was forbidden for the rest.
Some of the traditions of Lent have survived among the Christians into the twenty-first century. What follows is a description of some of the Lent food and ritual prescriptions which were observed in the Ukrainian countryside in the late nineteenth–early twentieth century.
During Lent, porridge-like dishes were particularly popular. They were made from various grains — wheat, buckwheat, corn or millet. Pancakes, varenyky (stuffed dumplings), deruny (potato pancakes), beans, vegetables, pickles, drinks made from dried fruit constituted the major part of the Lent diet.
All the pots were cleansed with boiling water and steam so as to remove completely whatever might have been left in them from cooking meat and other food forbidden during Lent. Richer people kept pots especially for cooking Lenten food in them.
On the first Monday of Lent nothing hot was cooked or eaten, and that meant there was no borsch eaten on that day, the only day of Lent when “lean” borsch with no meat in it, was not eaten. On the first day of Lent, no breakfast was made either.
Pancakes were made from rye flour without salt, with only water added to the flour. Such stiff pancakes were decorated with a cross, which was cut with a knife into its top side. Every member of the family had to eat at least one such cake. Graded radish or horseradish, sauerkraut, and pickled cucumbers were served to go with the pancakes.
Lent traditions varied in various parts of Ukraine, but everywhere the first day of Lent was particularly strictly observed as a day almost without any food at all.
The first week of Lent was also quite strict as far as food was concerned — no varenyky (stuffed dumplings) were made, no fish was eaten. Borsch, pancakes, kasha (porridge-like dish) and pickles were the dishes of everyday food. But garlic, onions, and reddish were allowed and they provided some spiciness to the bland food.
Herb teas were taken without any sugar or honey, and in general, sweetmeats were frowned upon, but restrictions against sugar were not very strict.
The first Saturday of Lent was the day of remembrance of the dead relatives. The names of the dead were written on pieces of paper which were given to the priest who mentioned them during the service. It was believed that the dead, if they were “properly” remembered, would have a better chance of entering the Kingdom of God.
During the second week of Lent it was allowed to eat fish and mushrooms, and vegetable oil was used for cooking. Different kinds of drinks were made from dried fruit with some of the grain malt added to them. Garlic and onions were consumed in large quantities — they provided vitamins.
During the second week of Lent young people were allowed to meet in the streets rather than stay at home most of the time. They engaged in games, and in singing and dancing.
During the fourth week, so-called “khresty” (“crosses”) were made from flour. The dough was shaped into a cross and baked. Every member got his own “khrest” to eat — eating it was believed to give health. In some of the Ukrainian lands, in Poltavshchyna, for example, “khresty” were used for fortunetelling. A short length of red thread and a small periwinkle leaf were put inside “khresty”, and if, after baking, the leaf and thread were not blackened, it was believed to be a sign of good fortune. Also, instead of leaves and threads, coins were used, and those who discovered a coin in their “khresty” were believed to be blessed with good luck. In some regions, “khresty” were buried in the garden or field “for a good yield.”
During the fifth week of Lent “Pokhvala” — Giving of Thanks to the Virgin Mary was the main event. No work was to be done except for planting vegetables in the vegetable gardens. It was generally believed that certain vegetables were to be planted on a certain day and, for example, cucumbers to be tasty had to be planted on “Pokhvala”.
The sixth week of Lent ended on Verbna Nedilya — Palm Sunday. There were no further restrictions on food observed during that week, but the final week of Lent was special. It was called Strastny tyzhden — Passion Week, Bily or Chysty tyzhden — White or Pure Week.
On the Thursday of that week, people washed themselves in rivers, lakes or in the absence of any lakes or rivers, they poured on themselves water taken from wells.
The seventh week of Lent was particularly strict as far as food was concerned — no fish, no vegetable oil, no dairy products, preferable no hot meals were allowed.
At the end of the week a lot of cooking was done so that on Easter Sunday people would be free of having to do any cooking. The cooked food could be just warmed in the oven.
The candles lit during the Easter night service in the church were 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.
Our story about Velyky Pist is supplemented with recipes of some of the dishes that were — and are — cooked during Lent.
Lent is the time of reconciliation.