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Traditional holidays celebrated in spring
For centuries, up to the late nineteenth century, Ukraine was a land of husbandry and farming, and this close connection to nature and annual cycles gave rise to many feasts. Holidays and rituals, which reflect the seasonal variations of agricultural work, spring rituals and feasts which have its roots in the pre-Christian times, were aimed at ensuring good crops and abundant yields. Among these rituals and feasts were also those of Christian origin but heavily influenced by the pre-Christian past: Svyata Yavdokha, Sorok Svyatykh, Blahovishchennya and Easter — arguably the most important ones.
Feast of Svyata Yavdokha
The ancient Slavs who lived in the territory of Ukraine welcomed the New Year in March but there seems to have been no particularly lavish celebrations of the coming of the New Year. Instead, it was Easter that became to be the major spring feast with its idea of resurrection, revival of nature. The unity of man and nature was felt particularly keenly.
In Ukrainian, the word for the month of March is berezen — from bereza which means “birch tree.” The birch tree is among the first to come back to life after winter dormancy. It was in berezen that the birch tree juice was collected. This juice was used for making a refreshing drink (until recently, it was collected, sugared a little, bottled, and sold as “birch juice,” but the commercial pressure seems to have ousted birch tree from the market).
The feast of Svyata Yavdokha (St Yavdokha) coincided with the beginning of actual spring. Potatoes that had been kept in the cellars as seeds for planting in spring, were taken out and their planting began when the potatoes would develop shoots. Ancient chants and folk songs accompanied the planting “Yavdokha will see to a good crop Ñ youÕll have potatoes aplenty”.
No wonder that during the potato planting season dishes made from potatoes stood out prominently on the peasants’ table — deruny (potato pancakes), kartoplyanyky (stuffed potato cakes), potatoes stewed with other vegetables, and other dishes. It was also the time of pre-Easter Lent, and only vegetable oil was used for cooking.
By the end of the nineteenth century, potatoes had become one of the major crops in Ukraine. Potato became known in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century but it came to Ukraine much later, in the early eighteenth century. In fact it was the Czar Peter I who introduced the potato and had to actually use force to make peasants grow it. Resistance to the potato was considerable and by the end of the eighteenth century, the potato was still “an exotic fruit” in many parts of Ukraine. Even the name of the potato varied – bulba, barabolya, ripa, or zemlyani yabluka, or “ground apples” — literal translation from the French pommes de terre.
After the war with Napoleon in 1812, lean years that followed induced the peasants to rethink their attitude to the potato and gradually it became the second — after bread — most important food in Ukraine. Potatoes were relatively easy to grow, crops were abundant, a variety of dishes could be cooked from them and their nourishing qualities kept increasing its popularity. It has become Ukraine’s staple diet and it’s hard to imagine Ukrainian cuisine without dishes made from potatoes.
On the day of Saint Yevdokiya people expected to be informed about the weather in summer — if the wind was warm on that day, you should expect a warm summer; if the wind was strong enough to rotate the blades of windmills, you should expect high yields. If the wind blew from the west, you could expect good fishing; if the wind blew from the east, it was a sure indication of bees’ productive swarming; if the wind blew from the south, it indicated a good grain harvest. The wind “na Yevdokiyu” was a decisive factor in deciding in which manner wheat and poppies should be planted.
There were sayings connected with the wind on that day, like “ItÕs strong enough to ruffle the tops of sheaves.”
The Day of Forty Saints, also called sorok muchenikiv (Forty Martyrs), which was marked around March 22, was the time when the birds started coming from the warm lands. Kalachyky, bublyky and other breads were made in the shape of birds, complete with stylized beaks, wings and tails. Some bread products were made to look like birds sitting on their nests. The eyes of the bread birds were made of berries or raisins; in some cases, the bread figurines were sprinkled with sugar powder or honey. Also, in baking these bread birds, they were skewered on twigs which served as sticks which children could hold onto while eating them.
The children were running around the village holding these “birds” in their hands, and singing,
"Come birds, come,
Bring spring to us!"
It was believed that the migrating birds had a God’s blessing on them and thus could bring this blessing to the domestic birds too.
The Annunciation was celebrated on April 7. It was one of the most revered feasts on the religious calendar of the Ukrainians.
Though the early month of April was still within the long Lent period, some food relaxation was allowed for Blahovishchennya — fish could be added to the Lent diet. Among the dishes made on that day were hrechani or pshonyani holubtsi (cabbage leaves stuffed with buckwheat or millet), hrechanyky (buckwheat cakes), hrechani pampushky (small rolls made from buckwheat flower) with garlic; pies, fish and potato dishes.
Usually, no work on land began before Blahovishchennya, because “God has not yet blessed this work.” It was believed that God was just in the process of “making the earth soft” and that “God warms it with His breath, leaning all the way from heaven.”
Sowing began after Blahovishchennya. A special attention was given to cabbage, the most conspicuous crop in the vegetable garden. Cabbage featured in many dishes — tushkovana kapusta (stewed cabbage), kapusnyak (cabbage soup), zavyvanyky (cabbage pies) and other dishes.
On Blahovishchennya people did not work, doing only what had to be done at home; it was believed that on Blahovishchennya, “birds do not make nests, neither do hens lay eggs.”