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Velykden, Easter, Ukrainian style
Velykden is Ukrainian for Easter. Though it is not the only word for Easter used in the Ukrainian language it is probably the most proper. Literally it means “Great day”. Easter is the biggest Christian holiday in Ukraine whose population in its majority are Orthodox Christians.
Every religious holiday in Ukraine is marked by the ringing of church bells. But on the Velykden the bells sound particularly majestically and solemnly. Tintinnabulation announces to the whole world glad news: Christ is risen! Why is there so much rejoicing? Resurrection of Christ proclaims immortality of soul. Christ rises from the dead, and we, those who believe in Him, shall also rise after death to eternal life. Man gets accustomed to the idea of mortality of flesh. Resurrection gives us hope.
Resurrection is a victory over death. Resurrection is the Evangel, Bringing of Good News. Church bells all over the land announce Good News of Christ’s Resurrection, of Victory of Life Eternal over Death.
Many poetic lines have been written about the joyous holiday of Easter. Some remain anonymous, some are sung during the church service; others have been created by notable figures of Ukrainian poetry. All of them sing the glorious event of overcoming death, of rising from the dead to give life. Faith, hope and love have helped the Ukrainian people to persevere and survive the times of great trials and tribulations, famines and wars. The Orthodox Christian Church has helped Ukrainians overcome hardships in the past, it will help them to make Ukraine forever independent and prosperous. Velykden is always with us. We shall overcome, Oh Lord!
There are many traditional beliefs, legends and stories connected with Easter. Not all of them have come down to us from the centuries that have gone by, but those that have, have gone into the heart and blood of Ukrainian people. Some of them have been recorded, collected and published by ethnographers. Following are a couple of them, particularly revealing, poetic and emotionally uplifting.
One of the most popular legends, which used to be traditionally told by the head of the family at Easter, holds it that at the time when the faithful leave the church during the Easter service to go around it several times and then return to go back in again, Angels of the Lord raise the Saviour from the Sepulchre and the Saints come down from the sacred icons on which they are depicted and all of them “khrystosuyut’sya”, that is, exchange triple kisses as Easter salutation and expression of fraternal love.
Another one runs like this: Right after His Resurrection the Saviour put Beelzebub the Satan, head of all the devils, into a deep underground pit, beneath the rock in which His Tomb was, and ordered Beelzebub to gnaw at 12 iron chains into which he was cast, at 12 iron doors and at 12 padlocks on the doors. If Beelzebub bites through all of the doors, all the padlocks and all of the chains before the Velykden, then the end of the world will come. In the twelve months from Easter to Easter the Evil One eats his way through all of it except one last link in the last chain. At the moment when the devil is about to pounce on this last link Velykden chanting begins “Christ is risen!” and everything, all the chains, doors and padlocks become whole again as it was before the Satan had begun his gnawing effort. So, if people stop chanting “Christ is risen!” on Easter, then the end of the world will come.
There are several traditional explanations, “folk etymology,” of why Easter is called in Ukrainian “Velykden.” One of them says that at the time when Christ was born the days were long and full of bright sunshine, seven days longer than nowadays. After Christ was crucified the days of sunlight grew much shorter. On Easter, the days grow long again (the word “velyky” in Ukrainian means “great,” “long” and “big”) and the central gate of the iconostasis (tall partition with tiers of icons in an Orthodox church separating the altar from the nave) stays open for several days, from Easter Sunday till next Sunday.
Easter traditional customs
Some of the traditional customs associated with Easter are no less interesting and edifying than the legends. In many Ukrainian villages there was a tradition to make bonfires on Easter night. Either it was done at the foot of the hill on which the village church stood (in most cases churches used to be built on the tops of hills) or on the top of a hill beyond the village so that the light of the fire could be seen from afar, announcing the glad news to the Universe.
In Orthodox Christian churches Easter service begins at about 8 o’clock at night and lasts till 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. Those who do not go to church to attend the Easter service and stay at home (mostly the very young and the very old) are not supposed to lie down in beds either and should find some cosy places to while the night away, as it is not considered proper to lay out the beds to lie in for the night. Lights should not be turned off or extinguished as light is needed to illumine the way “for the Angels of the Lord who are flying over the village.”
Easter service in church differs considerably from the liturgy on any other occasion (in fact, the whole week after Easter as far as church service is concerned, is very special). The Gospel, read on Easter should be, and most often is, chanted in Greek, Latin, Church Slavonic and Ukrainian. The Easter service proper begins with a procession of the faithful around the church. At midnight sharp all the lights in the church are lit, and at first the priest and the entire congregation begin to sing: “Thine Resurrection, Christ, Our Lord and Savior is sung by the Angels in Heaven, and here on Earth we have been granted a Happy Occasion to sing Thee, oh Lord, our praises!” The congregation headed by the priest leave the church and three times go around it. The priest is holding in his hands a special Easter triple candle, a cross; members of the congregation carry a big processional cross, banners, icons, gospels and paskha (Easter cakes). It is an extremely solemn sight, with singing in praise of Christ’s Resurrection uplifting the souls of all who come to this service.
When the congregation returns to the church’s door they find it shut. Everybody begins chanting “Christ is risen!” and after a while the priest, with appropriate words, touches the door with his cross and the door swings open. The priest enters, followed by the rest. Easter service resumes and lasts till after the sunrise. After the service is over, the priest, reading appropriate prayers, blesses the things that the members of the congregation have brought with them and laid out in the church’s yard, by sprinkling them with holy water: Easter eggs (Pysanky and Krashanky), Easter cakes (paskha), roasted piglets, sausage and a great variety of other meats.
The priest greets the congregation repeating many times over: “Christ is risen!” and the congregation replies in chorus “Indeed He is risen!” People exchange triple kisses of Easter greeting and little gifts, mostly Easter eggs. An Easter egg that you get at the first “Khrystosuvanni” (exchange of triple kiss), is kept at home as a great treasure because it is considered to be a thing possessing a great spiritual power.
When people return home in the morning, they sit down at tables, laden with food, read prayers pertaining to the occasion. After a long period of the Lent which is not exactly fasting but that of rather severe limitations as far as food and alcoholic drinks are concerned, people are eager to “razhovetsya”, that is to eat and drink making it up, so to say, after weeks of abstention from many kinds of food and drink. The tables are covered with snow-white table-cloths, and each family go out of their way to put on the table all the best food and drinks they can get. At the place of honour on the table one can see Pysanky. A candle must be burning in one’s home during the entire Easter week. There are prescriptions of age-long tradition that regulate people’s behaviour at the Easter table; for example, you are supposed to throw the pieces of the shell of the first egg, blessed after the Easter service, into the running water. On Easter everyone (mostly in the countryside) wants to ring the church bells and nobody is forbidden to do so. It is a popular belief that ringing the church bells on Easter brings the ringer happiness.There is a widely spread popular belief in Ukraine that the sun rising on Easter morning is “playing”, that is giving out a particularly cheerful light, and people open all the windows on the eastern side, pull all the curtains aside to let the sunshine in, the Easter sunshine, which is believed to give people an extra measure of happiness and health. Now we are living through the time when many traditions are being revived. It concerns some of Easter-holiday customs too.
Velykden is a source of pure joy. It uplifts the soul and brings rejoicing to the heart. Velykden gives hope. Both in the country and in the town people do their best to make their homes look beautiful and create a festive mood. “Christ is risen!” resounds over the land. There is pure faith and love in these words. “Indeed He is risen!” rejoices the soul.
By the Rev. Andriy VLASENKO
Easter cakes and eggs ready to be blessed.
The faithful lining up to have their Easter cakes, eggs
and other traditional food blessed by the priest.
The priest sprinkles the faithful and the Easter food
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