Ukraine, Easter and Holy Week in the

Ukraine, Easter and Holy Week in the

Ukrainians celebrate Holy Week and Easter with stories, customs, foods, prayers, and dances. Ukrainian Easter eggs, called pysanky, are famous throughout the world for the beauty of their intricate designs.

Palm Sunday

The willow branch symbolizes Palm Sunday for the people of the Ukraine. Since few palm trees grow in their country Ukrainians long ago substituted willows for the more traditional palm branch as a symbol of the holiday. Old religious traditions call for the blessing of willow branches on Palm Sunday. Another old custom required children to swallow one bud from the branch of a blessed pussy willow as a means of preventing sore throats. This custom has fallen out of favor, but many Ukrainians still preserve the old tradition of striking each other with willow branches on this day. They accompany this gentle whisking, called "God's wounds," with folk blessings, such as "Be as tall as the willow, as healthy as the water and as rich as the earth," and folk verses like "It is not I that strikes, it is the palm. Six nights hence - the great night! A week hence - the great day!" Ukrainians call Palm Sunday Kvitna, "Flower," or Verbna, "Willow" Sunday.

Maundy Thursday

Ukrainians have many folk names for Maundy Thursday, the Thursday of Holy Week. It is known as Chystyi, "clean" or "pure," Bilyi, "white," Strasnyi, "passion," Velykyi, "great," and Zhyvnyi, "nourishing," Thursday. Several old folk customs connected with this day feature sacred flames. In past times many young men lit bonfires on this evening to light the way for ghosts returning to their family and as a means of cleansing the neighborhood from evil influences. At church services people held burning "passion candles" during twelve Gospel readings, selections from the Christian Bible describing the life and teachings of Christ. They carried these burning candles home with them and used the flame to burn a cross into a beam of the house. People kept these candles throughout the year, lighting them during thunderstorms to ward away lightning bolts and during times of danger to keep the family safe. According to folk belief, these candles also had the power to heal illnesses, hasten difficult deliveries, and soothe the dying. Some housewives dedicated part of the day to the creation of pysanky - elaborately decorated, multi-colored eggs (for more on pysanky, see Easter Eggs).

Good Friday

Many Ukrainians fast on Good Friday, avoiding both meat and dairy products. Some will eat only after they make their visit to the plascha- nytsia, or Holy Shroud, displayed in Ukrainian churches on this day (for more on this custom, see Epitaphios). In past times many Ukrainians prepared their Easter breads on this day. Ukrainian Easter breads include two traditional favorites, paskha, a sweet, dairy-rich holiday bread, and babka, a kind of coffee cake.

Holy Saturday

Ukrainian folk tradition calls for final Easter preparations to be made on Holy Saturday. Family members dye plain, single-colored Easter eggs, called krashanky, and some design pysanky as well. Ukrainians play egg games with krashanky and eat them on Easter Sunday. In past times people threw the empty shells into streams and ponds as a means of honoring the departed. Youngsters were told to rub red krashanky against their cheeks to make them rosy. Ukrainians treasure pysanky, and those received as gifts may be preserved for many years. Bonfires may be lit on the evening of Holy Saturday, usually on the church grounds or on top of a nearby hill (see also Easter Fires).

Easter Eggs

Ukrainian folklore offers many stories concerning the origins of pysanky. One tale says that Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus' cross for a while (Luke 23:26), spread the custom of coloring eggs for Easter. According to the folktale Simon was an egg peddler. After his encounter with Jesus, Simon found that his eggs always took on bright, cheerful hues. Another Ukrainian tale states that when Jesus hung on the cross, each drop of his blood that hit the ground became a red egg. As Jesus'mother Mary wept at the foot of the cross, her tears splashed onto some of the eggs, leaving behind intricate designs (see Mary, Blessed Virgin). Yet another Ukrainian story suggests that one winter the weather was so harsh that birds plummeted from the sky, overcome by the cold. Some peasants felt pity for the birds and took them into their homes until spring came. Several days after their release the birds returned to their foster homes, each one bearing a beautifully decorated egg as a token of their gratitude.

According to one old Ukrainian tradition a young woman who wanted to get married should drop a pysanky inscribed with her name into a nearby stream. The man who found it would almost certainly return it to her and perhaps even decide to wed her. Another tradition encouraged children to build nests for the Easter Bunny to lay his eggs in. Thoughtful youngsters lined the nests with grass or moss and also provided tender young shoots for the rabbit to eat.

Easter Baskets

It may take several days for a Ukrainian housewife to prepare the basket of traditional Easter foods brought to church on Holy Saturday or early on Easter Sunday to receive the priest's blessing. These foods include ham, sausages, cheese, plain and decorated eggs, butter, horseradish, and paskha. Ukrainian folk tradition accords each food a symbolic meaning. The meats recall the animals used for sacrificial purposes in the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, as well as Jesus' sacrifice of his own life on the cross. Butter and cheese represent abundance and peace. The eggs stand for the tomb out of which Jesus emerged as well as for new life. The candle embedded in the paskha symbolizes the light of the resurrected Christ. After placing these foods in their baskets Ukrainian women cover them with beautifully embroidered cloths. Many of these cloths are family heirlooms. These foods will form part of the feast that takes place on Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday

Ukrainians call Easter Sunday Velykden, or "Great Day." Easter church services often take place late at night on Holy Saturday or early on Easter morning (see also Easter Vigil; Sunrise Service). People bring baskets of Easter foods to church with them, which the priests bless after the service. After the blessing people turn to one another and offer the Easter greeting, "Khrystos Voskres" (Christ is risen) and the response, "Voistyno Voskres" (He is risen indeed!). Many accompany this greeting with the traditional three kisses on the cheek. Often friends and family exchange pysanky at this time. In past times people frequently went to the graveyard directly after the service, bringing the glad news of the Resurrection to their departed loved ones.

In the old days, the head of the household often visited the barn and beehives with a basket of food before sitting down with his family to breakfast on Easter morning. Thus he included the family's domesticated animals in the Easter feast and celebration. Many Ukrainians retain the old tradition of sharing an Easter egg as the first course of the Easter feast and as a means of marking the end of the Lenten fast. Other foods likely to be included in the Easter feast are kovbasa, a kind of sausage, borsch, a soup made from beets and beef, pork or ham, pirozhki, pastries stuffed with cheese or meat, babka, and paskha.

In past times people would gather in the churchyard on Easter Sunday. They performed hahilky, ritual round dances, with each other and took part in games and other festivities. Old Ukrainian folk tradition encourages the continuous ringing of church bells on Easter Sunday. Boys and men took turns with this prestigious task. Nowadays many Ukrainian churches still feature folk dancing on Easter Sunday, usually special performances by the parish's youth group.

Easter Monday

Ukrainians call Easter Monday "Wet Monday." The name refers to the custom of dousing girls and women with water on this day. This custom is especially popular with young men, who often wait to catch their sweethearts by surprise with a bucket full of water. Ukrainians also refer to Easter Monday as "Wandering Monday" because folk tradition encourages families to pay visits to relatives and godparents on this day.

Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Tracz, Orysia Paszczak. "Ukrainian Easter Tradition: Velykden - Great Day." Ukrainian Weekly 63, 17 (April 23, 1995): 11. Wax, Emily. "A Ukrainian Easter, the Holiday Helps Immigrants Hold on to Their Heritage." Newsday (April 11, 1999): G14.

Web Site

"Ukrainian Easter Customs and Traditions," an article by Lubow Wolynetz, curator of the Folk Art Collection for the Ukrainian Museum, New York City, at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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