Friday, April 18, 2014

Katherine's Story: Velykden, Easter in Ukraine 100 years ago.

Woodcut by Jaques Hnivdovsky.  Easter celebrations in Galicia.  Baking the paska, cutting the pussy willow, Passion Thursday, blessing of the Easter baskets, the Hahilky dances, and ending with wet Monday.

Easter was the most important holiday in Ukraine, when my great Aunt, Katherine Rychly lived there, 100 years ago, in the village of Bila, just outside the city of Ternopil'. They called it Velykden, which means big holiday.  It is important today, both in Ukraine and wherever Ukrainians live in the world.  

Old Easter card

Easter was a week long holiday, beginning on Holy Thursday and ending on the Tuesday after Easter. Spring had arrived in Galicia an eastern province of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and everybody was excited about the warm sunshine and new growth.  My great Aunt Katherine Rychly said that everybody in the family got new clothing for Easter, blouses were made by a seamstress in the village, for all the women. Their Easter clothing included a white apron, an important part of their outfit. All the girls had their hair done, braided and decorated with ribbons. On Easter Day, the Church bells rang all day long and Everyone in the village went to Church for services, then home for a big holiday meal.  After dinner, the family returned to the church for Hahilky, songs and dances, performed by the girls of the village, on the grass outside.

Katherine does not mention in her memoir that the holiday continued all week.  Easter Monday was also called “wet Monday” because the boys and girls spent the day dousing each other with buckets of water.  This practice takes place in Poland as well.   Provody ended Easter week in Galicia with visits to the cemetery. Finally, after almost ten days of celebration, the villagers returned to their every day lives.  It is no wonder that Easter was called Velykden—the great day.

 Great Lent--The forty days leading up to Easter and " Pussy Willow Sunday"

The Easter season began with Lent.  It began on Ash Wednesday and lasted 40 days.  No meat was eaten and no dancing was allowed.   In Ukraine, Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter was called  Willow Sunday. Pussy willow branches were used in place of palms, which didn’t grow in Ukraine. The willow is an important tree to Ukrainians, and it was one of the first plants to show growth in the spring. The week before Easter was sometimes called Willow Week.  On Willow Sunday, the branches were blessed by the priest, and the villagers tapped each other on the shoulder and repeated the wish:  “Be as tall as the willow, as healthy as the water, as rich as the earth.”  Some farmers used the willow branches to drive their cattle to pasture for the first time in spring, and then stuck  the branch in the ground for luck.  After church, families took the pussy willow branches home to decorate their houses, placing them behind the icons and the cross. 
"Maundy Thursday", painting by Mykola Pymenenko.  Churchgoers left the services with lit candles on "Passion Thursday."

The next four days were very busy. All preparations had to be completed by Maundy Thursday, because no work could be done between Thursday and Easter Tuesday. The house was cleaned and whitewashed.  Easter foods were prepared, the Easter breads, the Paska and the babki were baked and Easter eggs were made.  Two types of Easter eggs were decorated—the pysanky, elaborately painted raw eggs, which were often given as gifts, and used in the Easter basket,  and the krashanky, hard boiled eggs, dyed various colors using vegetable materials.  The most popular color was red, obtained by boiling the eggs along with onion skins, until they took on a reddish brown color. Krashanky were included in the Easter basket and eaten with the Easter meal. 

The next four days were strict fast days, no meat or dairy could be eaten. The first service of the Easter observance was conducted on Maundy or Passion Thursday.  Large passion candles were lit during the service, and the people carried the lit candles home. 
On Good Friday, a “Tomb” was set up in the Church.  A visit to the “Tomb” was made on Saturday, before the Easter baskets were blessed.   

The Blessing of the Easter Baskets

Painting by Olena Kulchytska, "Christ Has Risen" , 1930

Every family put together an Easter basket, which contained very specific items.  The Easter Babka was the most important, and pysanky and krashanky (at least one red one) were always included.  the willow basket was lined with either an embroidered or white linen napkin. It contained a sausage, a piece of Easter ham, an Easter Babka, salt, butter, cheese and horseradish, which was called Hrin, and a beeswax candle.  An embroidered towel covered the food in the basket and pussy willow branchhes decorated the handle.   The baskets were brought to the church for blessing on the day before Easter. The people lined up, with their baskets in front of them. The priest walked "down the line" blessing baskets as he walked. The villagers were required to pay the priest for blessing their Easter basket with Easter bread if they didn't have cash.  He received so much bread that day that he used it to feed his farm animals.  This practice upset the villagers,  children were hungry and the Priest used the special Easter bread to feed his animals!

Easter Day--Velykden

Bonfires were set and burned on the Saturday night before Easter.    In some areas, the Easter basket was brought to the midnight service on Saturday.  A vigil was sometimes held outside the church, sometimes inside.    In some churches, the doors were opened as the sun rose greeting the worshipers with light.  On Easter morning, the faithful greeted each other with the saying “Christ is risen!”  They were answered with “He is risen indeed.”  They would embrace and kiss three times.  The family returned home with their Easter basket full of food and enjoyed the Easter meal.
"Easter Vigil" painting by Mykola Pymenenko


The Vesnianky-Hahilky celebration took place in front of the church during the afternoon of Easter Sunday.  The origin of these songs and dances were very ancient: before the Ukrainians became Christian in the 10th century, the purpose of these celebrations was to chase away winter and welcome spring.  The people asked the forces of nature to give them a bountiful harvest and a happy life.    The Vesnianky-Hahilky specifically Galician customs, and were not performed in other areas of Ukraine.  Only young unmarried women took part  dancing round dances, without partners.  As time passed, the ancient reasons  for the dances were forgotten, and the Hahilky were performed for entertainment.  By the turn of the last century, courtship became a reason for the hahilky; my grandmother told me that a pretty young girl was often noticed on Easter Sunday, and engaged soon after.    During the years of the Soviet Union, the hahilky disappeared in Ukraine, but are now performed in Ukrainian communities in Europe and North and South America.
"Hahilky" painting by Ivan Trush, 1905

 The Rest of Easter Week

Wet Monday followed Easter Sunday.  The boys sprinkled—or doused the girls with water. The Rychly family ate vareneky (pirogi) on Easter Monday, using the leftover cheese from the Easter dinner. The Friday and Saturday after Easter was called Provodny in Galicia, a day to remember departed family members.  The family went to the cemetery with a picnic, and left some food and Easter eggs at the graves. 

The Easter season ended with “Green Sunday” or Pentecost, 40 days after Easter.

Paskas, babkas and  the Easter Basket.

Krashanky, hard boiled eggs, colored with onion skins.

Martha Stuart's Recipe for Ukrainian Easter Paska  Click on the link for the recipe

Special instructions for making the Paska--in addition to the recipe above
  • When preparing paska dough and during the kneading, think only good thoughts, shoo away all evil ones.
  • Don't let any of your neighbors or any strangers come in the house when you are preparing the paska.  It will not rise as it should.  Don't make any sudden noises while the paska is rising or while it is in the over baking.  Don't sit down while the paska is baking or it will become flat. 
  • If you carefully follow all of the instructions, the paska will be light, airy and tasty. If not, it will come out hard and dense.
 Source:  The Ukrainian Museum, New York
Other sources:  
Ukrainian Easter at BRAMA,
Encyclopedia of Ukraine, encyclopedia of
 Lawryk, Julia, Kateryna, Autobiography by Katherine Pylatuik Lymar as told to her Daughter, Julie in 1988.
Ukrainian Museum of Art, Kiev, Ukraine
Lviv Museum of Ukrainian Art, Lviv, Ukraine