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Velykden, Easter Feast, Ukrainian Style

Velykden is the Ukrainian word for Easter. The word literally means “a great day.” Easter is celebrated in the spring, the time marked by a great revival in nature and in spirit.

There are two major streams in the blossoming riot of the Ukrainian spring — one is placidly lyrical, putting us into a reflective mood, and the other one — resoundingly majestic, putting us into a solemn mood. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church brings these two streams together mingling them in a mysterious way. Velykden is the most important holiday for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and it is in the spring that all the threads of human destinies, black ones of woes and red ones of passions, weave a pattern of the past on the spread of time which every spring is whitened by Divine Love.

There is not a single human being who has not sinned. This simple Christian truth is not accepted by everybody. Or rather not everyone chooses to ponder this truth once in a while. And when it does come to mind, are we all prepared to stop chasing the wind in the field, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes (Eccl 1:14 — “all is vanity and a chasing after wind”) without some help being given us? Thank God, He does not leave us without His support.

At the time when the spring is just preparing to make its appearance and the winter, aided by Satan, is still chilling us, both bodily and spiritually, Velyky Pist (The Great Fast, that is Lent) makes its entrance into Ukraine (in fact, this period of prayer, fasting, penitence and self-denial is not unique to Ukraine — all the Orthodox Christians are supposed to observe it, but there are many geographical and national differences to be found in different parts of the world).

Great Fast

Velyky Pist is an ordeal, a trial of sorts, when both our body and soul are tested, and this testing involves all the spheres of a Christian’s life. The seven weeks of Velyky Pist should be lived in a most pious manner — without offence taken or given, without anger or lies. Those who observe Lent in the strictest way, avoid entertainment of any kind (of all kinds of music only religious music is allowed), and carnal thoughts and sex are banned likewise. There are food restrictions as well, with meat, diary products and fish excluded from the diet. Oil and wine are allowed only on holidays, and Saturdays and Sundays. But it should be born in mind that the strict fulfilling all of these requirements is not an end in itself. Self-denial is aimed at helping us achieve redemption. Sincere penitence is necessary for “entering the joy of God.” This joy is given us at Easter.

On the Sunday night before Lent begins, a special service is held at the Ukrainian Orthodox and Greco-Catholic churches, after which the priests and parishioners ask each other forgiveness for sins committed by them during the previous year — the period of penitence should be entered with a purified heart. The Monday after this Sunday was given several names in Ukraine, and one of them is “clean Monday” — because no cooking must be done and all the pots in the kitchen must remain clean.

All of the seven weeks of Velyky Pist have traditional names assigned them. The first week of Lent is called Torzhestvo Pravoslavya — the Triumph of Orthodoxy (the name goes back to the ninth century when the final victory over the iconoclast movement was achieved). On that day, a great many of the Orthodox faithful go to confession and to Communion. In some parishes, particularly in the western areas of Ukraine, people stand in long lines to confessionals.

It is desirable for the Orthodox faithful to make many bows when they go to church to worship since bows are an important element in acquiring the desirable feeling of humility and meekness. On Friday of the fifth week of Lent, three hundred bows are supposed to be made in church while the Great Canon of Penitence by Saint Andrew of Crete is being read.

Not only fasting

However it would be wrong to assume that Velyky Pist is only mortification and bows. During the seven weeks of Velyky Pist we have two holidays which are important in preparation for Easter itself. One of them, celebrated on April 7 is the Annunciation which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church calls “the beginning of our salvation”. “…The angel Gabriel was sent from God… and the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou art highly favoured… thou shalt conceive and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus…and of his kingdom there shall be no end. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee… therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke, 1:28-35). On that day the faithful must abstain from work, and there is a popular belief that “even no bird will make a nest.” Proskurky — small wafer-like bread — are consecrated in church, and then they are buried by peasants in their vegetable gardens “to help bring a plentiful harvest.” It is popularly believed in Ukraine that God blesses all the plants on that day and they begin to actively grow and bloom. It is also widely believed that if you go to a forest and stomp around, you will get enough life-giving energy to last you the next twelve months. In the country side, the girls dance the first vernal dance in front of the local churches (it is called Kryvy tanets — Curving dance). People believe that the weather on the Annunciation Day is a good indication of the weather to expect on Easter.

Another holiday celebrated before Easter is the Entry into Jerusalem. “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strewed them in the way. And the multitudes… cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Mat 21:8-9). Branches of pussy willows have been used in Ukraine from the times of old as a substitute for more exotic trees — most likely palms, and the Sunday before Easter is known as Willow Sunday rather than Palm Sunday. Consecrated pussy-willow branches are used to decorate people’s homes as a protection against the evil spirit. Some of the branches are planted and the trees that grow out of them are one of the most noticeable features of the Ukrainian landscape. The misbehaving children and even grown-ups who do something impious, are beaten lightly with pussy-willow twigs, with such words accompanying the punishment, “It’s not me that’s beating you, it’s the willow! You must have forgotten that Easter comes soon to bring us a great boon!”

Soon indeed, but the last seven days of Velyky Pist are of a particular significance. The Holy Week is also called the Passion Week when every Christian should go with Jesus through His passions — the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Golgotha, in order to be cleansed of sin. On Holy Thursday a special “Passion Service” is held in churches, with twelve excerpts from the Gospels dealing with the betrayal and capture of Jesus Christ, trial and crucifixion are read with the congregation holding the lit candles. These candles are then taken home and no effort is spared to prevent them from being blown out by the wind. On Holy Saturday everything comes to a standstill — both the people and the nature are preparing for the Resurrection of Christ.

Great Day

On Velykden the church bells announce to the world the glad news — Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

The Resurrection of Christ proclaims the immortality of the soul. Christ rises from the dead so that we — those of us who believe in Him — shall also rise after death to eternal life. The Resurrection is a victory over death.

In the Ukrainian Orthodox churches the Easter service begins at about 8 o’clock in the evening and lasts until 5 or 6 o’clock the next morning. In the country side, the very young, infirm and too old who do not go to church, do not go to bed either — they keep a vigil with the lights in the houses on “to light the way for the angels of the Lord.”

The Easter service is a special one indeed. It includes a procession of the congregation around the church. At midnight, all the lights in the church are lit and the priest is joined by the congregation in singing, “Thine Resurrection, O Christ, Our Lord and Saviour, is sung by the angels in heaven, and here on earth we have also been granted the Happy Occasion to sing Thee, O Lord, our praises!” Then the congregation headed by the priest, leave the church and go around it three times, the priest holding an Easter triple candle and a cross, and the members of the congregation carrying a big processional cross, banners, gospels and Easter cakes.

When the people return to the church’s front door, they find it shut, and they begin chanting, “Christ is risen!” The priest pronounces an appropriate formula, touches the door with the cross and the door swings open. The priest enters with everyone following him, and the service resumes. It lasts until after the sunrise. When the service is over, the priest begins to bless pysanky and krashanky (Easter eggs), paskha (Easter cakes), roasted piglets, sausage and a great variety of other meats that the members of the congregation have brought with them and laid out on the ground in the church yard. The priest’s incantations, “Christ is risen!” are answered by “Indeed He is risen!” The people exchange triple kisses — the traditional Easter greeting — and little gifts, mostly Easter eggs are also exchanged. The eggs received after the exchange of the three kisses are treasured as things that possess great spiritual energy.

When the people return home from the church, they sit down at tables covered with snow-white cloths and laden with food and drink. After reading prayers, they feast upon all the goodies laid out in front of them. The food which has been carefully prepared in the best Ukrainian culinary tradition tastes particularly delicious after the long period of fasting.

Easter customs and legends

There are many Ukrainian traditional customs, beliefs, legends and stories connected with Easter, which have come down to us from the bygone ages.

The pieces of the shell of the first egg —one of those that have been blessed by the priest after the Easter service — eaten at the festive table, must be collected and thrown into the running water of a brook or a river. Those who want to ring the bells of the local church are welcome to do so (it is a custom that is practised in the countryside rather than in the town). If you get to ring the church bells on Easter, you have a good chance of being happy.

Bonfires are built on the tops of hills close to the villages so that their light spreading the glad news can be seen from afar.

It is said that the sun that rises on Velykden is “playing” — that is shining in a particularly bright and playful way, and all the windows are open and the curtains are pulled apart to let the sunshine in. The Easter sunshine is believed to give people happiness and health.

It is also believed that when the members of the congregation with the priest at the head of their procession go around the church during the Easter service, the Saints and the Angels come down from their icons and exchange three kisses.

Another popular legend has it that after the Resurrection, the Saviour seized Beelzebub, chained him hand and foot and threw the ruler of all the devils into an abysmal pit and sealed it. This sealed abyss was located right under the rock in which the tomb from which He had risen, had been hewn. The imprisoned Evil One was then told to try to get himself free by extricating himself from the 12 chains restraining him, and by gnawing through the 12 iron doors that barred his way. If he managed to do that before Easter, the end of the world would come. In the twelve months the Evil One eats his way through all the doors and is about to break the last link on the last chain, but at that moment the chanting “Christ is risen” penetrates into the pit, and the Evil One is hurled back to the bottom of the abyss with all the chains and the doors immediately restored. So if people stop chanting “Christ is risen” on Velykden, the end of the world will come.

Velykden comes and people raise the chant, “Christ is risen!”

Indeed, He is risen!

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