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Christmas celebrated in the Carpathians


Every year Christmas is celebrated by millions upon millions of people in the Christian world. It is considered to be a family holiday to be celebrated in the family circle at home, with the fire  literal or metaphoric  blazing in the family hearth.

But there are mavericks who choose to go to a place away from home, sometimes a long way. Among such eccentrics was a group of ten people, made up of an ethnographer from New York, USA, a journalist and a photographer from Lviv, Ukraine and a TV crew, seven strong, from Poland, who went to a village in the Carpathians at Christmas time.


We landed in the village of Kryvorivnya, in the heart of the Hutsul land, and attended the Christmas service at a small seventeenth-century wooden church sitting on the mountain slope. The village used to be called Zhabye and is indeed the focal point of the area inhabited by the Hutsuls where their ancient traditions continue to be maintained, religious feasts and holidays are celebrated the way they were hundreds of years ago, and life in general seems to have hardly changed since time immemorial.


Trip to the past

In the early twentieth century, the intellectuals and bohemians of the land in Western Ukraine that was called Halychyna, preferred to spend their summers in the villages of the Carpathian Mountains. They sought quiet, rest and inspiration. The village of Kryvorivnya was a retreat of the literati; artists mostly chose to go to the village of Dzembroni. There was as much chance of meeting a professor from Lviv in a picturesque Hutsul village as of coming across a local villager. The mountains attracted by their scenic beauty, relative proximity from town, cheap accommodation and board  and, to a great extent  by the ancient culture and traditions of the Hutsuls, the indigenous people who seemed to have been living in the Carpathians since these mountains came into existence.

The Hutsuls were probably more heathen than Christian  they worshipped Nature and believed in God the Creator of Nature. They lived in houses built of wood without a single nail used; their sheep grazed on the mountain slopes. The Hutsuls made brynza, local soft cheese, wove lizhnyky (sort of woolen blankets), using yarn of sheep wool dyed in different colours; carved ingenious plates, figurines and many other kinds of things from wood; they made earthen ware and painted all those bowls, plates, jars and cups in the inimitable Hutsul manner, and decorated their Hutsul garments, using beads and dyed wool, in their peculiar Hutsul way; they made tiles for their stoves immediately recognizable as Hutsul in colour and design; they sang their Hutsul songs about heroic exploits of their ancestors and noble Robin Hood-style Hutsul outlaws; they told their children Hutsul legends and tales of old. Their churches were decorated by their Hutsul painters in the distinctive Hutsul style. It was an isolated Hutsul realm, lost between West and East, hiding in the Carpathian Mountains from the pressures of the outside world, self-sufficient in its isolation and independence from the rest of the European civilization  and thus attractive to all those who sought the remnants of the archaic times and who wanted to experience the charm of authentically ancient traditions.


Past in the Present

Now, in the early twenty-first century there are Hutsul villages which have hardly changed in the past hundred years. There is no natural gas in their homes to cook on; there is no running water, there is no sewage system, no electric power. There are no modern roads to connect them to the outside world. They go to the same age-old churches their great-great-great- grand parents went to  but on Christmas, the members of the Hutsul families come from whatever distant land they may happen to be living to celebrate the feast and partake of Christmas dinner in the home of their ancestors.

Up to the mid-fifties of the last century, the Hutsuls wore their national dress both every day and on holidays. The Soviet power tried hard to rob the Hutsuls of their culture and traditions, to turn them into an ethnographic curios producing souvenirs, and to take away their faith  some damage was done but the most important things had remained inviolate. Their resilience, pertinacity, patience and resistance to change are proverbial.

I was told a story of an old Hutsul who, on seeing a monument to Lenin being erected in his village, asked, Why are you making it of plaster? He wanted to add: Plaster is not a durable material. The monument will be a flimsy thing and will last no more than ten  or even five years. But he held his tongue, thinking: But why should it last longer? All things must pass, you know, and the Soviet power will pass away, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner than later.

The painted plaster Lenin went up in the mid-eighties, and the Soviet power that had taken so many lives and brought the Hutsuls to the edge of disaster or even extinction, collapsed in 1991. The Hutsuls repaired the dilapidated churches, built new ones, pulled out of the trunks their national dresses that had been worn by their grandparents, and made new ones following the traditional patterns. And now you can see them, young and old, once again wearing the sorochky and keptaryky and serdaky, on weekdays and on weekends  and in their Sunday best when the occasion requires. It has become prestigious again in many Hutsul villages to come to church on Sunday in their best bib and tucker. Its almost like in good, old times  you show off, you demonstrate others you are well-to-do (Sunday Hutsul national dress does cost a pretty penny to obtain), and at the same time you reassert your rights for the land of your ancestors, you maintain the continuity, you keep the traditions alive. The Hutsuls, though small in number, are fiercely proud of their cultural heritage.


God, Aridnyk and Nyavka

The Hutsuls of the early twenty-first century piously go to church on Sunday, with only very few staying away. Those who dont are either too sick or too young. In fact, if you dont regularly go to church, youll have a problem of the black sheep kind. It may get so bad that youll have to move elsewhere. It may sound like intolerance and flaunting Christian piety, but such attitudes have been bred by the harsh and severe conditions under which survival depends on togetherness and strength of spirit. The mountains are merciless to the weak in spirit or in body. In the vicinity of Chornohora, Mount Black, a sacred place for the Hutsuls where the water is plentiful and bread scarce, the Hutsul character has been formed by a thousand years of Christianity and millennia of heathen traditions which have become inseparably merged.

The Hutsuls have preserved the core of their mythology and their understanding of life and of the world, and adapted the Christian teachings to them. In Hutsul oral tradition, God the Creator comes down from above to walk around and climb the mountains; God makes his fallen brother, Satan-Aridnyk (The Hutsul name for the devil, Aridnyk, is similar to Lucifer or Beelzebub and other names and monikers in the way it used to refer to Satan) who has betrayed Him and thus stopped being brother any more, return the inventions that He had made but which then were stolen by Aridnyk, house and fire among them, to the Hutsuls. The Holy Spirit  Alay (corrupted Elijah) is the most effective weapon in counteracting Aridnyks plots. It is Alay that shakes the mountains and hurls lightning bolts at them. One of the most popular tales from the Bible is the one about Solomon the Wise, and so many of Hutsul tales begin with Once upon a time, the sagacious Solomon Among the Hutsul tales we find one about unicorns who were not allowed to come on board Noahs Arc  those antediluvian unicorns had horns branched similarly to deers antlers. Has this tale been prompted by a find of the bones of a pre-historic animal?

In the Hutsul mythology, nothing comes into being from nothing or disappears without a trace. Aridnyk who emerged from the foam on the waves of the primordial waters is an active evil force ever present in Hutsuls life. It is Aridnyk who causes wars and little  and not so little  mishaps in the home. His evil helpers are legion  didky-shcheznyky (little so-hard-to-see devils); yudnyky (devil-deceivers), forest maidens called nyavky; and human-shaped, horrible-to-behold hairy forest monsters (the way the Hutsuls describe them suggest some similarities to Yeti, the Abominable Snowman).


Lizhnyk  blanket par excellence

Lizhnyk is one of those things which are peculiar to the Hutsuls and their handicrafts and are not to be found anywhere else. It is a sort of a blanket, or a wrap, or a rug made of sheep wool. The Hutsuls invariably add an adjective when they speak of lizhnyks  samoridny, literally self-born, that is, occurring naturally, found in nature rather than created. However, they are handmade and the process of making them is time-consuming and laborious.

Lizhnyks are woven by hand on the loom with the yarn spun from sheep wool. When the lizhnyk is ready it is put into a valylo  a sort of a Hutsul washing machine. Valylo is made like this: a hole is dug at a convenient place in the water close to the bank of a mountain stream, or a natural slough is deepened. Then a wheel, similar to the one used in water mills, is fixed in the hole. The wheel churns water and the lizhnyk stays in the valylo until it becomes compressed almost like felt.

After the lizhnyk reaches the proper condition it is pulled out and dried. The wool is backcombed to form nap. And it becomes a perfect blanket to hide under in the coldest of winter. They say that it even helps to keep illness at bay. Lizhnyks are also used as rugs laid on the floor at home or in church. Before the worshippers enter, they take off their footwear  I saw it in a church in the town of Yavoriv, the centre of Hutsul lizhnyk-making.


Hutsul seasons

The weather in the land of the Hutsuls is not too kind to them. They say, when asked about the warm season, that it lasts from Ivan to Petro and Pavlo  that is from the feast of John the Baptist (which coincides with an ancient pagan feast of Ivan Kupaylo) to the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and it is only about a week between them in midsummer. It is a bit of exaggeration, of course, and the warm season lasts longer. In Hutsul villages, the houses stand wide apart, and in winter, you would think twice before undertaking a trip to your neighbour. At night, people stay put at home. If you venture out, you run a good chance of coming face to face with a wolf  or with a nyavka, a forest maiden with a gorgeously beautiful face, very small feet and a seductive voice, who is prowling through the woods, lurking in the thickets, waiting in ambush for a Christian to pounce on him and take away his soul. Nyavka is beautiful only from the front  there is no skin or muscle on her back with all her entrails and skeleton visible. Nyavka is an embodiment of the Hutsul male assessment of the female dualistic nature.

The old Hutsuls like to tell stories about encounters with nyavkas, in which their grandfathers or great-grandfathers, or young men whom their relatives of only three generations back knew so well, were greatly tempted but managed to survive and save their souls from being taken away from them  or failed to resist the temptation and perished. If you dont have any garlic or odelen-zillya magic herbs on you, and if you dont build a fire and start fervently praying the moment you hear nyavkas deceptively sweet voice calling out to you, youre sure to succumb to her lure  and then youll wander in the woods until you die and nyavka will snatch your soul from you right at the moment when it is departing from you.

The Hutsuls have their own way of keeping time. When you ask an old Hutsul when he or she was born, they will tell you  On Ivans feast or On Petros feast, or Before Christmas, or After Easter, and if you persist, and ask, Which year?, theyll tell you, Before the first war (meaning WWI), or Right after Austria fell apart, or Soon after Poland came into being, or Right then when the grandpa was drafted. And it is not because they really have no idea what the generally used calendar is, but because they have their own ideas about what time is. The movement of time is marked by important  from their point of view  events: When the storm knocked down that great tree; When Ivan got married; When the church was consecrated, and so on. The major Christian feasts mark the change of seasons.



A week before Christmas, the Hutsul women begin tidying and cleaning up their houses and the yard and whats in the yard. When everything is washed, scrubbed and properly arranged, then comes the time of cooking  twelve dishes are an absolute must for Christmas dinner. Kalachi and zavyvanyky (sort of cakes) are baked; mushrooms, fish, varenyky (stuffed dumplings), holubtsi (meat in cabbage leaves), uzvar (soft drink made of dried fruit), stewed cabbage and beets are among the traditional dishes, but these days youll more often than not see a herring bought at the local store on the festive table rather than fish caught in the nearby mountain stream. Fish that were abundant in the mountain streams a hundred years ago have become scarce. Also, if in earlier times all the food was cooked at home, these days some food, particularly deserts, is purchased in stores.

Nevertheless, the fundamental traditions remain inviolate. After attending the service in the local church, the Hutsuls proceed to the cemetery carrying candles which were lit in the church. In most cases, the cemeteries are situated quite close to the churches. The candles are then put on the graves  the flames of hundreds of candles in the quiet of the cemetery, fiery reflections dancing on the high snowdrifts in the frosty, clean air under the bottomless, black sky, studded with stars, the dark silhouettes of the mountains, is a sight that leaves no heart untouched. The Hutsuls believe that at that time the souls of the dead visit the houses of their descendants.

At Christmas-eve dinner (called Svyat-vechir  Holy Night), the Hutsuls put a bit from every dish on the table into a big bowl for their ancestors to try the dainties. This bowl is then taken around the house and to the barn to treat the sheep and the cow and the fowl to the festive meal (but you must not offer it to the swine and dogs). After that the bowl is placed on the windowsill and it stays there as long as the holiday lasts. A similar tradition was observed among the ancient Scandinavians, Galls, Goths and other European peoples.

After the prayer which all the family joins in, a spoonful of kutya, the holy dish of boiled rice, wheat, raisins, honey and other ingredients, is thrown in the direction of the stove  like a millennium ago, it is done for ensuring the well-being for the household, and only then the family sits down to dinner, with a festively decorated ever-green tree symbolizing the eternal life in the corner. The twelve dishes on the table symbolize the twelve months of the year, in which the sun is born, comes to its ripe strength, provides for the bountiful harvest, gets tired, grows old and dies to be born again for a new twelve-month cycle.

Christmas dinner is a purely family occasion with no guests invited but if anyone happens to wander into the village, they will be invited to join and partake of the meal, and will be offered to stay the night. Nobody must be alone on Christmas night, no matter what his or her circumstances are, and the Hutsuls, in addition to offering hospitality, usual for the people living in the mountains, behave like true Christians in this respect, and offer the warmth of their hearts and of their homes to those who need them.

At the midnight hour, when the night of death and rebirth begins moving towards the morning, with the sun preparing to ride the mighty horned bulls towards the summer, the forces of evil begin to scamper away and hide  they leave the people, their houses, their cattle, their fields alone making way for the Glad news. And then the really cheerful holiday begins. Little kolyadnyky  children who join kolyaduvannya  sing Christmas carols, Hutsul style, going from house to house, wishing well and receiving presents. They bring the news about the birth of Jesus Christ the Saviour to every house. Handfuls of wheat seeds are thrown around  for a good harvest.

After the morning service, the priest blesses the grown-up kolyadnyky and encourages them to start the singing and merry-making. Each group of kolyadnyky (locally called parties) first go their own way and then all of them join together and go around the village knocking at the doors, singing Christmas songs and congratulating people on the birth of Christ. It is called kolyada, the Word of God to be heard in every house.

The village of Kryvorivnya is famous for the largest number of kolyadnyky who put on their best dresses to show off the richness of their design and decoration. They are also reputed to know more kolyadky songs than kolyadnyky elsewhere. Kolyaduvannya is an ancient tradition symbolizing the unity with nature, reflecting Hutsul mythology and religion and linking the ages  the past made ever-lasting present.


Natalka Kosmolinska tells a story

of age-old Hutsul traditions and Christmas celebrations

Photos by Roman Shyshak

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