Holiday Traditions

Easter – The Resurrection

Referred to by Ukrainian Catholics as “The Resurrection of the Lord”, the most joyous day of the Ukrainian Catholic calendar begins with a pre-sunrise Resurrection service. The Service is conducted outside the closed doors of the church in symbolic reference to Christ’s closed tomb. Traditionally, on Saturday there is a midnight Divine Liturgy where the entire congregation leaves the church, and marches in procession around it three times, holding candles, carrying church banners, and singing “Khrystos Voskres (Христос Воскрес: Christ is Risen). During Lent the church has been shrouded in black; while the congregation is marching, the black cloth is removed and the church is filled with colors and flowers once more, to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection.

The priest knocks on the door in the sign of the cross and the faithful triumphantly sing the resurrection hymn “Christ is Risen” “Khrystos Voskres”. This is a victory hymn as it proclaims Life itself conquered death.

After Divine Liturgy, the Easter food baskets are blessed.

For Ukrainians, Easter is a harmonious blend of cultural practices and religious observances. Some of the customs now observed derive from Christian practices, and some from the pre-Christian days. Our ancestors celebrated the coming of spring and the sun in springtime. Thus, there are ancient and deeply ingrained traditions incorporated into the present-day Byzantine liturgical form of worship. For this reason, the Feast of the Resurrection abounds with various religious, semi-religious, and cultural rituals.

The triumphal jubilations of Easter Sunday in the Ukrainian Church are aptly matched by the reality of new life in springtime after the short days and dormancy of winter. This new life is expressed in the traditional “pysanky” or Easter eggs. In the Pre-Christian era in Ukraine, these eggs represented the new life of springtime. With the advent of Christianity, these eggs became the symbol of Christ’s Resurrection.

On this great day also, spring rituals were performed with songs and dances called the “hayilky” or “vesnyanky”. But the prime item was and is the Paska – the ritual meal consisting of the contents of the Easter Basket blessed on Holy Saturday. The ritual meal begins with the reciting or singing of Easter Grace. The family then takes one of the blessed eggs and divides into sufficient pieces for all members of the family to partake. Prior to eating the egg the Head of the Family greets all members with “Khrystos Voskres” and the family responds “Voistino Voskres”. The family then sits and partakes in the Easter Meal.

The Blessing of the Baskets

The blessing of the baskets is traditionally done on the Saturday before Easter. The Ukrainian Easter basket is the pride and joy of the family. People judge the mistress of the house according to the way her Easter basket looks, what it contains, and how it is decorated. A willow basket is lined with an embroidered cloth and is filled with a sampling of Easter foods. The Easter basket should contain:

  • Paska (Ukrainian Easter Bread)
  • Pysanky
  • Krashanky (dyed hard boiled eggs in a variety of colors, but there must be a red one)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Butter (often a butter lamb)
  • Lard
  • Cheese
  • Horseradish
  • Ham (or other smoked meat)
  • Salo (pork fat)
  • Kielbasa (sausage – a small ring)
  • Various seeds (e.g. sunflower, poppy)

Thomas Sunday

On Easter Sunday a round loaf of bread (called the Artos – the symbol for the bread of eternal life) is covered with a metal plate bearing an Icon of the Resurrected Christ and is blessed following the Divine Liturgy. The Artos is reserved on the Altar for the entire week. On Thomas Sunday (the Sunday following Easter) the Artos is cut into small cubes and distributed to the faithful following the Divine Liturgy.

Following the Diving Liturgy on Easter Sunday, the parish gathers as family and partakes in a symbolic Easter Dinner called Spilne Sviachene (or blessed meal) and is comprised of the same food which was blessed on Holy Saturday.

Ukrainian Christmas

Christmas is one of the most cherished celebrations that the Ukrainian people celebrate. Christmas celebrations begin on Christmas Eve, December 24 (as per the Gregorian Calendar), which is a day of vigilance, prayer and fasting. The entire family is involved in the preparation of the traditional Christmas Eve Supper (or Sviata Vechera – literally “Holy Supper”).

When the first star in the eastern sky appears, it marks the beginning of the ancient and memorable rituals. The father of the home may bring in the “Didukh” (Grandfather Spirit) – a sheaf of wheat wrapped with an embroidered towel – which is placed under an Icon in a place of honor in the home. The decorated sheaf of wheat – a symbol of the harvest – symbolizes the ancestors of the family. There may be spread a thin layer of hay on and around the table, which is then covered with a white embroidered tablecloth. All this is symbolic of the manger in which Christ the Savior was born. At the center of the table, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, are three round “kolachi” (braided loaves of bread). In the center of the loaves is candle which symbolizes Jesus Christ as the Light of the World. The entire family gathers by the table and the head of the family leads in prayer – usually the singing of the Nativity theme. After this he greets the family with the traditional Christmas salutation: “Christ is Born!”. The family responds, “Let us glorify Him!”.

Everyone then sits down to partake of the Holy Supper, which consists of twelve meatless dishes. After all the preparations have been completed, the father offers each member of the family a piece of bread dipped in honey, which had been previously blessed in church. He then leads the family in prayer. After the prayer the father extends his best wishes to everyone with the greeting “Khrystos Razhdayetsia!” “Christ is born!”

The twelve dishes honor the Twelve Apostles as they gathered for the Last Supper. The first of the twelve courses is “Kutia.” The ingredients of which are wheat, honey, poppy seeds and nuts which symbolize the fertility of God’s nature. Kutia is assumed to symbolize prosperity, peace, and good health. The order of courses, and even the courses themselves, are not uniform everywhere, for each region in Ukraine had its own traditions and were subject to the ingredients available to it. However, the following are commonly served: borsch, fish (served in different ways), holubtsi, pyrohy, mushrooms with sauce, stewed dried fruit; pastries and the like. After the Holy Supper the family joins in singing of Christmas carols. Later in the evening the whole family goes to church for the service of Great Compline with Litiya.  This is the very moving and unforgettable service where one hears sung majestically, “God is with us.” At about midnight, the solemn Divine Liturgy is celebrated; it forms the kernel and crown of the entire Christmas celebration. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful approach the altar for myrovania (a blessing with Holy Oils).

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