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Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine Features: Ukrainian Folk Customs and Rites

Marko R. Stech (Toronto)

September 2013

The Ukrainian folk culture displays a particularly rich array of customs, ritual actions, and verbal formulas belonging to the traditions of familial, tribal, and folk life and connected with the changing seasons and the resulting changes in agricultural work. These customs and rites are regulated by the folk calendar and are often accompanied by magical acts, religious ceremonies, incantations, songs, dances, and dramatic plays. They arose in prehistoric times and evolved through the centuries of Ukrainian history, blending in many cases with Christian rites. With the spread of modern civilization and urban culture, the folk customs and rites in Ukraine have been greatly transformed. Soviet efforts to eradicate them have not succeeded.

In 1970s and 1980s an increasingly persistent effort was made to revive folk rites, particularly in the family and communal sphere. Believers continued to practice the folk customs and rites of the Christian calendar, particularly those of Christmas and Easter, but the country people were turning to ancient folk customs and rites such as New Year’s rites and its special carols (shchedrivky); spring rituals and songs (vesnianky-hahilky); the procession of nymphs (mavkas) and Kupalo festival, which are associated with harvest celebrations (obzhynky); wedding rites, with their ritualized dramas; celebrations of birth, involving godparents and christening linen; and farewells to army or labor recruits. These customs and rites, like the Christianized customs and rites, are steeped in tradition and are tied to ancient ancestral beliefs, symbols, and images…

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FOLK CUSTOMS CONNECTED WITH BIRTH. Such customs have survived since ancient times. When a child was born, a ritual nativity banquet was held. The church tried to suppress these feasts for many centuries, but they have survived with all the old folk rituals. When labor began, the husband summoned a midwife. On entering the patient’s house, the midwife bowed 30 times and performed an introductory ritual while uttering her prayers. A godfather (kum) and godmother (kuma) were invited for the baptism. The newborn infant was carefully protected from all kinds of evil by being kept behind a veil, out of sight not only of strangers but even of family members. The baptism was a ritual salvation of the infant from the forces of evil. Forty days after birth the mother submitted to a cleansing ritual, and the child was admitted to the church: the mother brought the infant to church and waited in the women’s vestibule until after the cleansing prayers were read over her. A year or more after birth the child underwent a ritual haircutting. All the customs surrounding birth originated in pre-Christian times but were assimilated by the church…


SPRING RITUALS. Traditional folk rituals practiced in the spring, from the equinox (20-21 March) to the summer solstice (21-22 June). Originally these rituals were believed to possess magical powers that ensured a bountiful harvest and fertility in domestic animals. The ritual cycle began with the rite of provody (bidding winter farewell and welcoming spring), just before the beginning of Lent. Winter was usually personified by minor deities (Kostrub, Morena, Smertka, or Masliana) effigies of which were burned or drowned ceremonially. Spring was personified by a young girl crowned with a wreath and holding a green branch in her hand. She was the central figure in the ritual games, dances, and songs (vesnianky-hahilky). The arrival of migratory birds signaled the beginning of the spring festival called Stricha (from ‘greeting’). On the Feast of the 40 Martyrs (22 March) bird-shaped buns called zhaivoronky (larks) were baked and tossed into the air by children and told to bring spring with them. The largest number of agrarian rituals was designated for the Lenten period and Easter, including the ritual first sowing, the first release of livestock to pasture, and the decorating of fields and farmhouses with green branches (Rosalia)…

KUPALO FESTIVAL. A Slavic celebration of ancient pagan origin marking the end of the summer solstice and the beginning of the harvest (midsummer). In Christian times, the church tried to suppress the tradition, substituting it with the feast day of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (24 June), but it remained firmly part of folk ritual as the festival of Ivan Kupalo. Kupalo was believed to be the god of love and of the harvest and the personification of the earth’s fertility. According to popular belief, ‘Kupalo eve’ was the only time of the year when the earth revealed its secrets and made ferns bloom to mark places where its treasures were buried, and the only time when trees spoke and even moved and when witches gathered. It was also the only time of the year when free love received popular sanction. On the eve unmarried young men and women gathered outside the village in the forest or near a stream or pond. There they built ‘Kupalo fires’–a relic of the pagan custom of bringing sacrifice–around which they performed ritual dances and sang ritual songs, often erotic. They leaped over the fires, bathed in the water (an act of purification), and played physical games with obviously sexual connotations…

WEDDING. In Ukraine the traditional wedding was a well-planned ritual drama, in which the leading roles were played by the bride and bridegroom, called princess and prince, and the other clearly defined roles (matchmaker, groomsman, bridesmaids) by the couple’s parents, relatives, and friends. The wedding combined the basic forms of folk art–the spoken word, song, dance, music, and visual art–into a harmonious whole. It was reminiscent of an ancient theatrical drama with chorus, whose spectators were also actors. The rituals date back to pre-Christian times (traces of matriarchy, the abduction of the bride) and were influenced extensively by medieval practices (ransoming the bride, simulating a military campaign, the fighting between two camps, addressing the guests as princes and boyars, and the church ceremony). The ceremony included traces of ancient customs, which had lost their original, mainly magical, significance and had become mere play. Gradually the church ceremony assumed the central role in the wedding. The traditional Ukrainian wedding usually took place in the early spring or the autumn and lasted several days…

HARVEST RITUALS. Folk rituals dating back to ancient times and marking the opening and closing of the harvest period. These ceremonies were characterized by a sequence of magical rituals that interacted with natural processes and phenomena. The spiritualization of nature was at the essence of these rites, which could influence critically the fate of the harvest. Zazhynky marked the commencement of harvesting and took place at the end of June or the beginning of July. In the morning, all the reapers went into the fields together. The master or village elder took off his hat, turned to the sun, and uttered a special incantation requesting the fields to surrender their harvest and to give the reapers sufficient strength with which to gather it in. Then, the mistress or a woman reputed to be lucky cut the first sheaf of grain, which was called voievoda. In the evening, the voievoda sheaf was brought to the master’s house and was placed in the icon corner where it was to stand until the end of the harvesting. Obzhynky marked the end of the harvesting, usually at the end of July or the beginning of August, and was associated with an array of customs and rituals…

BURIAL RITES. The ancient burial rites of the Ukrainian people were based on various folk customs and beliefs. The body of the deceased was washed, dressed, and placed on a bench under a window, with the head towards icons and the feet towards the door. As long as the deceased remained in the house, all work ceased, except that required for the funeral. The house was not swept during the funeral proceedings. The body was carried to the grave feet first, and the mourners followed, to prevent the deceased from ‘seeing’ them. The coffin was knocked against the threshold three times so that the deceased might bid farewell to his or her home and not return. Kolyvo–cooked wheat or barley covered with honey–was carried in front of the coffin in the funeral procession and was always the first course of the funeral meal. The ritual was accompanied by wailing and lamentation. Following the requiem, the ‘final embrace,’ a formal leave-taking of the deceased, took place, after which the coffin was lowered into the grave, in a position so that the deceased faced the sunrise. Those people who were directly involved in the burial purified themselves by washing their hands and touching the stove before sitting down to dinner…


The preparation, editing, and display of the IEU entries about Ukrainian folk customs and rituals were made possible by the financial support of the PETER SALYGA ENDOWMENT FUND at the CANADIAN INSTITUTE OF UKRAINIAN STUDIES (Edmonton, AB, Canada).


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