The prehistoric holiday of Christmas

Carolers in a Ukrainian village on Christmas Eve. Art by Natalia Kurij Maksymiv

Carolers in a Ukrainian village on Christmas Eve. Art by Natalia Kurij Maksymiv 

2016/01/07 • Culture

As Orthodox Christmas Eve approaches on January 6, Ukrainians worldwide prepare for their Sviatvechir (literally, “Holy Supper”) 12-dish meal, and groups of carolers set out to sing koliadkas, Christmas carols, some of which span back many thousands of years. Despite years of state-enforced atheism during the USSR, Christmas traditions in Ukraine were not all lost. In its entirety, the Ukrainian Christmas is a mystery of actions, foods, songs, and recitations, gathering the living and dead around a ritual meal that once celebrated the birth of the world at the winter solstice, and now honors the Birth of the Creator of the world.

Read more: A Night of Faith: Ukrainian Christmas Eve

Отець Ксенофонт Сосенко

Fr. Ksenofont Sosenko (1861-1941)

After 988 AD, with the adoption of Christianity by the Kyivan Rus, the medieval kingdom that spanned over modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and West Russia, the Church strategy for dealing with pagan culture was either to prohibit the old rituals (this was mostly ineffective, as it was ineffective later on in Soviet times), or to keep the form, replacing the meaning. Yet it was a Ukrainian Catholic priest that would piece together remnants of old beliefs to reconstruct the Ukrainian pre-Christian Christmas, or Koliada, and to find universal human values in the pre-Christian religion of Ukrainians. His comparison of rituals scoffed away as “primitive” by his contemporaries with cultures ranging from the Middle East to Oceania was too revolutionary to be fully appreciated during his time, but led to one of the most remarkable books  in the history of Ukrainian culture – “The cultural and historical figures of the ancient Ukrainian holidays of Christmas and Shchedryi Vechir.” Some of his findings are shared below.

Ancient Christmas-Koliada is a celebration of the birth of the world

Most Ukrainian carols (koliadkas) that are sung on Christmas refer to Christian themes of the Nativity, some connect Christ’s coming to the world with His imminent crucifixion, but the oldest ones are full of symbols and stories that bear no resemblance to Christianity. It is from these songs that Ksenofont Sosenko reconstructed the celebration of the birth of the world, observed in many cultures around the winter solstice. One of the most well known carols is “Oh, how it was before all time,” recorded in Hruzke village of Kyiv Oblast. 

Ukrainian carol “Oh, how it was before all time”
Oi, iak zhe bulo izprezhdi vika
Oi, dayi Bo[h].
Oh, how it was before all time
Oh, God, let it be [refrain repeats after each line]
Oi, yak ne bulo neba i zemli
Oh, when there was no sky and earth
A tilky bulo synieie more
When there was only the blue sea
Na tomu mori horily ohni
Lights were burning on that sea
Kolo tykh ohniv sydily sviati.
And the holy ones were sitting near the lights
Radiat radonku, koho v more poslat.
Holding a council as to whom to send into the sea
Oi, poidy, Petro, po more na dno
Oh, go; Peter, to the bottom of the sea
Ta dostan Petro zhovtoho piska
And retrieve, Peter, some yellow sand
Ta posiiemo po vsomu svitu,
Let us sow it all over the world
Shchob urodylos nebo i zemlia
So that the sky and earth would be born
Nebo zoriamy, zemlia kvitamy
The sky – with stars, the earth – with flowers
Performers: V. Oparienko (born 1922), M.Mashovets (1921), K.Mashovets (1929), O.Pihur (1913), N.Moholivets (1914), R.Tsirul (1929). Recorded by ethnomusicologist Hanna Koropnichenko and published in the album Korovai – Traditional music of Ukraine.

These oldest “world-creation” koliadkas (carols) either depict the precise moment of the creation of the world or scenes from the first days of the newly-created earth. Drawing on the astral, solar, and lunar symbolism of prehistoric times, some of them indicate the dependence of everything in the world on its “Creator,” while others are limited only to pronouncing God’s name and could be inserts from later Christian times. None of them depict the creation of the world in Biblical terms; neither do they repeat the dualism of a Good and Evil God of the legends of the Middle East – the Creator of Ukrainian koliadkas is a benevolent spirit which is served by other subservient, benevolent spirits.

Each year at Christmas, Ukrainians sing their most ancient myths of the creation of the world, its Creator, and the lives of the first people in a continuous oral tradition from prehistoric times. The pre-Christian holiday of Koliada, celebrated at the winter solstice before it was transformed to Christmas, is a holiday of the mystical birth of the world. 

Read more: The Unknown Ukrainian Carol that everyone knows

Pavuky (“spiders”), ubiquitous Christmas ornaments made of straw that were hung to the ceiling before Christmas Eve and stayed there for a year, swirling from movements of air, suggesting that the world could have been born the same way as a spider spins her web, creating intricate ornaments out of nothing.

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The ancient Christmas Eve as the great gathering and social ideal

A family sitting down for their supper on Sviatvechir

A family sitting down for their supper on Sviatvechir

The culmination of Christmas Eve on January 6th, or Sviatvechir, “Holy Supper,” is a supper of 12 vegetarian dishes, initially symbolizing 12 months but now referring to the 12 Apostles, which gathers the whole family and epitomizes popular shared subconscious ideals and dreams. The whole family, near and far, must gather at that supper, and every family of the people and all the people of the nation take part in it. Under fear of losing God’s blessing and family connections, every Ukrainian tries to be present at the Holy Supper, and the whole family sees to it that nobody is missing. Doors of the household were open for the lonely, sick, and poor on this day. On this day, the skies opened and the souls of dead family members were also present at the holy supper, and food was left especially for them.

This compulsory gathering reveals itself as one of the most important national traditions – the idea of the ultimate and all-encompassing family and tribal assembly. Such a convention is imperative for the survival of all primal tribes, as it unites them for the purpose of self-preservation; here, in the course of millennia, it became unwritten law.

How can humans achieve happiness? According to the mythology of the holy evening and the koliadkas sung during it, it’s easy: find yourself a pair, give birth to children, live in familial love and harmony, and honor your predecessors. This is the social ideal, the transcending human essence and purpose. It is repeated in every second koliadka: the groups of carolers will knock on the door of a family sitting down to their supper to address each member and wish them well-being in songs comparing the father to the moon, his wife to the sun, and their children to stars. The harmonious family on earth is a reflection of the celestial ideal. 

On this day, not only humans but all of nature is united in joy for the creation of the world. And thus the father of the homestead heads to the farm animals to give them extra food and thank them for their faithful service. In the mystical hour before the creation of the world, each of God’s creations – people, animals, birds, even flies – rejoice and thank Him for their lives. The very idea of the ancient holiday of Christmas lies in the explosion of life and happiness, and in the necessity to involve all living things in it.

The skies open and God Himself will come to the Holy Supper

Oksana Arhipova. Carolers in Zakarpattia.

Oksana Arhipova. Christmas in Zakarpattia.

The whole spirit of the Holy Supper is centered around the touching belief that God Himself will pay a visit to the homestead.

In preparation for this beloved and long-awaited guest, the koliadkas urge the family members to lay the best tablecloths, even tapestries, and to lay the best foodstuffs. There will be a special visit today: three holidays will come: Christmas, St.Basil’s day, and Epiphany. Or God will come, with His Holy Mother, or St.Peter, or with the celestial triad. The manifestations may differ, but the essence stays the same: on this day, the skies are open, and the Creator Himself will visit his own people, bless them and protect them from evil.

The imminent coming of the Savior from the sky is a belief shared by many ancient cultures, especially by those of the Middle East, and one that influenced pre-Christian beliefs of Ukrainians, as reflected in these old koliadkas. The power of this popular primitive image of God is so strong that even today, the image of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world is secondary in them. It is a typical manifestation of the God of people of nature: with unclear personal traits, but still the highest entity and Lord of the world, which helps His people and partakes in their lives. He is awaited for as a dear family member, the most beloved and respected of the kin.

The Christian idea of the birth of Christ comes to fertile ground

It is in this complex of ancient beliefs about the joyous creation of the world and anticipation of a visit by the Creator Himself that Christianity found fertile ground. Indeed, the Christian idea of the birth of the Savior of the world reinforces and completes the old faith of Ukrainians in the coming of the Creator that will bless His people. Both ideologies today are intertwined: popular belief has masterfully combined the primordial song of the Universe with jubilant songs about the birth of the Savior Jesus. The celebration of the creation of the world is finalized by celebrating the birth of the Redeemer of mankind.

Let the celebrations begin! As you sit down to your supper with your family, you hear voices outside your door – carolers have come, bringing good tidings and wishes. Perhaps they will sing the most widespread Ukrainian koliadka as well as Pikkardiyska Tertsiya:

Dobryi vechir tobi, pane hospodariu
Good evening to you, good host
Raduisia! Oi raduisia, zemle,
Syn Bozhyi narodyvsia!
Rejoice! Oh rejoice earth,
The Son of God is born!
Zasteliaite stoly ta vse kylymamy,
Lay tapestries on your tables,
Tai kladit kalachi z yaroi pshenytsi
And place cakes from spring wheat
Bo pryidut do tebe try praznyky v hosti:
Because three holidays will come visit you
Oi shcho pershyi praznyk – Rozhdestvo Khrystove,
And the first holiday is the birth of Christ
A druhyi vzhe praznyk – Sviatoho Vasylia,
And the second holiday is St.Basil’s day
A tretii vzhe praznyk – Sviate Vodokhreshcha.
And the third holiday is Holy Epiphany

 

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  • Marika Kurylo Shmotolocha

    Great explanation of our traditions . However you refer to Christmas Eve as December 6th in one place, you probably meant January 6th.

    • Oleksandra Shandra

      thank you for pointing it out!