Christmas in Old Belarus
Christmas in Old Belarus
Kaliady was the original 'Christmas' in Belarus. It was a celebration of the goddess Koliada, a sky goddess who would made the sun rise, as she was pursued by the goddess Mara who represented winter and death. This was a pagan festival for the renewal of the sun after the winter solstice, when day was at its shortest. For these naturalistic people this was supposed to be the struggle of the forces of light over dark and life over death. On the 24th of December the sun would become victorious and the days would get longer. All rituals at this season were to ensure a good harvest.
In this period for the pagans of Belarus, the 18th of December through the end of February, the God of the underworld, Veles, was also celebrated. At that time they thought with the increasing darkness that the borders between the living and dead were weakest.
Working on Christmas and two weeks afterward was forbidden. It was thought that any work with curves; sewing or twisting, would result in animals or children born with deformations. Nothing could borrowed as this would result in a shortage of that item during the year. Special cakes were baked for the holiday.
Straw was very important. Toys and ornaments were made of it and it was placed on the dinner table under the cloth and on the clean floor for protection from evil spells. Straws were also drawn to see who would live the longest. This Christmas hay would then be fed to the cows and sheep to bring them fertility and health and also protection from witches. Rituals were preformed to assure the prosperity of the family as well as protection from evil spirits and bad luck.
For twelve days they would sing, tell the future and play games. Young girls looked in a series of mirrors to see who they should marry. A rooster eating corn would predict the next to be married. Near the grain the women could put a mirror and bowl of water. If the rooster looked in the mirror he predicted a handsome spouse, if he drank the water he would be a drunkard.
There were three ceremonial meals. The first meal was called thin kuti or Lenten, eaten on Christmas eve. That meal was meatless, though fish and eggs were allowed. It began when the first star came out. Numbers were very important in Belarus and the number of dishes was either 3, 5, 7, 9, 12 depending on the wealth of the family. These numbers determined success, happiness and good luck. In one corner they put a last harvest sheath of rye to assure a good harvest in the coming year.
Fish was served. Mushrooms soup was obligatory as it symbolized juices of the earth, awakened by the sun. Eggs were served to represent fertility. There were two types of baked pancakes to symbolize the sun and all life, and the triumph of the day overnight. The rest of the meal; rye bread and blini, peas and turnips and carrots and cabbage soup was typical but not symbolic. For sweets there was kisel which was fruit and berries in potato starch and they drank harelka or Belarus vodka. The last dish was kutsia, served at all three meals. It had to have the same number of grains and be cooked in the same pot for each meal. It was prepared before the sun set in the eastern corner, where the icons were placed. This porridge was pearl barley symbol symbolizing life as the grains from which it were made could be stored for a long time but still revive; with honey symbol of organization and hard work; poppy seeds symbolizing productivity; flavored with nuts and raisins. The master of the house tasted it first. A spoon of this was put on a plate in pagan times as an offering to the god of winter Zuzia. Well cooked, it guaranteed a good barley harvest.
It was a custom in some areas to offer the first spoon to the god of frost so that crops and garden vegetables did not freeze. In other areas the pot of kutsia was taken around the house three times and then the father would knock saying God promises a wet spring and rich fall.. Flax was pulled out from under the table. If it stretched long there would be a good harvest that year. Many stars that night would predict many mushrooms that summer. If it snowed the bees would swarm. Oats were boiled and fed to horses the next morning to make them as fast as the bubbles. It was an agricultural world.
On the first day of Christmas groups of singers dressed up called Kalladavanne would go from house to house. At each house they were to be given sweets, money and sausage type snacks in a bag to “feed their goat”. They were dressed as animals. Goats meant a harmonious family, good luck and prosperity. The horse symbolized the peasant and also the soldier. Bears were the symbol of Veles and the underworld. Storks symbolized a masculine beginning. Finally the sun symbol, often carried by the others, was also a beginning but feminine. The group would also include musicians. Being happy and generous to the singers on this holiday would assure a good year.
At that time being married was very important. In the morning or evening of the Christmas day girls would go to a crossroads with a little food. The dogs would bark in the direction her future husband would take to their home. Or girls would stand at a cross road at midnight and ask the name of the first stranger they met, which would be his name. Young men and women hugged a fence and if they counted an even number of fence posts in their grasp they would marry in the next year.
The second meal was called “rich” or “fat”. The evening before the feast a beautiful girl was selected to represent the festival. There was much more divination of future spouses again on this, the new year. A girl could listen in on the conversations of neighbors; if the house was talking quietly, married life would be good but if they fought there would be trouble. A stone in a well that was quiet would indicate a good and quiet man, if it made a large splash then the man would be loud and angry.
Before the holiday there was the winter solstice ritual slaughtering of a pig. In pagan times the slaughterer would say "so do not be angry Kalyada but give to all a good harvest, and to the cattle plentiful issue." Pork was the center of the meal. Pigs were considered a symbol of fertility.
The meal consisted of raw pork sausage and smoked goose breast. Pancakes were served with a topping of meat. Wild boar sausage and a mutton were served. There were also dumplings filled with ham and cheese. The sweets were candied fruits and barley with honey, poppy, milk and dried fruits. The meal was symbolic of wealth in the coming year. Kutia porridge was served again, this time with butter and fried bacon A part of this meal was saved to be given to the ancestors.
Traditionally children would go into the house the nest day with bags filled with grain. They would sprinkle them around while singing songs to make the crops grow.
The last meal at the end of the holiday on January 6th, the Epiphany. It was all salads, aspics and other prepared 'cold' foods. This was considered another 'thin' or 'water” as they called it, a Lenten meal. There had to be an odd number of dishes served. These were made of berries, game and salads of meat including goose and lamb, tongue and bacon with horseradish sauce.
Holy water was taken to the church and then sprinkled on the barn and house. Crosses were drawn on the ceilings and walls; and candles were burned to protect the family and house from evil. A torch made from a cross was put in the oven, and this was put into water on the second day.
On this night many stars predicted a good harvest. If there was a thaw on the road buckwheat would grow, if there was frost on the branches there would be a good harvest. A blizzard would predict good nuts, berries and mushrooms.
On January 13th and 14th there is now a second Christmas eve. This was the date of the old New Year before the calendars were Westernized. A huge meal would be served of mushroom soup, pickled apples, pork, meat from the pigs head, eggs, and buckwheat pancakes and of course kutsia. Twelve courses were set.
The Belarus were an agricultural society and their customs remain so. It was a very ancient celebration of the winter solstice; a time of year when very little could be done other than pray for protection, a good harvest, many animals and a good marriage, long life and health.