Easter in Old Belarus
Easter in Old Belarus
There were many more holidays in 17th century Belarus than there are now, and they were more elaborate. It was an agricultural society and these holidays marked the seasons for planting and reaping. These occasions include Christmas on the winter solstice, Easter which was the vernal equinox, Day of the Dead on the autumn equinox, and Ivan Kupala Day, which was the summer solstice. There were many more lesser occasions. Most of these holidays have pagan roots.
Easter was the most important holiday from the pre-Christian era on. In pagan times it was a feast day of the sun god. This 'holiday' was at the junction of winter and spring. Originally it was the start of the new year, the onset of a new birth of the agricultural calendar. But in 565 the Church subsumed the holiday as the date of the resurrection of Christ and 500 years later they arrived in Belarus.
The holiday was celebrated around the spring equinox, at the end of March. It marked the beginning of the planting season. All planting began after 40 nights free of frost. The Christian celebration of Easter following the 21st of March after the first full moon. However it was called the resurrection of Christ.
Many pagan elements remained. The week before celebrating Easter the house and yard were to be completely cleaned. Tables, benches, windows, ovens and floors were washed. All the utensils and mattresses in the house were purified. This cleaning was to provide protection for the family from evil spirits.
On Thursday before Easter, after cleaning the house on the last two days, the body was cleaned in the tub. Food was prepared as Saturday night approached; bread, pies, sausages, bacon, sour creme, cottage cheese and both cooked and painted eggs. Easter day no fires were to be lit in the oven. Long ago this was to honor the god of lightening. No one was to fight during the whole of Easter. This was to honor the same god, though later it was for Christ. It was thought that to fight would bring bad luck on the whole village.
The Belarus have been famous for their Easter eggs since long before Christ. Evidence of this and the baking of special cakes, was excavated from their ancient burial sites. Their eggs were dyed with onion peels and the bark of willow trees, until they were red. The eggs were thought to have magical powers thereafter to protect from witches who lay buried in the fields and pastures and would arise at the first furrow or grazing of livestock.
Fires were lit in the village on Easter eve, and people called out 'Christ is risen” at midnight. This was supposed to wake up the birds and bees of spring. Children put branches through the house for the birds. Not only was this the cry at the start of Easter but neighbors commonly met one another throughout the holiday saying “Christ is Risen”. The recipient would reply, “He is Risen Indeed”; then they kissed. If the greeting was not answered it would bring misfortune down on the village. It was the one time, in those centuries past, where men could kiss strange women on the cheek. This was shocking to European visitors.
Everyone who was able, then went to midnight mass. The service took four hours. Special Easter black bread and dyed eggs were brought to the church where they were blessed.
Then the people went home in the wee hours, and the celebrations began with breakfast. Eggs were eaten to start the Easter holiday. The meal that was served then had vodka and all the many dishes they had prepared for Easter; including a bowl of holy salt and cheese, cottage cheese with sour cream, bacon, roasts, sausages, and pies. It was supposed to be a feast.
After eating the huge meal, the old people went to bed. The rest of the family went outside to celebrate. Young people took the red eggs outside to play games. These lasted almost all Easter week. The most popular game was 'battle' where Easter eggs were knocked against one another. The winner was the last one that did not break, named the winner or fortress; they also played on swings and played other games with the Easter eggs in which they were rolled down a slope and hidden.
One Easter egg was put in front of an icon. It was supposed to contain magic powers and to destroy it was bad luck. The shells of the first egg eaten along with the tablecloth from the Easter meal were buried in a field. The bones from the meal if buried in the field with the salt and and bread, kept crops from hail and storms. The alcohol from the crops of these fields protected the family from sorcerers.
The family would then watch the sunrise on the first day. If the sun rose rose with many colors it would be a good summer. Everyone would wash in clear spring water which had an Easter egg or a gold or silver object in it, to be healthy and clean all year. The older people would comb their hair asking God for as many grandchildren as they had hairs.
The young girls would find out if they were to be married or not that year by jumping successfully or unsuccessfully over a sled. The livestock, house and outbuildings were sprinkled with water to bring them divine blessings. Those who were awaiting a calf would have the woman cross the threshold of the house the calf if they wanted a female. The house would be blessed so there would be no snakebites that summer.
One of the oldest traditions was that of Valachobny. The villagers gathered in large groups of 10-20 people on the second day, and wandered from house to house and singing Easter songs. These songs were from pagan days and were wishes for health, happiness, many farm animals and good crops. There were also old songs about the sun, spring and the coming heat. The singers were given eggs, cakes and drinks.
A cool wind during this day meant there would be many fruits that season. Lots of wind meant a bad yield that summer. Rain meant there would be many more days of bad weather that season.
On the fourth day candles would be lit in the church, protecting the crops from summer hail.
During the entire week charity was to be given to the poor, crippled and elderly. To treat them badly or to ignore them, was a sin. There was to be no stitching or weaving by the women during the week. Men could not chop with an ax, make fences, scandals, or make blades for sleds.
Anyone who died at this time was supposed to go straight to heaven, even if they had sinned in their life. The graves of dead ancestors were visited by family and they left some Easter eggs, food and drink.
There were other traditions. In some areas the women wore wreaths and burned them at night to protect the men from evil spirits. These were said to capture men and tickle them to death. Men were supposed to use great caution in walking alone through the woods or swimming that week.
Then the planting could commence. The summer solstice or Ivan Kupala Day, would mark the transition to harvesting.