From Darkness Into Light | Winter Festival Notes from a Carpathian Village

By Peter Straton Bejger, for Kosmos Online

“Before there was a heaven or an earth
There was only the blue sea
And in the center of the sea stood a green tree.
And on this green tree sat three doves
And the three doves deliberated
And deliberated as to how the earth should be created…”

-Traditional Ukrainian winter song, from
Still the River Flows: Winter Solstice and Christmas Rituals in a Carpathian Village

ksingKoliada is a winter song ritual now associated with Christmas, but very much older in its origins and symbolism. The oldest songs are preserved in the villages of the Hutsuls, Ukrainian pastoral highlanders who live in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine, where Koliada is considered to be the most important event of the year. Koliadnyky, or winter song performers, are regarded by their fellow villagers as symbolic representatives of the ancestors who descend to our earthly realm during the winter solstice to facilitate the transit between seasons and to insure the natural order. Spring and the harvest will not return to the village unless the songs are sung in every household. The songs are in effect incantations that assume magical powers: “what is said, will be so.”

New York theater director and writer Virlana Tkacz discovered the koliadnyky in the village of Kryvorivnia (“Crooked Valley”). Her book Still the River Flows offers an intimate and highly engaging portrait of the entire winter ritual. In accordance with the Julian calendar of Eastern Christian tradition, the Hutsuls, like other Ukrainians, begin Christmas Eve celebrations on January 6. On the eve of Koliada, the villagers celebrate with a ritual dinner of twelve courses without meat or dairy. Kutia, wheat berry porridge with honey and poppy seeds, is considered the oldest ritual dish and the food of the ancestors. Kutia opens and closes the feast and the sweet dish along with a sheaf of wheat is placed in a “sacred” corner of the dwelling.

However, before the gathered family and guests can begin the meal the household animals must be fed first. Legend holds that they can speak at midnight and complain to the Almighty if they are ignored. The head of the household must appease as well other forces and attempt to diminish rural terrors. Sorcerers, thunder, lightning, and hail in addition to wolves, bears, and foxes are invited to the meal. They are called down three times and if they decline to appear, they are banished for the year. The lost spirits of those who travel a lonely road, and those who were injured or passed away are also cordially invited. A special place is always set for these spirits at the table and the food is left overnight in case they visit late.

The next day the koliadnyky musicians all gather in a circle around the village church and sing one song together. The gathering splits into groups, each with a singer and fiddler. Their distinctive musical instruments reflect the folk heritage of the region. The trembita, or Carpathian mountain horn, is made of a hallowed pine tree that has been struck by lightening and wrapped in birch bark. Fiddles for the koliada are played in a special tuning. The musicians also play bagpipes made from a goat, the hammer dulcimer, jaw harps, and hand-made flutes. The groups circumnavigate the church three times to create a wondrous cacophony of their signature songs before they peel off to visit every house in the village.

The koliadnyky climb steep mountainsides and trudge through deep snowdrifts over the next twelve days to visit every household. Each visit to a home can last from four to six hours or more as an elaborate and choreographed array of winter songs is presented. Outside the house, the musicians blow the mountain horn and inquire if the master is home. Once admitted and invited to sit at a long table laden with food, winter songs are performed to the master, the lady of the house, the young man and young lady of the residence, and other family members. There is a song dedicated to bees and the bounty they bring.

Songs to the master reflect wishes for prosperity through hard work while those to the lady of the house praise her skill and diligence. Songs to the young man depict courage and strength, while those to a young woman are about a great beauty capable of magic, as when “a fine young lady named Yaryna” gathers peacock feathers to turn into a wreath that is carried by the wild wind to three fishermen who are granted their rewards.

The several hours of singing conclude on a solemn note with a song for deceased members of the family. A braided loaf and three candles are placed on the table and bells are rung. The spirits of the deceased help forge a community and protect the family. A taking leave song and the ples, a winter dance performed outside the house, conclude the visit.

After twelve days of singing—and feasting—the koliadnyky once again gather at the kchurchchurch. In Ukraine Epiphany is celebrated twelve days after Julian Christmas and is related to the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. The priest leads the entire community in a procession down to a frozen river or pond and gathers around an opening cut into the ice. Crosses from the frozen ice are constructed. The priest blesses the water by dipping candles and a cross into the river. In a nod to pre-Christian myths, the priest then blows into the water. The ancestor spirits invited to the ritual meal on Koliada Eve have been sent away. The villagers take home containers of blessed water to use on special occasions. The heavens have been closed, and the winter songs cannot be performed until next year.

UC Berkeley music professor and choir director Marika Kuzma, who hosted and performed with the koliadnyky, underlines the pre-Christian nature of the Ukrainian Epiphany carols. Cryptic and mystical, spare yet evocative, the lyrics depict how falcons fly onto windowsills or barn swallows onto fence posts. Sheep roll over each other and young men saddle up their horses. Ancient creation myths abound as we have seen with our deliberating doves.

For our modern world, Tkacz and her Yara Arts Group have continued exploring the Carpathian divine and adapting its mysteries for secular audiences through theatrical performances. From one such performance, the celebratory mountaineer ode to the annual mystical rebirth of a bountiful world from the frozen depths of winter rings out:

Through the mountains, fields and meadows,trees
still the river flows.
Send your voices in a song,
still the river flows.
When horns sound in the mountains,
still the river flows.
Let us sing a winter song.
still the river flows.

Still the River Flows and the CD Koliada: Winter Songs and Music from the Carpathians can be ordered from www.brama.com/yara

Peter Straton Bejger is a writer and filmmaker in San Francisco who lived in Ukraine for a decade.