A Ukrainian Easter
Chernivtsi, March, 2010
The first promise of spring came with groups of women in boots and thick coats huddled at street corners, selling tiny bunches of snowdrops and frail, wild crocuses, stems wrapped in their dark green leaves and tied with a thin thread.
But the snow continued to fall. Followed by the inevitable thaw with its frozen slush, streaming gutters and giant icicles falling with a crash from eaves and balconies to shatter on the pavement. Then snow again, its big fat flakes settling on my collar, in my hair, on the robed shoulders of the archbishop’s statue in the cathedral garden, drifting through the streets and onto roofs, softening the city’s contours.
Until one morning I woke to bright sunshine and clear blue skies, opened the door onto a balcony miraculously clear of ice and snow. I checked the thermometer. The temperature had shot up to 18C. The air was warm, caressing.
Out and onto the streets, where people no longer hurried by heads down, wrapped against the cold. Young women shed of their winter furs and boots, strolled by, their long legs on full display in short skirts, some with bare midriffs. And prams, whole battalions of them, pushed by mothers, fathers, grandparents, bringing baby out for its first airing. Young lovers occupied benches which for so long had been covered in ice. Beside them groups of babushkas in slippers and thick, rumpled stockings, and old men with their caps and their wry, lined faces; all drinking up the sun.
Now that the snow and ice had gone the streets were a grim grey, the buds on the trees still tightly closed, the earth dry and tired. In the gardens of Theatre Square groups of women were bent over spades, digging and turning over the soil, whilst all over town there was a sudden buzz of activity. Carpets were hung out on washing lines in courtyards and gardens, sparkling clean windows thrown open to let in the fresh spring air.
At school most of my students and colleagues were either fasting or on a diet and all the talk was about about making a trip to the bazaar – the huge, sprawling Kameninsky market on the outskirts of town. For Easter was fast approaching and with it, so they told me, the tradition of wearing a new set of clothes on Easter Day to celebrate this moment of rebirth and new beginnings.
And before I knew it March had almost gone by and we were into Holy Week, or Willow Week as it’s known in Ukraine, a time of preparation and purification when the whole house has to be cleaned, the village houses whitewashed, gardens planted, in preparation for Easter, the most important festival of the year.
It begins with Willow Sunday and the ceremony of the blessing of the willow, a practice stemming back to pagan times when the willow with its healing properties was a holy tree and one of the first in Spring to show signs of life; when people believed that by tapping each other with a freshly blooming willow branch they could draw upon its energy and strength.
There was no sign of tapping at church that morning, simply an enormous crowd of people, everyone clutching pussy willow branches and pressing forward into an already packed church. Once inside, squeezed like a sardine and peering over a sea of shoulders, I could see nothing of the ceremony. But the singing was sublime; as one voice emerged, strong and deep, rising with an ever-increasing sense of urgency, till at its peak it melted into a sea of harmony, one with the rich, sonorous tones of the choir.
Then, abruptly, service over, the congregation turned and I was carried with them, as inch by inch we shuffled and stumbled our way out into the pouring rain.
The girls in my English classes told me that they were making pysanky, the beautiful traditional painted eggs for which Ukraine is famous. Decorated with stylised symbols from Nature they were said to contain powerful magic, a protection against evil and natural disaster. Once they were painted by women only, in secret, when the children had gone to bed. For centuries the tradition was handed down from mother to daughter, only to be banned as a religious practice under the Soviet regime. It was the Ukrainians in the Diaspora that ensured its survival. I know that my grandmother took the skill with her when she emigrated to Canada.
Now the girls have lessons at school in dyeing and decorating pysanky. In the weeks before Easter you see these decorated eggs everywhere. They come in many colours – orange and red, yellow, green and deep blue. Often the patterns are geometrical or with spiral motifs, but there are also motifs of birds, flowers and animals. One I saw was encircled with a chain of young women dancing. Pysanky represent the gift of life.
On the evening before Easter Sunday, they’re placed in a wicker basket of food, which is taken to the midnight mass to be blessed. In my cousin Masha’s basket, they lay together with the traditional assortment of food: baked ham, smoked sausage, horseradish, butter, sweet cheese and rye bread, all covered by a white embroidered cloth. And a paska or Easter bread, a round, sweet loaf, decorated with motifs of crosses, plants and flowers to celebrate nature’s rebirth.
Masha explained that the paska must be made with great care. When preparing the dough and during the kneading you must keep your thoughts pure and the whole household quiet to ensure the bread rises. No-one, not even friends and neighbours, are allowed to come in during its baking lest they make a sudden noise or cast the evil eye and it comes out flat.
We arrived at the cathedral about an hour before midnight. Masha gave me a candle from her basket, then we both put on our scarves and joined a throng of women jostling to get in through the door. Inside they parted to leave a clear passage down to the altar, placing their baskets on either side of the aisle ready for the priest’s blessing. We stood on the cold stone floor one with the crowd of worshippers as the deep voices of priest and choir intoned the solemn liturgy. The sequin-sewn white scarves of the congregation glimmered and glittered in the soft candle light, while over their heads in the shadows near the altar hung the life- size figure of Christ on the Cross surrounded by a mass of deep red carnations.
A stirring, a murmur of expectation. Heads turned as men entered carrying banners. Masha, checking her watch, muttered that it was already gone midnight. We stood waiting patiently as the priest continued his incantation. Suddenly all the chandeliers went on in a blaze of electric light. Red letters spelling CHRISTOS VOSKRES, CHRIST IS RISEN flashed above the altar. A procession of nine priests resplendent in white and gold followed by the choir led us out of the cathedral, the bells pealing wildly. Our candles lit, we circled the cathedral three times singing, stopping every so often to roar out a reply to the priest’s call ‘Christos Voskres, Voistinu Voskrese,’ ‘He is indeed risen!’
At six in the morning my husband Jaap and I joined Masha and her family as they broke their fast. All the food from the basket, which had been blessed by the priest at the cathedral, was spread out on the table. We each had a krashanka, a hard-boiled egg dyed red, with which we went into a battle to crack everyone else’s. It was Masha’s husband Vasili who came out victorious, egg intact, his face creased into a big smile. As we drove back home through the early morning mist, the streets were still full of people carrying home their baskets and flickering candles; the aim being to bring the flame safely home and with it to trace a figure of the Cross on the lintel of your house. Mine had gone out in a gust of wind within minutes of leaving the cathedral.
Later in the day the mist turned to bright sunshine. The unpaved road to Vasyliv, my grandmother’s village, was shiny with puddles and mud. Fields stretched either side of us empty and grey, but in the village the freshly dug earth in the gardens was a rich, dark brown, covered here and there in a haze of green. We arrived to the clanging of bells, passed a group of boys pulling and swinging from the ropes in the small bell tower by the church gate.
We found Bohdan, my Dad’s cousin, in his garden, smart in a bright blue shirt that matched the colour of his eyes. Behind him the two-story redbrick house stood newly plastered, gleaming under a coat of white paint.
‘Welcome to the White House!‘ he said with a grin.
Released from weeks of fasting , he was in fine spirits. He told us we’d just missed the big meal with all his family. But no matter, the table was filled within minutes by Nelya, his wife, bringing dish after dish as Bohdan reached for the vodka bottle with a cry of ‘Cossack!’
It was time to move on. Vasylina sent a message she was waiting for us. Yet another member of my large Ukrainian family, she lives just across the dirt lane from Bohdan’s house. We found her stretched out on the bed under a red woven coverlet. Next to her a table spread in our honour with hard-boiled eggs, potato salad, smoked sausage and a large jam jar of home-made raspberry juice. Struggling out of bed, she reached for her stick and stood before us in all her Easter finery—a shiny, gold blouse and bright floral headscarf. She insisted on serving us, hobbling back and forth from the kitchen with plates of borsch made with vegetables and nettles plucked from her garden.
Then a phone call from Masha asking us to come to her father Georg’s house. We arrived to find Masha with her parents, Vasili, their son Pavel, and Masha’s brother, all bunched together on two beds around a small table, which was crammed to overflowing with dishes of rich, home-grown food. Vasili told us that he was going steady on the vodka as he was saving himself for the next day,‘Wet Monday’, when he and his friends would hit the streets to douse the women passing by with water. Yet another old custom rooted in pre-Christian rites of purification and rebirth, and one which, according to Masha, is practised with an unbridled enthusiasm.
‘Never mind’, she said, ‘on Tuesday it’ll be the women’s turn’.
She described to us how, when she was young, on Easter morning, she and the other village girls would dance and sing in front of the church. Round and round in a circle they’d go in imitation of the movement of the sun, to encourage the earth to bring them a plentiful harvest.
Masha invited us to come back to the village the following weekend to share in the family’s honouring of their dead. It’s part of the ritual of Easter when for nine days the spirits of the ancestors are believed to return to earth. Families gather at their graves where they eat and drink together, so that the dead too may take part in the celebration of Easter; the idea being that the ghosts of the dead are always with us, that the border between life and death is as permeable as a cloud.
Driving out of Chernivtsi towards my family’s village we saw heaps of plastic purple and pink wreaths for sale at the side of the road. People were walking along the verge with these large wreaths slung over their shoulders or on the handle bars of their bikes. We stopped at a large cemetery outside a village where so many wreaths had been laid or propped against headstones you could hardly see the graves. Between them, wooden tables and benches had been set out as for a party. The sky was sullen with dark clouds threatening rain, the cemetery empty, except for a man and a woman and two children who were sitting at a table next to their ancestor’s grave, quietly eating and drinking. Out of respect we kept our distance, but immediately they spotted us they sent over the young boy with a paska and a pysanka. The bread was ornamented with a cross made of dough, the four arms curved at their tips as if about to spin into motion—an ancient symbol of the sun, the seasons, the wheel of life.
The cemetery in Vasyliv is quite different to the one we’d just visited with its trimmed grass and shiny headstones engraved with life-like portraits of the deceased. In Vasyliv the cemetery lies at the centre of the village, a large field full of stone crosses, many of them ancient, some all but toppling over in the long grass. All was quiet, the cemetery nearly empty.
We trudged through the mud and wet grass in search of Masha and her family. She’d promised to take me to our great-grand-parents’ graves and say some prayers for them on my behalf. We found her at the edge of the cemetery with Vasili, their son Pavel, and Vasili’s mother. They were gathered round Vasili’s father’s grave. His mother was in tears. Vasili came to us and solemnly handed us a paska, an orange and some chocolates in memory of his father.
The spot where my great grandparents lie buried is marked by two stone crosses. They stand side by side, leaning slightly towards one another, not far from a border of tall, sheltering trees. My great grandmother Vasylina’s cross stands on the left, and on the right, that of my great grandfather, Vasil. Their surfaces are so worn that it’s impossible to trace an inscription. The arms of each cross are faintly decorated with flower patterns and at the centre of Vasil’s, still clearly engraved, is a wreath of flowers, symbol of Mother Earth.
Masha and I stood silently at the graves of our great-grandparents. It started to rain. We returned to her parents’ house, where Georg and his family were waiting for us to join in yet another feast of food, vodka, laughter and celebration.
When we left, Masha gave me one red carnation. It had been blessed in a service of remembrance of the dead, the village ancestors. It hangs now, dry and drained of colour, at home, above my desk.
Amsterdam, April 2022
My thoughts are constantly with my family and friends in Ukraine. It’s three years now since we last saw them. First Covid, now the invasion by Russia. I keep in touch with them mainly by WhatsApp:
From Tanya, my friend and ex-colleague at the language school in Chernivtsi: ‘Sorry for not writing for a long time. Sometimes I don’t know what to answer to the question how we are. Compared to the eastern part of Ukraine we are fine. But it’s not a proper word. We are alive. But it’s so painful we can’t even think of anything else. You know Chernivtsi is the safest place right now but who knows for how long. We have many refugees from other regions, People live in schools and sleep on the floor in corridors and everyday more and more people are coming. Prices go up. No pills in pharmacies. We are all waiting for the end of war very much and praying for Ukraine.’
24th April, Ukrainian Orthodox Easter Sunday.
In response to the Easter e-card that I send out with our greetings, I receive photos from Vasyliv: a cherry tree in blossom, lilies, daffodils, deep red tulips. One look and I’m there, back in Bohdan’s garden. A stray chicken scuttles across the path, a cat’s stretched out on the doorstep next to the usual array of mud-caked shoes and wellington boots. And here’s Bohdan at the gate, ready to greet us with a triumphant ‘Christ is risen‘, arms held out to enfold me in a big hug.
And from Masha and Vasili:
‘Thank you. We love you. We hope all will be well and that we’ll see each other soon’. With the message came an e-card of an egg painted yellow and blue, the Ukrainian national colours. The egg is decorated with a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak. It’s framed by sunflowers and a bright, shining sun. Above, in Ukrainian, the text, ‘Christ is risen! ‘Ukraine will rise!’, in the hope of a peaceful future for her now war-torn country. AQ