Autumn folk traditions
[b]Belarusian folklore is based upon the cyclic nature of the seasons and of human life; each period has its own unique face. Winter brings Christmas while spring symbolises the awakening of nature; summer is a time of rich colours and lush growth while autumn has its own mellow pleasures and the joy of harvesting… [/b]“Since the dawn of history, Slavs have compared grain harvesting with a battle, such is the amount of physical and mental effort required. This is evident in folk songs and stories,” explains folklorist and ethnographer Yelena Dovnar-Zapolskaya. One harvest song, once popular countrywide, tells us: ‘Yesterday, we had a war and we mastered the whole field’.Ms. Dovnar-Zapolskaya, which harvesting customs were most popular?Harvesting began with the custom of ‘covering the field’. The youngest daughter-in-law of the family, dressed in festive clothes, bound the first sheaf and threw it upward, saying: ‘I’ve covered the field for good harvest. My God, let our wheat be good’. The fertility of the young woman was thought to mirror that of the field.
“Since the dawn of history, Slavs have compared grain harvesting with a battle, such is the amount of physical and mental effort required. This is evident in folk songs and stories,” explains folklorist and ethnographer Yelena Dovnar-Zapolskaya. One harvest song, once popular countrywide, tells us: ‘Yesterday, we had a war and we mastered the whole field’.
Ms. Dovnar-Zapolskaya, which harvesting customs were most popular?
Harvesting began with the custom of ‘covering the field’. The youngest daughter-in-law of the family, dressed in festive clothes, bound the first sheaf and threw it upward, saying: ‘I’ve covered the field for good harvest. My God, let our wheat be good’. The fertility of the young woman was thought to mirror that of the field.
Imagine a golden field filled with women wearing white scarves around their heads. Only their eyes would remain visible. Belarusians have always honoured and continue to honour their traditions. Even in the most terrible times, such as during the war, ‘dozhinki’ customs were organised in the partisan zone of Dzerzhinsk District, following the rituals of our ancestors. People sang songs ‘so that the whole field rang’ and appeased the field’s ancient spirit, so that it would remain fruitful. A wonderful woman called Maria Fendyukevich, from the village of Chiki, once told me that she lost her 16 year old son Nikolay in a partisan brigade. Women who had lost loved ones would no longer sing, being ‘enfolded in silence’. However, Maria decided to sing a harvesting song because bread was vital for victory; she sang for that for which her own son had given his young life.
Songs rang out over the fields: verses and melodies combined and significant. Each possessed sacred power, thought to frighten away evil spirits from the fields and the life-giving bread, imbued with protective magic, like a talisman.
The custom of ‘bearding’ was also common, whereby a handful of ears was curled into a circle and left in the empty field. Anything needing to be weeded underneath could not be touched with bare hands and an offering of bread and salt was placed in the middle on a white cloth. People then bowed deeply three times to the field and earth, showing their respect. The ears were later plaited into a wreath and decorated with flowers, to be hung in the house’s red corner — under the icons.
Once the harvest was complete, sickles were wrapped in grass and straw before being bowed to deeply. The harvesters would then lie on the ground and ask: ‘Field, field, give me back my strength…’ That time of great effort was finally over.
August is considered to be a month of toil while September is a romantic month. In fact, the Belarusian names for the months remain, each connected with the seasons and man’s labour: revival, renewal, flowering and withering.
Ms. Dovnar-Zapolskaya, why is modest heather honoured with the name of a month?
Belarusians are primarily ‘sober-minded and practical’ people, although we’re especially concerned with home life. However, heather touches our soul with its wonderful tender mauve flowers. Few other flowers or bushes can rival its mention in literature. Mean-while, the soil beneath the plant (called ‘heather earth’) becomes more acidic, suitable for azaleas, camellias and orchids.
Historically, heather was used in Belarus to decorate houses and outbuildings. Even the horns of cows were entwined with heather for Maslenitsa and it was used to decorate special round bread loaves for weddings (known as karavai).
September in Belarus is truly a ‘velvet’ season, in which we enjoy festivals. Which of these most spring to mind?
Ivan-Kalinnik is a rather wonderful festival; our ancestors used to cook arrow-wood jelly on this day for good health, believing that it helped rid headaches. Skilful housewives would make jams and marmalade from arrow-wood while ‘kalinnik-pies’ were baked in eastern regions. Arrow-wood is often mentioned in Belarusian stories as being used to cure erysipelas, psoriasis and other skin disorders. People have long been aware of its curative benefits, revering it highly and comparing its snow-white blooms with a young bride. On the day of Ivan-Kalinnik, heavy bunches were hung to dry. In fact, the Belarusian colours of red, white and black are combined in arrow-wood.
It was perceived as a marginal and border plant, connected with definite stages in human life. Wedding songs and romantic ballads speak of it as a symbol of transition for a young bride, who joins the ranks of married women. In one Belarusian ballad, a young bride having sent ‘her beloved Yaska to war,’ succumbs to her mother-in-law’s anger, being turned into an ‘arrow-wood growing in the meadow’. When the son returns home, his mother suggests that he cut the arrow-wood but his wife’s voice calls out to him, explaining that she is trapped within the plant, alongside his children.
Vladimir Mulyavin once recorded the song, sung by a folk choir; it’s kept at the Institute of Arts, Ethnography and Folklore. It encapsulated the spirit of his folk song programme. He was astonished by its beautiful verses and melody.
In autumn, Christians celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross — one of the most significant church holidays. It coincides with the autumnal equinox, so is surrounded by folk customs.
Such days in Belarus are called ‘stavrovye’ — from the Greek word ‘stavros’, meaning cross. Those who worked in the fields had already gathered the harvest; grain was in the barns and beetroot, potatoes and carrots were dug, while onions were hung to dry (usually in the kitchen) for later use as an antiseptic — naturally killing bacteria.
Autumn brought rain and cold and, after the Exaltation, the temperature would fall. The earth was preparing for winter. Beetles and spiders, lizards and snakes were thought to come out from their hiding places on the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross to warm themselves in the sun one last time before the first frosts arrived.
Snakes have special significance, don’t they?
In ancient times, grass snakes were permitted to live in people’s homes, often under the stove. Even today, they’re often called ‘damaviks’ (house spirits in Slavic folklore) in Belarusian Polesie, being seen as protectors of the home. Housewives would leave milk for them and those which lived in cowsheds suckled from the cows; it was actually thought to make them more productive. Some grass snakes were allowed to eat with the children! In big families, the children usually ate separately from the adults, as described by Yakub Kolas in his ‘New Land’ poem. They might hit the grass snake with a spoon, but it didn’t take offence.
Grass snakes would warn of forthcoming trouble, often of fire, leaving the house if they sensed foreboding. Of course, they also ate small rodents, which was certainly useful. In fact, the number of mice was thought to determine the prosperity of the home; plenty of mice must mean that the house was full of food! When a family was in true poverty, people would say: ‘even the mice have gone’.
It was considered a great sin to kill a grass snake or a stork, thought to incur the wrath of higher forces. On the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, people would endeavour to avoid the forest and would prohibit their children from straying far, as it was easy to accidentally step on a grass snake. The first (spring) and the last (autumn) bites of a snake were thought to be the most dangerous. Gates, cellars and barns were closed up, preventing snakes from skulking in to hibernate for winter. However, according to another legend, those unafraid of going to the woods on such days might meet the ‘Tsar-serpent’. He was large and silver, with golden horns on his head (sometimes called a golden crown) and was thought able to transform into an extremely handsome and courageous young man. Anyone who met him was advised to kneel, spreading a white flax rushnik. He would then toss his crown directly onto the cloth, rewarding the person’s courage and would instil great wisdom and knowledge, easing the person’s path through life. The beneficiary would be able to read others’ thoughts and understand the language of all plants and animals.
‘Be healthy as an orange milk mushroom growing in pine wood’
Autumn is a traditional time for markets; what were these like in bygone days?
The day and time of the market were determined in advance, so villagers could plan their journey with their goods. Everything was offered: matured calves, fat ducks, geese and turkeys, pigs, hens and roosters. Heavy heads of white cabbage and ‘serka’ dark cabbages pleased the eyes, as did golden bundles of onions and tight bunches of garlic. The last small cucumbers would be on sale, alongside sweet-scented ‘antonovka’ apple, ‘Slutsk bery’ and pears (with red skin and flesh, they were tenderly called ‘panenki’). Eggs were sold in sets of 60 — known as ‘kapas’ — and vegetables were in abundance. Naturally, forest mushrooms were also popular: salty porcinis, orange-cap boletus and tender, sweet orange milk mushrooms (now very rare). People would say: ‘Be healthy as an orange milk mushroom growing in pine wood’. There were also plenty of cranberries — the most ‘Belarusian’ berry, both useful and delicious.
We have the saying: ‘Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched’. Hens, geese and ducks were bred widely and, on October 25th (St. Martin’s Day) geese were slaughtered in all rural households. They are extremely useful birds, being both tasty and nourishing, while having soft feathers and down which can be used in pillows, quilts and mattresses. Even today, young brides are traditionally given a dowry of a pyramid of goose down pillows, which are placed on the bed. The smallest pillow at the top of the pyramid is tenderly called ‘Yasik’ — designed for a new baby.
Geese are also connected with water and are associated with the creation of the world in myths and legends. Like all birds, they are perceived as intermediaries between this world and the next, able to bring news ‘from there’. On dying, a person travels the ‘goose road’ or ‘the road of the birds’.
Meanwhile, in wedding songs, girls who lead a young bride to her bridegroom are compared to ‘gusachki-galubachki’ (gaggles of geese). In well-known fairy tales, geese and swans’ feathers have magical properties, saving characters from angry witches. When the feathers are thrown, the character can fly home. We respect geese and cherish them but, when the time arrives, roast goose is extremely delicious.
Markets also saw a parade of craftwork, with true masters bringing their hand-made items.
Everyone knows that markets are not just for shopping, as people love to meet friends, swapping news and having a drink.
Exactly. People used to discuss who had married a particular man from a neighbouring village and who had gone to live with the bride’s relatives, who wanted to marry their beloved daughter or son or where to build a strong house. Visitors often gathered in the taverns and only the most delicious dishes were offered at that time.
As far as drinks were concerned, people preferred ratafia liqueurs and spirits to vodka. There were so many varieties, each full-flavoured and, even, good for your health. Birch buds and sap were used as ingredients, alongside currants and cherry buds and leaves, lemon balm and peppermint. Raspberry stems added a deep terracotta colour, like that of cognac, while juniper berries turned the drink into gin. Ashberry ratafia was somewhat bitter but exquisite to the taste; a plant called nosebleed added a blue colour. Some ratafias were prepared exclusively for women.
Popular dishes often included the use of white cheeses, slightly salty and served with caraway seeds. You could bake the cheese with eggs and sour cream, although it was good as it was. ‘Vyandlina’ (delicately smoked ham), flavoured sausages, ‘draniki’ potato pancakes, rye pancakes and those made from curdled milk (with spring onions added) were all widely eaten. Paper thin pancakes were also loved, often with cottage cheese.
Borshch (red-beet soup) was rich tasting, like red wine, and ‘ushki’ ravioli with mushrooms were also popular. Another well-loved soup was made with stewed cabbage, while thick mushroom ‘poliuka’ soup had milk added — similar to French julienne.
Chicken thighs were stuffed and baked until crisp, whole hens were stuffed with onions and salo pork fat before roasted and served with unsweetened red bilberry jam or horse radish, beet-root juice and sour cream. Men would hide money from their wives (often called ‘zakhalyauniya’ — as it was hidden in their boots or cap or under the thick corded ribbon of their hat); they’d then take this to the tavern for a few drinks. However, it was considered obscene to drink too much, so people retained control of themselves. It was a golden rule to respect yourself.
By Galina Ulanskaya