It would be too simple to say that Christmas came once and for all to Belarus from the Western Europe, America together with McDonald’s and Santa Claus not long ago. Fashion is indeed a very influential lady. Even the Chinese cannot stay away from European trends and white-bearded St Nikolas is almost part of the everyday life in the swarthy-faced Celestial Empire.
But Belarusians did not let an alien tradition into their heart. They’ve been celebrating Christmas since times immemorial. There are even songs about St Nikolas, who became secular Father Frost or Zuzya — the so-called god of New Year, for Zuzya means nothing other than cold and frost. Over decades historic collisions just turned Christmas into a “secret” private ritual.
Nowadays nothing can prevent people from expressing their emotions.
Besides, in Belarus Christmas is a twice splendid holiday. In our Orthodox-Catholic country the holiday is celebrated twice — on December 25 and January 7. Besides, New Year is greeted with “cheerio” twice as well:
January 1 and January 14 (according to the Julian calendar that the Orthodox still keep faith in). So Christmas merrymaking is expanded to an entire month.
However, there is another explanation to the “expansion”. Along with being twice Christians, Belarusians remain slightly pagan. The characteristic is not offending. Contrariwise, adherence to old traditions has not been frowned upon yet. So, while celebrating the birth of a new god on December 25 or January 7, Belarusians pay tribute to old deities as well, though they do not remember the names.
Kolyady is the Belarusian name for Christmas carols. What Kolyady is, whence the word derived, nobody knows for sure. But it is an old and good tradition.
Christmas and Kolyady kind of compliment each other. Though celebrated simultaneously, they do not compete, but peacefully share the holiday season evenly.
A visit to the cathedral or the church is a ritual observed on the Christmas night or in the morning. Attending the service is not compulsory, it’s what the heart makes you do. At least, I haven’t met those, who would regard a visit to the temple as a military drill. Nobody pushes people to visit the temple. But on these days the number of believers visiting cathedrals and provincial sacred places makes me wonder how many people believe in wise, kind, eternal truths propagated by these temples. Those expecting to see old women and curious tourists in the temples are gravely mistaken. I myself noticed both in the capital city of Minsk and in Grodno Region the majority of the visitors are far from being the older generation. More and more young people come to the church.
Young people understand the holiday in their own way.
In the family of a friend of mine Christmas is celebrated for the fourth time. Since the parents entered the wedlock in a temple. Officially they’ve been married for over twenty years. Suddenly they decided to strengthen their relations before the altar, since the couple can be named ideal without exaggeration. This is the family, the cell upon which the Belarusian society stands. A visit to the temple is not just an expression of one’s personal religious feelings but participation in the life of the society surrounding you.
They live in the very centre of the city. In an ancient street named Rakovskaya. Temples cannot be avoided here. There are several churches and cathedral, each more than a century old. The place is sacred for Minsk.
Therefore, after visiting St Virgin Mary Cathedral in the Upper Town on December 25, the family will for sure visit Orthodox St Peter and Paul’s Cathedral in Nemiga on January 7 of the new year.
In the evening when all close relatives gather for kutya (boiled rice with raisins and honey) and ritual dishes appear on the table, they will remember their ancestors.
Everything is very simple.
Children will go for a walk in the frosty snow while adults will switch on TV. It will be something from the new era. From the common day life. But the holiday atmosphere will stay in the house for long. Stay as memories of a good quality time with people one haven’t seen in ages, memories of how delicious the dishes were, for they’d been prepared together. One of the elders brought a village pie with poppy-seeds, crushed in an ancient mortar, left from the pre-war times, a gammon, a goose. The grandfather also brought the major thing — a liqueur made using berries collected in the forest, not bought in the shop.
The usual city flat would smell of forest, earth and land of fathers. The fatherland, the village we left behind when we came to the city.
Nevertheless, holiday goes on. There are enough reasons to go to the countryside on the weekend. Kolyady is not a momentary festive affair, it is an important part of the year when we bid farewell to the waning life and greet new one, hoping, of course, for the better. Believing in a peculiar chance that would turn our life to the sun, spring. Which won’t keep us waiting. After all, the day becomes longer after Christmas and life has more light and joy.
To amplify the feelings, one can recall ancient customs. People used them to thank the land and sky for lucky chances and called for more blessings.
Ancient Belarusians had the first or grand kutya on Christmas. They ate only lean meals, but exceptionally good ones. Herring, vereschaka made of herring and onions, pancakes, dishes made of mushrooms, boiled fruits, oats kissel, generally, every thing was useful and tasteful, though modest. Although one could hardly stay hungry after such a meal. Kutya, porridge with honey and poppy-seeds crowned the meal. In many places across Belarus hostesses would improve the taste with nuts and raisins.
In the old times New Year was a continuation of Kolyady – the second kutya. There was a lot of dried, smoked, boiled, and fried meat at the table on the day. Due to the abundance of food the New Year’s evening was named generous, meaty, fat, or rich. Kutya itself was dressed with butter and honey. Besides games, stories told at the table, songs and round dances our ancestors favoured various kinds of fortune-telling.
The third kutya was celebrated on the Orthodox Christmas and was named “fast”. Frost was invited to seat at the table. Everyone tried to please frost for him to make winter less cold, spring — warm, harvest — rich. If the weather next day was warmer, people believed frost enjoyed his stay.
Kolyady celebration ended after January 20.
Bright festive garlands and small green or silvery fir-trees decorated with toys and torches disappeared from shop shelves, there were no more ads calling to attend Christmas sales in boutiques and supermarkets, baby Christ no longer greeted people on the threshold of churches.
The holiday was leaving. But the memories of it always lasted till next Christmas, New Year. While good mood people got into in the middle of winter would keep them warm till spring thaws.
by Alena Nekroshevich