Favourable time to learn about one’s future destiny

Belarus began celebrating the New Year a century ago, with Kolyady being the major holiday just beforehand. Ethnographer, writer and Rector of Belarus’ Culture Institute, Ivan Kruk, tells us about Belarusian customs and traditions
By Victoria Dorokhova

Belarusians began to celebrate New Year only in the early 20th century, since our grandparents focused on Kolyady — which coincided with the turn of each new year. “No fixed date is attached to the origin of this holiday,” admits Mr. Kruk. “Sadly, we have little historical information.” 

Koliva and mushroom kvass
Kolyady is a two week holiday with its own starting point and culmination. A festive ritual dinner is at its heart, since a richly laid table brings likelihood of a similarly well-provided year ahead.  We say: ‘The New Year will unfold as it’s met’. Twelve dishes are offered, representing the 12 months and 12 constellations. Among them, it’s usual to find mushroom and red bilberry kvass, cranberries, sausages, pancakes, machanka (meat stewed in broth and eaten with pancakes) and saltison (pork stomach stuffed with chopped meat).

Lean koliva has always been the main dish to ‘open’ the holiday, cooked in a clay pot. It’s made from oat or pearl barley — with honey, poppy seeds and dried apples and pears. The first spoon is traditionally put aside for those who have died and then all the family begin. 

A-shroving is the usual entertainment on the second day of Kolyady — or on the night of January 13th-14th (also known as Generous Koliva). Villagers walk about in clothes turned inside out, in memory of their forefathers, and are accompanied by a ‘goat’ — which symbolises the sun in Slavic mythology. The goat enters a house, welcomes its hosts and then falls down as if dead. When the hosts take out gifts, the animal revives, as if born again, indicating the return of the sun in the new year. Afterwards, those taking part in the Kolyady procession sing their good wishes to the family and hosts.

Generous Koliva falls on the night of the Old New Year celebrations and also traditionally features a generous table, including a newly killed pig: smoked, boiled and placed at the centre of all the other dishes. The family gathers, wearing new clothing to celebrate, and launches their feast with pancakes cut criss-cross.

The third (lean or water) Koliva party closes the holiday on the night of Epiphany (18th-19th January).

Upside-down fir tree
It’s hard to imagine but fir trees were once decorated upside-down. Of course, we can hardly imagine New Year without a decorated fir tree. The custom originates from 16th century Western Europe and was later adopted by Russia; Belarus joined the tradition in the early 20th century. However, in the 1920s, the Bolsheviks prohibited the custom and the celebration of New Year, hoping to end Christian practises and avoid the influence of capitalism. The tradition went ‘underground’ but was restored in 1935.

In ancient times, fir trees were commonly believed to have magical powers, so were treated with respect. Decorating them was an act of placation and offering. With time, this took the form of decorating with paper toys and clay whistles; balls came later.

By the late 1960s, urban Belarusians were beginning to adopt the fashion of having a fir tree at home but those post-war years were hard for many, who viewed the notion as a luxury — especially in the villages. With the advent of the popularity of TV sets, fir trees were also seen with more regularity. 

Betrothed, masked …
Kolyady is seen as an auspicious time for fortune telling, being a unique time between one year and the next. Various rituals have been handed down through the generations, aimed at bringing prosperity and peace. As ever, single girls are particularly eager to learn of their future destiny, usually trying to foretell their fate on the nights of December 24th-25th, New Year’s night, January 6th-7th and 13th-14th, as well as the evening of January 19th (Epiphany). Methods include counting the boards in a fence: an even number indicates marriage in the forthcoming year. As the doorstep is seen as a point of contact with those who have entered the beyond, placing pancakes there is another custom. Girls each cook a pancake and a dog is then summoned; whoever’s pancake is eaten first will marry before the others. Another ritual involves sitting in darkness between two mirrors, with lit candles. The future husband’s image is supposed to appear in the reflection.
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