Winter magical night when breathtaking wonders happen

‘Kalyady Tsars’ ancient custom, preserved only in the village of Semezhevo near Minsk, recognised by UNESCO as cultural treasure of all humankind

By Viktar Korbut

The unusual festival annually takes place on the night of January 13th to 14th, some 150km from Minsk. Young people dress in white clothes, with red belts tied across their chests and high caps adorned with ribbons, carrying torches. They visit every house in the village of Semezhevo, in the Kopyl district, celebrating the last day of Kalyady. It’s an ancient Belarusian holiday, celebrating the period from Catholic Christmas (December 25th) to Shchedry Vecher (Generous Evening). ‘Kalyady Tsars’ evening is now on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. It is under UNESCO protection and is also included on the State List of Historical and Cultural Treasures of Belarus.

The 4th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, held in Abu Dhabi from September 28th to October 2nd, 2009, agreed to place the custom on its list. Natalia Khvir, the Chair of the Historical and Cultural Heritage Protection and Restoration Department of the Culture Ministry, notes that the list of Belarusian intangible treasures is ever expanding, with others to be put forward for inclusion on the UNESCO List.

The participants of the ‘Kalyady Tsars’ have always made their own costumes, with Semezhevo being noteworthy as a large centre of traditional weaving. People in Semezhevo are able to construct a house or weave cloth with their own hands. At the local folk crafts centre, children work with machine tools while young men in festive costumes wander through the village visiting residents and singing songs.

It remains a mystery as to how the ‘Kalyady Tsars’ custom gained its name and no one knows why it only exists in the village of Semezhevo. Its mystique and unique nature are good reasons for it being registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Alla Stashkevich, from the Culture Institute of Belarus, adds, “I must stress that the custom is performed by young, unmarried men, which is also unusual. Traditionally, elderly people would be the ones to carry forth customs in Belarus. In contrast, it is young people who keep the traditions of our ancestors alive in Semezhevo.”

Some of the village residents recall taking part many decades ago. In the 1950s, Ivan Matskevich daringly took the major role of the performance, Tsar Maximilian, despite the custom being viewed as a ‘non-progressive religious remnant’. It was largely forbidden. He never imagined that, in the 21st century, young people would still wander freely through the village, celebrating the custom which has become a universally acclaimed cultural treasure.

Everyone in Semezhevo looks forward for the holiday, when the ‘Tsars’ parade through the village with torches. Celebrations begin in the morning, with songs, dancing and jokes in each house. A table is placed in the village’s main square, loaded with various dishes and delicacies. I was lucky enough to taste local sausages and cakes and, even, took part in fortune telling, which is an obligatory ritual of the evening.

This year, there is another reason for celebrations: the Tsari group from the Semezhevo Culture and Leisure Centre has been awarded a special Presidential Award for its study, restoration and preservation of folk traditions. According to Tatiana Shauro, the Director of the Semezhevo Culture and Leisure Centre, they began to revive the custom back in 1996, collecting documentary materials and asking elderly people to share their songs and stories while conducting scientific investigations. In 1997, the Kalyady Tsars film was shot. Soon, UNESCO should release funds to help promote knowledge of the custom, encouraging more tourists to travel to the village to celebrate this wonderful festival. We invite you to join in the fun next year.

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