Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rusyn Folk Customs and Superstitions

On June 1, 2011, Dr. Andrew Skumanich delighted us with his reminiscences on growing up as a first generation Rusyn-American.  Part of his presentation was devoted to the folk customs and superstitions brought over from the old country, specifically from his parents' villages of Pčoline and Čukalovce in Slovakia.   We are printing them here for those who couldn't attend and for those who couldn't believe what they heard.
  •  Not long ago door lintels were marked with a cross-sketched with the smoke of a candle flame.  This kept evil from entering the household.  A similar practice is observed by the Pennsylvania Dutch.  You may not know that the ancestors of these Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch) immigrated from Bohemia and Moravia.

  • The curse of an evil eye was expunged by sucking on the afflicted's forehead and spitting out the evil spirit with an incantation of banishment.

  • Some exotic medicines were highly regarded.  For example, dirt from a freshly dug grave gathered at midnight could be wrapped in a poultice and applied to open wounds.

  • Garlic was a wonderfully useful herb.  Not only was it tasty on toast and in soup, its protective qualities were greatly appreciated.  During epidemics, a bag of garlic hung around the neck would shield one from sickness.  If it were applied too late, a vinegar compress could be used to relieve headache.

  • If it were really too late, the funeral would be held at the home of the deceased.  A departed male was referred to as a "nebožtik," a heaven-destined soul."  A heaven-destined female was a "nebožka."  We believe that men sometimes used a different term if she was a mother-in-law.  Anyway, the mourners and visitors sat around the open casket and reminisced about events in the life of the heaven-bound.

  • In preparation for Christmas Eve Supper, each family member would wash his face in a basin containing coins.  He would then make a wish for a prosperous new beginning.  Supper leftovers were left on the table for the spirits of deceased family who might be visiting.  Yes, the reward for years of virtuous living was an eternity of leftovers.

  • When the meal was over, each family member would extinguish a candle on the holy table.  The person's future was propheticed by the smoke.  Rising smoke meant a better situation was in store.  Dropping smoke might mean a loss.  Smoke drifting toward the door signified a departure.

  • Prior to his wedding, a groom was stripped and scrubbed by a female cousin to be sure the bride was getting a purified husband.

  • This dovetails nicely with what several in Dr. Skumanich's audience considered the most enlightened of all the customs.  For Easter, the house had to be cleaned by a nude virgin of the family.  This was to imbue the house with purity.
The above folk customs and superstitions were provided to us by Dr. Andrew Skumanich.  If you know of any other traditions that our people followed, we would love to hear from you.  When we collect enough, we will include them in another entry.  Please contact me at

(p.s.:  To date we heard only from Eveline Blanar who sent us customs of her family - Thank you Eveline).   
(Written by: Maryann Sivak