Thursday, November 22, 2012

Carpatho-Rusyn Christmas

Svajtyj Vecur (Christmas Eve)

The Christmas celebration for Carpatho-Rusyns, an East Slavic people hailing from the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, is steeped in ancient tradition. The customs are a  mystical blend of old pagan Slavic customs honoring ancestors and family with the revelations of Eastern Christianity.

The celebration’s main time is actually Christmas Eve, when the Holy Supper (Svjatyj Vecur, Velija) is served. Many customs are associated with this solemn meal, and these customs can vary from village to village and county to county.

In many Carpatho-Rusyn villages, the head of the household takes some of the food first and feeds it to the animals, since the animals in the stables were the first to witness the coming of the Savior when He was born in a manger. This gesture is to help assure a prosperous year for all of the family’s animals. Peas are thrown out to the chickens to assure their fertility (and that of the household’s) for the coming year.

In the middle of the table rests three key items – the icon of the Nativity of Christ. The Kracun or Christmas bread, and a triple candle stand. The icon proclaims the mystery of the Nativity; the bread – that the coming Christ is the bread of life: and the candles – that through Christ’s coming the Trinity was revealed to us. The kracun is then broken, passed around the table and shared together. Then garlic cloves and honey are shared by all. This must happen so that the family will stay together for the coming year. In some Rusyn villages, the legs of the table are bound by chains to “Keep the family together.”

Christmas Eve for Rusyns is a strict fast day. Therefore, all foods served must be free of meat and dairy products. Twelve dishes are served and these too vary from village to village. However, some of the more common include mushroom, pea or bean and sauerkraut soup, pirohy (dough stuffed with potatoes, kraut or prunes) bolbalky (bread balls with kraut or honey and poppy seeds), holubky(cabbage stuffed with rice or barley and mushrooms), fish, and prunes.

The d├ęcor is also meant to remind the Carpatho-Rusyn peasant of the mysteries of God becoming man and dwelling with us. The table is covered with a decorated white cloth, symbolizing that Christ came without sin; hay is scattered on the table and floor, reminding Rusyns that He came in humility, born in a stable; and an extra place is set at the table for Christ, symbolizing the Eastern Christian belief that Christ comes each year–ever present in the Eastern Christian home. Originally, however, this place was set in pagan times for the ancestors to join the family.

After the meal, the family goes to church for Christmas Eve Matins, leaving the food on the table and sometimes the windowsill “for the ancestors.” Children awake the next morning and see the food and drink gone, consumed by “their ancestors.”

Each Carpatho-Rusyn home is also visited by the Jaslickari, or Bethlehem carolers, a custom that can be traced to the blending of pre-Christian caroling customs and the medieval passion plays. The Jaslickari are young men from the village dressed as shepherds and angels, who witnessed the miraculous birth of Christ. They come into each home to enact a play with song, about their visit to the manger and their coming to grips with the mystery of Christ’s birth and their own human failings. The Jaslickari are a genuine folk expression and were a vital piece of the peasant’ s education in his or her faith.

The Jaslickari enter the home carrying a replica of the parish church or a stable. Some are in the role of angels, wearing white robes and tall, stovepipe hats. Others are the shepherds. Among the shepherds is a particularly colorful character, Guba, who dressed in sheep’s wool and sporting a beard and mask, represents mankind’s human tendency towards evil, chasing and frightening many a Carpatho-Rusyn child in the home.

Christmas Day is spent feasting while groups of carolers go from home to home proclaming the Good News. And Carpatho-Rusyns greet one another with the exchange: 

Christ is Born! Hristos Razdajtsa! 
Glorify Him! Slavite Jeho!
© John J. Righetti, 2001
Written by John Righetti.  Email:

1 comment:

Diana Guralev said...

Maryann, it seems like I left my comment about Xmas dinner in the article about the historian :) Please forgive me...