Saturday, December 27, 2014


   Guba Christmas Traditions
By Garrett Gelting 

Jaslickare - St. Clair, Pennsylvania
It’s hard to believe that when I was young and “the Gubas” group would come to the family house on Christmas Eve, January 6, I would run and hide because I was extremely afraid of Staryj. He was the oldest and wisest Guba, but sometimes, he scared the children. See, the funny thing is that Staryj was my cousin, but even knowing that didn’t help. I was brought up being scared by Staryj.  He wasn’t mean or anything, that’s just how it was. Before I go any further, I should clarify a few more things. For starters, the Gubas perform a reenactment of the story of the shepherds’ first encounter with the newborn Christ Child. When I say “the family house”, I really mean the house where my grandfather, Andrew Dudish, grew up in St. Clair, PA. He had lived in the house since 1912 and grew up there with all his brothers and sisters. Even though someone in the family still lived there, the house was more of a communal house for the whole family when it was Christmas time. Some family members passed away, some couldn’t make it because of other commitments, some had children, and some had married. Every year the number of family members, who came to holy supper, changed but it would range from the low-twenties to the mid-sixties. Because of the numerous people, mostly family, I considered everyone in the house to be my cousin.
Going with the Gubas is a family tradition. Almost every male in my family, at some point, was part of the Gubas, going all the way back to my grandfather in the 1920s (which makes this a 100 year old tradition in St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church, St. Clair, PA, and in our family.) I started off being what they called an “angel.” This is the person who carries the church that they use. The church is symbolic of Jesus and inside of it is a manger scene. The church is made of wood and weighs about 40 pounds. I would hear stories of how the church used to be concrete and weigh a lot more. Throughout the years I would slowly gain a little more responsibility. The shepherds are the ones who actually recite the pageant lines. Last, but not least to speak, is Staryj. All the Gubas or shepherds wear white robes with ribbons on them, tall cylinder crowns (made by my Mom’s Uncle Fred Sponenburg) on their heads and some carry staffs. Staryj wears an old white beard, a fur coat, and hat. He has a menacing look when you’re a young child if he’s trying to scare you. His staff is hung with big jingle bells, so when he bangs it on the floor, it makes a lot of noise. 

The first year I went out with the Gubas was definitely a different experience than what I expected. I thought it was just a group of guys who went house to house doing their little play and then hanging out for a little to talk to the people they knew. While it was this, there was much more to it. I assumed every house that they went to was like mine. At the family house, we had a large group of people with tons of food and the Gubas would stay for a while. What I didn’t know was that some houses only had a few people in them and at others only one person was there to hear our play. This was definitely a shock to me. One of the first things I remember is going into a house and a lady was on her deathbed. For someone who was only 15 at the time, this was hard to comprehend. It wasn’t until the next year when we walked past her house and didn’t go in, that I realized that she had passed. I talked with my family and they explained to me how important it was for the Gubas to come and do the play for them. The play only lasted a few minutes and only had a couple of songs, but this short, roughly five-minute play made the whole year for some of the people who would welcome us into their homes. 
Stephen Laychock as Guba
Over the years, some of the stops would change. Some people would move to a different house or move away. New stops were added if people changed houses or new people wanted us to come. On Christmas Eve, we usually went to about 12 to 17 houses. To me this seemed like a lot, but they would tell me that sometimes they had so many houses to go to that they would need two groups of Gubas. We would start off from the church at around 6:30 PM and for the rest of the night we would walk around going to each house and performing. We would finish up around midnight. 

On Christmas Eve my relatives would go the family house to eat the traditional Holy Supper (fish, pirohy, mushroom gravy, potatoes, prunes, beans, mushroom halupkis). Dinner would start and it was always children and the people going out with the Gubas who ate at the first table setting. This was because the Gubas needed to be fed in time to head out for the first day of going house to house. The second day, Christmas, was much more intense. On Christmas day we would go to about 20 to 25 houses. We would start around 1:00 in the afternoon and not finish until about midnight. 

The pageant begins when one of the shepherds walks into the house and starts by saying “Christos Razdajetsja”, to which the owner of the house says “Slavite Jeho”. In English this means “Christ is Born” and “Glorify Him”. The lead shepherd begins by saying to everyone in the house “Good people, I’m sorry to enter your home in such a rush. I am not alone, for I bring my brothers with me”. At this point everyone else walks into the house, except for the angel and maybe one or two other people. The angel is holding the church outside. The Guba and shepherds go into a conversation about who they are and from where they came. They also explain why they are there. A short song is sung at this point and the church is brought in and placed on a table or chair. Each shepherd bows down and prays to the baby Jesus inside the church. Usually during this time, young children will go up to the Guba and put change or a few dollars into a can that the Guba carries. This money goes to the church. The last person to kneel is Staryj. When he kneels down, the shepherds call him “stoddy” and he pretends, though not always pretends, to be an old man as he stands up. After this is done another song is sung. A shepherd thanks the people for allowing the Gubas into their home and then the final song is sung Mno haja ‘lit). For most of the time that I’ve been going out, this play is performed in part Rusyn and part English. In previous years, they would recite everything in Rusyn. Once the play is over, most people will welcome us into their homes for food and drink and give a donation for St. Michael’s Church. 

The type of food on the first day is different from the second day’s. Abiding by the tradition of not eating meat on Christmas Eve, most of the food is just desserts and drinks. A lot of the food we are offered are cookies, pies, or other meat-less snacks. Some people have other types of food like mushroom holubki, but they aren’t nearly as good as the real thing. Sometimes if there’s a large number of people in the house, we will stay for a while, but if it just a small number of people we might not stay as long. No matter what though, the Gubas are NEVER on time. People always want to know when we are coming to their house, but the only true way to know is when we actually arrive. On the first day, we walk from house to house because we are always in the town of St. Clair, PA. The second day is by far the best. For starters, there is meat halupki along with boilo (a mixture of whiskey fruit juices, honey, spices etc.), which are the staples at every house. Some years I’ll try to keep count of how many halupki I eat over the course of the day. Some houses we go to serve us full meals that they had left over from their dinners and some houses just offer us some drinks. This is a very long day so usually we schedule larger houses apart so we can actually eat around normal meal times. Because this day is longer and we travel to different towns, we have a van that we drive around to each house. This van has officially or unofficially, depending on to whom you talk, been named the Guba-Mobile. 
Almost every house we go to has boilo. To some people making boilo is an art form. All year long they think of different things they can do to tweak their recipe to make it better than the last year. Each person wants you to try their recipe and compare it to their neighbors’ or friends’ recipe from across town. Going around with the Gubas is a cultural experience. Seeing the Gubas is something so different that no one can ever understand unless they experience seeing the play themselves. When we are walking around, plenty of people have thought we were the KKK or saying that it’s too late for Halloween. I’ve tried to explain it to my friends, but it’s hard for them to understand what it is. The most important things I’ve obtained from the experience are religion, family, and friends. Religion and family have everything to do with it. The family tradition of being a Guba, my “cousins” going around as the Gubas with me, and all the people I see at the houses all make it a great time. Every year there are people whom we haven’t seen in a long time; some people haven’t seen each other for decades. The short time that we all spend togetheris an experience that not everyone is lucky enough to have. I’ll always remember singing the songs with my family and seeing the smiles on the faces of the people who welcome us into their homes. I hope I can make it back home next year. There is nothing else like it. 

Garrett Gelting is from Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. The family house that is mentioned in the article is in Saint Clair, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Penn State University, and even though he hasn’t lived at home for a few years, he still manages to make it back to Saint Clair every year for “Russian Christmas”. He has been going with the Gubas since he was a teenager, so this will be almost a decade of going out.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for explaining what the Bethlehems are..We at Mike and Carol Homa's home are fortunate to see and hear them every year.Not many churches have them anymore.GOD bless each and every one of the Gubas and those they visit.May this tradition go on for always.A fellow Russian lady from St. Clair..gratefully offered.

russ kerick said...

well said "may this tradition go on always"thank you
the modern fast paced commercialized christmas misses the beauty of the holy season.put the tree up friday after thanksgiving take the tree down the 26th of december .stop attend a julian calendar church on genealogy sunday.that will start the spirit of christmas inside you.also find out in your area which you live if the have slavic caroler concert if you do not understand the language listen how beautifully they are sung.go to church on christmas eve,christmas day you will be quote roy l smith "he who has not christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree" .i really enjoy the holy season of christmas
you will also .
i also had a joyous time partaking caroling with gubas from st michaels whether an angel or 1st shepard

russ kerick