How Belarusian ancestors celebrated Christmas and Kolyady

How Belarusian ancestors celebrated Christmas and Kolyady

How did ancestors of Belarusians celebrate Kolyady? How long did the holiday last? What characteristic features did the holiday have? The researcher of the Center for the Belarusian Culture, Language and Literature Yana Grinevich answered these and many other questions.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
Yana, where did the tradition of Christmas and Kolyady celebration in Belarus come from?

Yana Grinevich:
Christmas is the main holiday in Belarus. It has a pre-Christian (the Winter Solstice) and Christian (the birth of Jesus Christ) basis. Orthodox believers celebrate from January 6 to January 19, while Catholics celebrate from December 25 to January 6.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
How many days does the holiday last?

Yana Grinevich:
The celebration of Christmas lasts about two weeks.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
How did the preparation for the holiday begin?

Yana Grinevich:
Christmas was preceded by a period of fast. On Christmas Eve, family members cleaned the house, cooked kutya (kutia), and waited for the first star before the supper. A piece of hay was placed under the tablecloth.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
For what purpose?

Yana Grinevich:
A piece of hay was put under the tablecloth to ensure wealth and prosperity for next year. People would remove pieces of straw from under the table to use them for fortunetelling. The longest meant happiness and wealth.

Three ritual suppers (kutya) were typical for Christmas. The first kutya was called lean. People ate only lean food. It could be herring, crushed poppy seeds, uzvar, kutya. The second kutya was schedra (generous). Sausages, skvarki, mochanka with bliny, fish, mushrooms were on the table. The last, third kutya, was called holodna (hungry). Also, only lean dishes were served.

Every Belarusian is familiar with kutya. But not everyone knows about the deep meaning of this dish. Kutya had a special significance for our ancestors.

As a rule, one woman always cooked a kutya. This was done in order to avoid quarrels and misunderstandings throughout the year. Strangers were not allowed to attend the festive table. Everyone had to set the table and get the family together.  

Oleg Stepanyuk:
And when did people start caroling?

Yana Grinevich:
They began caroling after the first kutya. Belarus has its own peculiarities in various regions. For example, the ritual game “Zhenitba Tereshki” (Marriage of Tereshka) was popular in the north of Belarus. Frequently, young people who participated in the game, then really got married. The cast of Kalyady characters usually included “Kaza” (the Goat), “Dzied” (the Old Man), and Bear.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
Did villagers wait for carol singers?

Yana Grinevich:
Of course, because carol singers were perceived as those who brought a new fate for next year. Therefore, they were welcome guests in every home.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
Christmas is one of the most magical holidays. Did people tell fortunes?

Yana Grinevich:
Certainly, divination is an important part of Christmas. The main themes of divination were the future husband, as well as the future harvest.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
And how did women foretell marriage?

Yana Grinevich:
There were so many ways to foretell the future. For example, the girls threw boots. By the direction the boot pointed, the girls learned where a future husband would come from. Also the girls hugged fence and counted posts. An even number meant that the girl would meet her soul mate this year.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
And what about the harvest?

Yana Grinevich:
First of all, people looked at the weather. Clear weather predicted a poor harvest. Cloudy weather and light snow predicted a good harvest. Many stars in the sky meant a good harvest of mushrooms.

Oleg Stepanyuk:
Yana, thank you. And how do you spend Christmas?

Yana Grinevich:
We celebrate traditionally. The whole family gets together, we prepare a Christmas dinner, and also decorate a Christmas tree. Although, a Christmas tree decoration is quite a new tradition for Belarusians. Previously, instead of a Christmas tree, a straw “spider” was used. At Christmas, the new "spider" was hung from the ceiling, and the old one, which hung in the house for a whole year, was burned. The tradition of decorating Christmas trees appeared in Soviet times.