Lemko Folk Rites and Traditions

If one sought to find an explanation to the rites and traditions of the Caipatho-Russians, he would more likely than not find them similiar to the folk customs inherent to other regions of the Carpathian Mountains. Christmas Eve, the feast of the Epiphany, Pentecost (Rusalia), St. John the Baptist’s Day, weddings, birthdays, etc., are observed in much the same manner all over the Carpathian region. 

Lemkos celebrate most of their traditional occasions on winter days, the reason being associated with their inborn cult of the sun and the beginning of another solar year. For the most part, Lemko Christmas celebrations last twelve days, based on the folk lore belief in different supposedly magic powers to be found and used in these days, whereby they would allegedly avert diseases, soothe Mother Nature, protect one’s family from disaster, ensure it a good harvest and some addition to the livestock. The life of Lemko peasants depended, by and large, upon primitive material production, the results of their own manual labor. Naturally, all this had an effect on their beliefs.

On Christmas Eve, Lemkos neither ate nor drank. Some hay was placed on the table and covered with a cloth. After that, seeds and garlic were scattered on top. According to folk beliefs, the family would eat throughout the year what they would have during Christmas. This is attested to by the custom of scattering various types of grain on the table to which some magic force of fertility was attributed.

Remarkably, Lemkos, Boykos and Hutsul had different Christmas menus. For example, the "kutya" (boiled wheat with honey and poppy seeds), the traditionally invariable Christmas dish — was served at the end of Christmas in Lemkovina, and on Christmas Eve in the Hutsul area — but, everywhere it was to be consumed quietly, so as to ensure peace in the family throughout the year. Until the 1930’s, Carpartho-Russians paid strict attention to various folk superstitions. Thus, one was not permitted to put one’s spoon down on the table during supper, otherwise one would often suffer from thirst and the small of one’s back would hurt terribly during harvest time.

On all winter holidays, a special bread, called "krachun" or "krechun" was baked in every Lemko home. It was regarded as some god who mission was to provide fertility and good crops for the next year. Baked in this bread were different grains such as beans, corn, poppy seeds and garlic. In Transcarpathia, the baking of "kracnun" involved a special ritual. Before placing the dough in the oven, the housewife put on a pair of mittens and the "hunya" (coarse grey wool coat) (the latter being an indispensable element of all folk festive rites). For instance, newlyweds were required to wear their “hunyas” throughout their wedding reception, no matter how hot it was outside. They did so because they believed that by observing this tradition they would ensure themselves a prosperous married life. 

Wearing mittens was based on the presumption that one was not supposed to touch bread with one's bare hand if one wanted to be better off in the future. One’s bare hands symbolized poverty. Baked, a loaf of "krachun" was bound crosswise and spun yard — to safeguard good flax crop yields. It was then placed on the table beside a small stack of oats or corn.

On the eve of New Year--or Christmas Eve-Lemkos put a loaf of "krachun" and a sheaf of straw called “didukh” or “dido” on the table. While doing so they chanted, "May bread and cattle never leave this home." Before carrying the sheaf into the room a child was told to hide underneath and low like a cow, neigh like a horse, and bleat like a sheep.

The family wanted thus to ensure that sounds like that would constantly be heard on their homestead. Apart from its magical implication, the sheaf-carrying ritual served as a kind of aesthetic symbol. A Lemko saying has it that “A stack of hay will make us gay. The rich put up a Christmas tree, and a Russian peasant will gladly do with a stack of hay”.

On the first day of the New Year, Lemko housewives cackled like hens, so the hens would lay more eggs, tied a length of chain across the table so there would be no evil spirit intruding on their household and placed their feet on a metal bar so they would be as strong as two “pillars”.

Christmas parties were accompanied by various types of fortune telling. Thus, single girls tried to find out who their husbands would be. They would gather in a village hata (home) where they would cook small “vareniki” (meat dumplings with small pieces of fried bacon called “shkvarky”). After they were ready they would place them in a large dish and bring a well-fed tomcat into the room. According to the ritual, the girl whose dumplings the cat would eat first was sure to get married ahead of her friends.

Very early on Christmas morning, the master of the house, wearmg new garments, carrying a wooden pail for water and a loaf of "krachun" would walk down to the river or the spring. Unlike other ethnic groups, Lemkos would also bring along one or two stacks or oats. After sprinkling the bread with some water, thus sanctifying the loaf, they would then fill the pail with water, wipe the bread on a "ruchnyk" (embroidered towel) and, together with a pailful of water, would return home. There the bread would be tossed, allowing it to roll from the threshold to the table. If the loaf fell on its lower, flat crust, the family was believed to be in store for a long and healthy life. But if it fell the other way, on its top crust, then it was taken for granted that some family member would die an untimely death.

“Koliaduvania” — the singing of Christmas carols, exchanging witty wishes and numerous greetings was an important element of the Lemko celebration. Warm tidings were then extended to parents, children and neighbors. Whereas, previously, these caroling processions served as a manifestation of neighborly mutual help (a person in such a procession was customarily given many presents from the master of the house whom he and others ш the group visited to sing a carol and greet them, including food and money), at present this ceremony has become a kind of festive pastime commonly enjoyed by youth.


CHRISTMAS EVE HOLY SUPPER

The twelve dishes may vary from family to family, but most dishes are similar. Most important is that you choose twelve different dishes. We have chosen some of the more traditional recipes to assist you planning your menu:

KUTYA - a wheat dish symbolizing peace, health and prosperity.

FISH - in memo™ of the early Christians; can be pickled herring, jellied fish, stuffed or fried fish.

SOUPS - borshcht, mushroom, barley, cabbage

VARENIKI - filled with potato, sauerkraut or prune 

HOLUBTSI - stuffed cabbage with rice, mushrooms or buckwheat filling

MUSHROOM SAUCE OR SOUP SAUERKRAUT AND LIMA BEANS and/or PEAS BUCKWHEAT KASHA

COMPOTE OF FRUIT BREAD - kolach

HONEY - symbolizing the sweet life in the kingdom of Heaven.

GARLIC

KESELITSА

POTATOES - browned or boiled

PAGACH

BOBALKI


EASY KUTYA

1/2 lb barley 4 cups water 1 tsp salt

1 cup honey

2 tbsp poppy seeds 2 tbsp chopped nuts

Boil barley in salted water until tender. Strain and rinse again with hot water. Cool. When ready to serve, pour honey mixed with either poppy seeds or nuts (or both) into barley.


HONEY AND GARLIC FOR HOLY SUPPER

1/4 cup or less honey

several cloves of garlic, cut into small slivers

It has always been a Christmas tradition to have garlic slices arranged on a small plate or saucer at Holy Supper. Nearby there is honey in a small dish. Each member of the family would take a piece of garlic and dip it in the honey. The significance of this dish is that the sweet honey, symbolic of the pure sweet spiritual life will help overcome the bitterness and tragedies in life, represented by the garlic. It is also known to be eaten with the hope of good health during the coming year.


SAUERKRAUT WITH LIMA BEANS OR PEAS

1 large can (2 ob) sauerkraut

1 cup water

1 onion, chopped

1/2 cup cooking oil

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

1 lb can lima beans or peas

2 tbsp flour

1 small clove garlic, crushed (optional)

Wash sauerkraut well. Place in 2 quart pot and add enough water just to cover. Cook slowly 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Saute onion in oil. Sprinkle flour over onion and brown lightly. Add some liquid from sauerkraut to onions; season; add garlic and stir until sauce thickens. Add beans or peas to sauerkraut then add sauce and simmer about 30 minutes.


Mushrooms


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