Easter. The biggest festival of the year in Ukraine.
It begins with Willow Sunday and the ceremony of the blessing of the willow, a practice that stems back to pagan times when the willow with its healing properties was a holy tree and one of the first in Spring to show signs of life. People believed that by tapping each other with a freshly blooming willow branch they could draw upon its energy and strength.
There was no sign of tapping at church that morning, simply an enormous crowd of people, everyone clutching pussy willow twigs and pressing forward into an already packed church. Once inside, standing squeezed like a sardine and peering over a sea of shoulders, I could see nothing of the ceremony. But the singing was sublime. One voice emerged in what felt like the crescendo of the service, strong and deep with an ever greater sense of urgency, till at its peak it melted into a sea of harmony, one with the rich and sonorous tones of the choir. Then abruptly, the service over, the crowd turned and I was carried with them as inch by inch we shuffled and stumbled our way out into the pouring rain.
Holy Week or Willow week as it’s called in Ukraine is a period of cleansing both spiritual and physical in preparation for Easter. In my street the women were out sweeping the pavement in front of their houses, scrubbing doorsteps, cleaning and polishing the windows till they shone. In courtyards and gardens, carpets were hung out to air. Caught up in the general fever of spring-cleaning I cleaned my flat from top to bottom. After such a long winter it was good to open wide the doors and windows and feel the first balmy breath of Spring entering. At school my students and colleagues, their figures trim from weeks of dieting and fasting, were all talking about their trips to the ‘bazaar’- an enormous market on the edge of town – and the new clothes they’d bought to wear on Easter Sunday.
The girls in my groups told me that they were making ‘pisanki’, the beautiful traditional painted eggs for which Ukraine is famous. Decorated with stylised symbols from Nature they were said to contain powerful magic, a protection against evil and natural catastrophe. Once they were painted by women only. They would gather together in secret when the children had gone to bed, singing and telling stories as with wax and plant dyes and a special stylus they created the delicate patterns of the pisanki. For centuries the tradition was handed down from mother to daughter only to be banned under the Soviet regime. It was the Ukrainians in the Diaspora that ensured its survival. I know my grandmother took this skill with her to Canada.
Now the girls have lessons at school in dyeing and decorating pisanki. In the weeks before Easter you see these decorated eggs everywhere. They come in many colours – orange and red, yellow, green and deep blue. Often the patterns are geometrical or with spiral motifs, but there are also motifs of birds, flowers and animals. One, which I saw amongst a cluster of colourful pisanki in the local market, was encircled with a chain of young women dancing.
Pisanki represent the gift of life.
At Easter they’re placed in a wicker basket of food, which is taken to the midnight mass to be blessed. In my cousin Masha’s basket: pisanki, ham, sausage, horseradish, butter, cheese and rye bread, all covered by a white embroidered cloth. And a ‘paska’, or Easter bread, a round, sweet loaf, decorated again with motifs of plants and flowers formed from dough to celebrate nature’s rebirth.
The paska must be made with great care. When preparing the dough and during the kneading you must keep your thoughts pure and the whole household quiet to ensure the bread bakes properly. This means that no-one, not even friends and neighbours are allowed to come in during its baking lest they make a sudden noise or cast the evil eye, causing the paska to come out flat.
We arrived at the cathedral about an hour before midnight. Masha gave me a candle from her basket, then we both put on our scarves and joined a throng of women jostling to get in through the door. Inside they parted to leave a clear passage down to the altar, placing their baskets on either side of it ready for the priest’s blessing. We stood on the cold stone floor amongst the crowd of worshippers listening as the deep voices of the priests and choir intoned the solemn liturgy. The sequin-sewn white scarves of the congregation glimmered and glittered in the soft candle light, while over their heads, in the shadows near the altar hung a life-size figure of Christ on the Cross surrounded by a mass of deep red carnations.
A stirring, a murmur of expectation. Heads turned as some men entered carrying banners. Masha, checking her watch, muttered that it was now gone midnight. Still we stood waiting patiently as the priest continued his incantation. Then all at once the chandeliers went on in a blaze of electric light. Red neon letters spelling CHRISTOS VOSKRES flashed above the altar and a procession of nine priests, resplendent in white and gold followed by the choir, led us out of the cathedral with the bells wildly pealing. Out into the cold midnight air as the Easter flame was passed through the crowd from one candle to the other, then in a rambling procession we circled the cathedral three times, singing and stopping every so often to roar out a reply to the priest’s call ‘Christ is risen’, ‘He is indeed risen!’
At 6 in the morning I ate with Masha and her family as they broke their fast. All the food from the basket, which had been blessed by the priest at the cathedral, and more, was spread out on the table. We each had a hard-boiled egg dyed red which we had to hold firmly while tapping everyone else’s trying to crack them. Masha’s husband, Vasili, was the one who came out victorious; the last with his egg intact, his face creased into a big smile. As I walked back home through the early morning mist, the streets were still full of people carrying home their baskets and flickering candles. The aim is to bring the flame safely home and with it to trace a figure of the Cross on the lintel of your house. Mine had gone out in a gust of wind within minutes of leaving the cathedral.
Later in the day the mist turned to bright sunshine and the unpaved road to Vasyliv, my family’s village, was shiny with puddles and mud. Fields stretched on either side of me, empty and grey. But in the village the freshly dug earth in the gardens was a rich, dark brown covered here and there in a haze of fresh green. I arrived to the clanging of bells, drove past a group of boys taking it in turns to pull on the rope in the small bell tower by the church gate.
Masha with her parents and Vasili, their son, Pavel and Masha’s brother were all waiting for me, bunched together on two beds around a small table which was crammed to overflowing with dishes: hard boiled eggs, salads, fish fried in batter, meatballs, salami, cold pork, cheese and a sweet, creamy macaroni-like pudding. Vasili told us that he was going easy on the vodka as he was saving himself for the next day, the first Monday of Easter or ‘Wet Monday’, when he and his friends would hit the streets to douse the women passing by with water. Yet another old custom rooted in pre-Christian rites of purification and rebirth, and one which, according to Masha, is practised with an unbridled enthusiasm. ‘Never mind’, she said, ‘on Tuesday, it’ll be the women’s turn’.
Masha then told me that when she was young, on Easter morning, she and the other village girls would dance and sing in front of the church, round and round in a circle in imitation of the movement of the earth round the sun, to encourage the Spring to waken and bring them good luck and a plentiful harvest.
An integral part of the of Easter ritual which follows Easter Sunday is the honouring of the dead, when families gather at the graves of their loved ones and ancestors bringing food for them. Often they stay and eat together next to the grave, so that the dead too may take part in the celebration, the joy of Easter; the idea being that the ghosts of the dead are always with us, that the border between life and death is as permeable as a cloud.
Driving out of Chernivitsi towards Vasyliv the next Saturday I saw heaps of plastic purple and pink wreaths for sale at the side of the road and people walking along the verge with these large wreaths slung over their shoulders or on the handle bars of their bikes. In the countryside I stopped at a cemetery just outside a village where so many wreaths had been laid or propped against headstones you could hardly see the graves. Between them wooden tables and benches had been set out as for a party. The sky was sullen with dark clouds threatening rain, the cemetery empty, except for a man and a woman and two children who were sitting at a table next to their ancestor’s grave, quietly eating and drinking. Out of respect I kept my distance, but as soon as they spotted me they sent over the young boy with an Easter bread and a pisanka. The bread was ornamented with a cross made of dough, the four arms curved at their tips as if about to spin into motion – an ancient symbol of the sun and the wheel of life.
In Vasyliv the cemetery lies at the centre of the village, a large field full of stone crosses, many of them ancient, some all but toppling over in the long grass. There were no wreaths and no tables and benches laid out when I arrived. All was quiet. A football match was going on in the neighbouring field. Every so often there’d be shouts from the small tribune alongside the dirt path skirting the graves.
I trudged through the mud and wet grass in search of Masha and her family. She’d promised to take me to our great-grand-parents’ graves and say some prayers for them on my behalf. She was at the edge of the cemetery with Vasili, their son, Pavel and Vasili’s mother. They were gathered round Vasili’s father’s grave. His mother was in tears. Vasili came to me and solemnly handed me an Easter bread, an orange and some chocolates in memory of his father.
The spot where my great grandparents lie buried is marked by two stone crosses. They stand side by side, leaning slightly towards one another, not far from a border of tall, sheltering acacia trees. My great grandmother Vasylina’s cross stands on the left, and on the right, that of my great grandfather Vasil. Their surfaces are so worn that it’s impossible to trace an inscription. The arms of each cross are decorated with flower patterns, and at the centre of Vasil’s is another pagan symbol of the sun: a circle, from which branch out four short arms like rays. Clearly engraved within the circle is a wreath of flowers, symbol of Mother Earth.
Masha and I stood silently at the graves of our great-grandparents. It started to rain. We returned to her parents’ house where her father and his family were waiting for me to join them in yet another feast.
When I left, Masha gave me one red carnation. It had been blessed in a service of remembrance of the village dead, my Ukrainian ancestors. It hangs now, dry and drained of colour, at home above my desk.