What comes to your mind from the word “Ukrainian”? How about when you were younger…did “Ukrainian” bring any associations to mind? For me, it was Easter eggs. When I was a teenager, someone taught me about the intricate and colorful batik-method art forms that are Ukrainian Easter eggs: no fizzy Paas tablets for them, let alone markers or stickers. And that about summed up what I knew of Ukraine.
So it has been a realization of that long-held association to celebrate Easter here in Ukraine. You may wonder why I am writing about Easter in May, when Easter in the U.S. was back in March. Well, this year Orthodox Easter was on May 1, due to moon calculations, so it was just recently that I had the privilege of getting a peek into Ukrainian Easter traditions.
In my experience, long-held associations often don’t pan out in reality. The intricately-designed Easter egg, “Pysanka,” does exist here, albeit nowadays decorated with paint rather than wax and dye. Back in January, my mom and I found some wooden painted pysanky on St. Andrew’s Descent in Kyiv, and I have picked up a few more since then. I am quite fond of them.
However, modern times have come as well; I found no one slaving to create their own with hot wax over candlelight, and instead saw an abundance of sticker-clad eggs. In the stores, they sold plastic sleeves that you can cut into sections, slip over the eggs, and place into boiling water for the design to adhere to the egg. It was nice to see that Jesus could be plastered onto the sides of hard-boiled eggs.
When Abi and I were in Kyiv the weekend before Easter, we came across a display of large eggs behind St. Michael’s Cathedral. We were happy not to meet up with the chicken who laid them.
Once I arrived back in Cherkasy, I found a smaller display of chickensauras eggs set up in one of the central squares, alongside some Easter egg trees.
Most of these tree-dwelling eggs are the hollowed-out variety, and there was an invitation for others to contribute their own.
Another item associated with Easter here is paska, a round bread loaf that I find to be quite similar in shape and composition to Italian panettone. They are usually decorated with a light crusty frosting and sprinkles on top.
I was invited to be a part of the early-morning Easter celebration with my friend Olga and her family. Olga and Pasha have a 6-year-old daughter, and I thought it would be fun to introduce the Easter egg hunt to her. Olga agreed, so I went on an Easter egg hunt of my own around town, and lo and behold I found…absolutely nothing. It made my mind spin to think of the volume of Easter candy we have in the States, along with commercialized items of all sorts, and here the only Easter food I could find to purchase was paska. Can you imagine this? A religious holiday that does not have 10 varieties of M&M’s? Or pastel-colored Oreos? No displays set up right when you come into a store, overflowing with secular items associated with the holiday? Nope – still just the onion bin when you walk in.
I stayed overnight at Olga’s, since I otherwise would have had no way to get out to her place at 4 a.m. Sunrise was at 5:35, and we needed to be at the church with enough time to get our basket blessed before day broke. We left the house at 4:50 and found the street and sidewalks full of candle-lit baskets silently making their way toward church in the early dawn light. It was a truly beautiful sight, one that I expect to stay firmly implanted in my memory. Here is what it looked like once we arrived:
We joined the large ring of people and baskets surrounding the church. Olga and Pasha set up the basket, opening the covers and lids to expose the food. We waited for the priest to come along on his rounds.
You might notice that the ground around the baskets is wet. It became evident to me as I watched the priest approaching that this was no light sprinkle he was bestowing. It seems that food is not properly blessed unless it is well-doused. And if some of this water ends up on you, well, the blessing carries over to you as well. This priest was apparently a very magnanimous soul, and ample with his blessing. As he came closer, I began to suspect that he was not even aiming for the food. I took off my glasses.
I was, indeed, the recipient of lots of good fortune. The entire time, the priest chants the Easter Acclamation “Khristos Voskres!” – Christ is risen! I cannot imagine how many times he must have said that on this morning, going round and round the church as new parishioners continuously filled the spots that others had vacated.
We walked home, carrying a candle with flame from inside the church to bring more luck besides the water which was on our food and faces. There, we had a feast of meats, homemade sausages, salads, vegetables, mashed potatoes, and of course, decorated eggs and paska.
Before you can eat your egg, you have to hit it end to end against another person’s egg to see whose cracks. The winner then goes on to challenge the next egg. My egg won. I think I won more luck or something. I’m honestly not sure what I’m supposed to do with all of this luck now.
Back to the egg hunt dilemma. I had nixed the idea of hiding loaves of paska around Olga’s house, and instead opted for Kinder eggs – wrapped chocolate eggs from Germany with little toys inside, fun but not specifically associated with Easter. I also found, in the special import section of the store, some foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies from Germany. Way to come through, Germany! (This creates some confusion, however, seeing as how Ukraine has a bunny who delivers gifts to kids at Christmas, and they have chocolate bunnies then. “What!?” you say? “The Christmas Bunny?” Yeah, we should really teach them that it doesn’t make any sense; bunnies are supposed to hide eggs, of course!)
Olga and I hid the four Kinder eggs around Tamila’s room for her, and the seven or so little bunnies around the dining room for everyone to find. It was quite a hit! It seems I may have started a tradition that will continue after I have gone. Yup…just part of my duties, bringing American culture and all of its trappings to this dear non-commercialized land. You can give me a bonus anytime, U.S. State Department.
We took care of any remaining room in our stomachs with some Roshen cake, and then I headed back home on the bus to attend the church service at my regular church.
The service was followed by more paska and then a gathering of congregations in the center square of the city.
In Ukraine, you don’t wish people a happy Easter. Rather, just like the priest, you say, “Khristos Voskres!” (Christ is risen!) to which the other person replies, “Voistinu Voskres!” (He is risen indeed!). I realized I needed to learn to say the second part when I found myself rushing to always be the first person to speak. Whew. But I said it so many times that day that it should be firmly implanted now. I was amazed by how people used this greeting everywhere and with everyone. The next day, I was on a marshrutka to Kyiv, and the man who sat down next to me said, “Khristos Voskres!” Then in the convenience store that we stopped at, I heard someone say to the cashier when they were making their purchase, “Khristos Voskres!”
That really impressed me. I believe that in the midst of all our candy and decorations, and beyond the water and the flame, it is in this pronouncement to each other – that is where the blessing really lies.