Celebrating “Old Calendar” Christmas

It’s Day Three of Christmas (according to the Julian calendar), and all manner of celebratory things – notably singing, dancing, and the making-and-eating of doughnuts – will finally let up this evening. I hardly miss the three French hens at all.

We had hoped to celebrate Christmas in Adam’s Carpathian mountains, and then we worried we would not get back to Ukraine in time at all due to administrative circumstances beyond our control. Nevertheless, the whole family got into L’viv by Christmas Eve, Jan. 6.

We missed the traditional entry of Grandfather or Didukh (a giant sheaf of wheat) into the center of the city while I was being picked up at the airport.  Nevertheless, we were all together it in time to see the sidewalks roll up and a pregnant silence fall on the center city. In our time warp, where 7 p.m. was still noon to us, we walked through just-frozen downtown neighborhoods that were completely closed for business. They were drained of cars, buses, trolleys and all but a few straggling pedestrians. Out of the apartment buildings wafted the familiar smells of a traditional meatless Christmas Eve dinner – onions, garlic, mushrooms, fish, more garlic – that was supposed to be served as soon as families saw the first evening star.  Seeing the star was difficult in the eerie light of twinkling, blinking and electronically cascading electronic lights. At midnight, solitary pedestrians crossed at comfortable intervals among the intermittently green- and red-silhouetted branches of the naked trees in Ivan Franko Park. Everything was waiting.  Just waiting. Christmas Eve was a silent night indeed.

But Christmas Day was ecstatic!

We attended the Orthodox Church service. When church was over, we couldn’t help but notice that every business that could contribute to the celebration was open: restaurants, grocery stores and souvenir shops. Especially the booths at the Christmas Market. That’s because it seemed as if the whole town was downtown!  There must have been thousands of people out and about until the wee hours.

Actually, some of the townspeople were elsewhere. At the museum of rural and folk life, the Festival of Stars was taking place. The festival celebrates kolyadnyke or carolers – I’d call them troupes of mummers – who roam the streets behind a leader carrying an elaborate homemade eight-sided star, looking for just the right corner upon which to set up and draw an audience. The mummers are young people (from smallish children shepherded by mothers up to people in their 20s) who do more than sing carols. They perform their versions of the Vertep or  traditional Christmas morality play, a rhyming narrative with medieval roots relating how the birth of Jesus pushes the Devil out of the world. An Angel does the pushing. A scythe-swinging Death takes Herod (“Yee-rod“) and assorted evil-doers to Hell. (We saw a gun-toting Devil, a communist activist and a government bureaucrat escorted to the Netherworld. “So political!” said a lady behind me. These performances always have featured political overtones.) The same festival moves downtown the next day and features a parade. For many troupes, participation extends out into the rest of the city for all three days; they wander the streets, going door-to-door in some neighborhoods, performing the story and passing the hat for themselves (“I need new shoes! Giggle.”) or for charity. In the evening, stretching out from the front door of the Opera House and in the Market Square all around City Hall, the performances continue, competing with children’s choirs and poetry on a main stage; musicians busking; new-age Cossacks drumming and dancing; fireworks booming; revelers skating, eating doughnuts and caroling spontaneously; and teams of horses (driven by Santas on cell phones) clopping down cobbled streets pulling families all cuddled together in their carriages. Little children in snow suits wear devil horns glowing red, ladies in full-length furs saunter in spike heels as they sip mulled wine, cotton-candy makers attract and mesmerize audiences as they twirl the glistening strands of white sugar into bouffants-on-a-stick, dads stand at outdoor pub tables drinking beer and eating bratwurst or kielbasa or shashlik with one eye on the kids; teens drink hot chocolate or hot honey-mead and eat everything that’s not nailed down; and everyone eats at least one jelly doughnut.

In the southern United States where we have lived for 25 years, people often turn off their Christmas lights the day after Christmas, and almost all of them have undecorated and tossed their tree by the end of the same day. (The drugstores had already set up their Valentine’s Day displays alongside their 75%-off Christmas merchandise by the time I left Charlotte.) Meanwhile, in Ottawa, where my mother, brother and brother’s family still live, Christmas Day is the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Festival of Lights that runs until Jan. 7 means decorations, colored lights and as many Christmas trees as possible enjoy longer lives. Still, that’s nothing compared to how things are celebrated here in L’viv.  Here the holidays start about two weeks before “Polish” or “Latin” or “our” Christmas, as celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar. By the Gregorian Jan. 7 – that’s Julian Dec. 25 at the moment– things are in full swing.

Christmas Day is the first day of a celebration that lasts until Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. As I say, it’s only Day Three today. We’re heading downtown for some hot chocolate, doughnuts and skating. Nine more days of Christmas to go. Ho, ho, ho.


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