Much of traditional Ukrainian culture is influenced by its integration into the Soviet Union, as well as its eastern neighbours Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia and its western neighbours Austria, Beligum, France, Germany to name a few. Its customs, traditions and rituals are deeply steeped in Christian practices, the religion of Orthodox Christianity being the dominant one in the country.
Ukrainian Holidays and Festivities
For Ukrainians, holidays are the best times to celebrate and be with their families and loved ones and they do have a number of them. These events are marked with revelry and of course, copious amounts of libations consumed by the people. Some of the most colorful and festive ones include the following: New Year’s Day on January 1 when children receive present under the New Year tree, people pop open champagne bottles and raise a toast at the stroke of midnight and fireworks fill the Ukrainian sky. Unlike in the West where people make New Year’s resolutions, in Ukraine people write down their wishes for the coming year on a piece of paper, drop it in their champagne glasses and drink it as the clock strikes twelve times. Saint Christmas week is celebrated from January 7 to 14 when people don folksy costumes and go from house to house singing songs of good tidings. The activity is called “Kolyaduvannya” and “Schredruvannya.” The tradition calls for the houses called upon to give sweets or food and drinks to the “carolers” as a token of appreciation. In turn, it is believed that everything that the people have sung will come true for the household. Easter is another important Orthodox Christian event among Ukrainians and the date is determined by the Church calendar. The tradition of Easter egg actually had its beginnings in Ukraine. On Easter night people go to their churches for the service, bringing with them Easter cakes, painted eggs and bottles of wine so that they can be blessed by the clergymen (Ukrainians believe that such an act bestows strong healing powers on the food and the eggs). When the service is over at 4 a.m. the people go back to their homes and continue the feasting and celebration throughout the day.
Another interesting Ukrainian holiday is the Ivana Kupala Day, celebrated in honor of the Sun God. The festivities are held during the longest day of summer solstice and is named after “Kupajla” who is regarded as the Divinity of Fertility, Harvest and Healing.
Ukrainian culture is also strongly evident in the people’s dances and songs. Much of their ways of life, their struggles and their victories are translated through their rich assemblage of songs and dances accompanied by a well developed tradition of music. Even though music and dancing has come a long way and has incorporated much of the Western influences such as rap and RnB, traditional folk music has survived. Historical epic songs sung by Cossacks known as the “dumy” played on the Kobza (a four-stringed lute with a sounboard that is plucked or strummed), the Bandura (a multi-stringed zither), or a Lira (a Ukrainian wheel fiddle) can still be heard across the countryside. Ukrainians also have a unique style of singing called the “bilyj holos”, which literally means “white voice,” and can sound like that of controlled screaming. Other examples of Ukraine’s traditional instrumental music are the Lytavry (kettle drum), Ukrainian balalaika (which is a six-string variant of the Russian balalaika), the Sviril (Ukrainian panpipe), the Husli (an ancient Ukrainian stringed instrument) and the Volynka (traditional Slavic bagpipe).
Ukraine also has a wealth of folk dances which can generally be described as energetic, fast-paced and showcases the rich and colorful history of the country and its peoples. There are ritual dances dating as far back as the time of the Kievan Rus’ era which are now known as Vesnianky or Spring Dances. There is also the Hopak or Cossack Dance, which is often referred to as the “National Dance of Ukraine.” Another type of Ukrainian folk dancing is the Siuzhetni tantsi or the story dances which tells stories of particular groups of people in Ukraine. There is the Kovali (the dance of the blacksmiths), the Kosari (the reapers) and the Shevchyky (the shoemakers).
Of course, these traditional practices of singing and dancing is never complete without Ukraine’s folk costumes. Traditional clothing in Ukraine varies by region, as well as the purpose for which they are worn. Generally, the women worde wide shirts that dropped to the knees and a cap like a man’s hat but covered with a wrap. Men wear a shirt, trousers, cloak, sheepskin vest, footcloths, stockings and boots. The Bast shoes, one of the oldest types of Eastern European footwear is made of birch bark and have been worn by both men and women in Ukraine.