Local Traditions of Easter Day
and
Ukrainian Velykden


From willow switches to Paska bread, Ukrainian Easter is a unique blend of new and old traditions, some of which date from before the birth of Christ himself. Easter Day is a public holiday in Ukraine and celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from death, as told in the Bible. Orthodox Easter coincides with the pre-Christian celebration of Velykden (Great Day), an ancient Ukrainian festival of spring celebrated on the occasion of the vernal equinox. The combination means that Easter in Ukraine is a beautiful mixture of traditional Christian practices, folklore and ancient pagan rituals, such as the preparation of Ukrainian Easter eggs (krashanky, pysanky) and, of course, Paska. Note that Easter always falls on a Sunday; in 2017, it will occur on the 16th of April.

Preparations

Preparation for Easter starts one week before the holiday (a week called “Holy Week”) and begins with Willow Sunday. Unlike people of other countries, who call this celebration of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem “Palm Sunday,” Ukrainians use willow switches instead of palm fronds as their symbolic branches to decorate their homes. This change is due to the willow’s symbolic meaning in the pre-Christian pagan culture as well as lack of local palm trees.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are spent preparing food for Easter: baking sweet egg bread (Paska) and dyeing eggs (krashanky). On Clean Thursday, people clean the house and themselves before the big holiday; many people even visit the bathhouse (banya) on this day. Good Friday (also called Mourning Friday) is the day when Christ died. People are not supposed to eat anything and spend the day at church. In theory, no work is allowed, though this is not very practical in modern life!

Baking Paska and making krashanky and pysanky are some of the most treasured holiday traditions. Paska is a delicious, sweet, festive bread that is rich in butter and eggs and baked only for Easter. There are more than 40 recipes for Paska, but it is to be baked only from the best wheat flour. You can easily recognize one by its tall and cylindrical shape with a rounded top, which is usually decorated with dough ornaments or a white glaze. It smells divine, and no wonder: its flavorings may include ginger, saffron, vanilla, citron and rum.
Paska’s pre-Christian origin is evident in a variety of interesting beliefs, rituals and superstitions. Modern Paska usually has a white glaze made from sugar and egg and is decorated on top with colored wheat grains or poppy seeds. However, according to an old custom, which is still practised in some Ukrainian regions, Paska was decorated with symbolic ornaments connected with spring themes: the awakening of nature, resurrection and rebirth. The most widespread ornaments include the cross and the tryhver, an ancient three-armed symbol. The significance of the cross in Christianity is well-known, but in pre-Christian times, when people’s beliefs were based on nature and its phenomena, the cross symbolised four cardinal directions or four seasons. The tryhver symbol has three rays originating from one dot, meaning air, fire and water.
Baking of Paskas is a ceremonial affair, during which the household was expected to stay quiet and still. The women preparing the bread were told to keep their thoughts pure, and it was strictly forbidden to eat or even taste paska before it was blessed at the Easter Service on Sunday.

In order to dye eggs and prepare krashanky, Ukrainians traditionally use natural dyes like onion peel for rich mahogany and beet root for reds and pinks, but nowadays you can find a wide range of food coloring to dye Easter Eggs.
Another important Ukrainian tradition is preparing pysankas, which are eggs painted by hand. A pysanka is a real piece of art, which requires good amount of time and effort to create! The word “pysanka” comes from the Ukrainian word for “to write” (“pysaty”) and people believe here that pysanka protects homes from evil spirits and misfortune.
The main difference between “krashanka” and “pysanka” is that “pysanka” is decorated raw egg (drained through a tiny drilled hole so that they are empty inside and may be preserved), whereas “krashanka” is dyed hardboiled egg, usually one simple color, meant for eating at the Easter feast. In Ukrainian culture, eggs were always considered as a source of life and symbols of the rebirth of the earth. The symbolism of eggs as religious objects dates back to Ukraine’s pre-Christian past, and decorated eggs have always been a part of religious celebrations in Ukraine.

Pysanka Festival
From 8 April to 24 April 2017, you are invited to visit the Pysanka Festival in Kiev’s Sophiivska Square. The best painters from different regions of Ukraine as well as amateurs will gather to decorate 585 pysankas from 5 centimeters to 2 meters in size, which will be presented to the public during the festival. The Pysanka Festival is an annual traditional event, designed to support and popularize Ukrainian folk traditions and history.

Celebration

The actual celebration of Easter starts on Saturday night, when many Christians go for an overnight church service. It is not an easy task to stay in church all the night (Orthodox churches have no seats), so most families go to church on Easter morning (before the sunrise) to be blessed by the priest. People bring to church Easter baskets with lit candles, which are filled with the Paska, krashanky and other foods. As part of the mass, the Easter baskets are blessed by the priest, and taken home by the families to eat in the morning.
Note that the Easter is the end of a forty-day period of so-called Great Fasting, which is practiced in Ukraine more than elsewhere! During the Great Fasting, religious people are supposed to avoid eating animal products: meat, eggs and dairy. Now imagine how excited you would be to feast after weeks of this strict diet?
According to local traditions, families begin their Easter meal with Paska and the dyed krashanky eggs. Every kid’s favorite part of the morning is the game called “egg battles,” when two people rap their eggs together, and if someone’s eggshell breaks, that person is out of the game.
After the Easter service and meal, many people to go out with family and friends to picnics and relax in nature.
With busy city life, not everyone today can do all the preparations and rituals as our grandmothers did. Therefore, for some people, preparations for Easter will just mean buying Paska and krashanky at the closest supermarket. Nevertheless, for most Ukrainian families, Easter is an important holiday and a great opportunity to get together in a warm, festive atmosphere with their own family rituals; to call relatives and friends; and to visit church. On this day, instead of “hello,” you will hear people exchanging the sayings “Христос Воскрес!” (“Christ is Risen!”) and “Воістину Воскрес!” (“Truly, He is Risen!”).
If you are lucky enough to be in Kiev for Easter, visit a church, enjoy the Easter Festival on Sophiivska Square, and don’t miss the opportunity to try local Paska in cafes, who will always offer it in their menu on this day!
In Kiev, Easter is also widely celebrated in the National Architecture and Life Museum «Pirogovo», the Mamajeva Sloboda Open Air Museum and the national complex “Expocenter of Ukraine”, where you can learn more about local culture and traditions, try Ukrainian food and enjoy nature!