Elizabeth O’Neal’s Genealogy Blog Party this month is all about holiday celebrations.
Since I’ve spent quite a bit of time in 2021 watching Carpatho-Rusyn-related webinars and videos, I’ve decided to share the Christmas Eve customs that my Rusyn ancestors would have followed.
Unfortunately, I grew up without the benefit of learning about my cultural heritage. Most likely, that is because my Rusyn grandfather died when my dad was only ten years old and Nana said we were Americans, at least to me.
John Righetti, a founder of the Carpatho-Rusyn Society and its president from 1992-2012, has given quite a few really interesting talks about the Rusyn people through the ages.
In his latest talk, posted on YouTube only a few days ago, Mr. Righetti talks about Christmas and New Year’s traditions among the various groups of Rusyn people living in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania.
His presentation is just over 8 minutes long, but he packed many details into that short time frame. If you’d like to hear any of his talks, which cover a variety of Rusyn topics, just go to YouTube and search ‘Rusyn Righetti’ and a video list will appear.
I took detailed notes just about Christmas Eve, which I’ll share with you.
First, it is important to remember that, like all other ancient ethnic groups, pagan practices eventually intermingled with much newer Christianity.
It is also important to understand that when gifts began to appear as part of the holiday celebrations, in some cultures, those gifts were not exchanged until the 12th day of Christmas – 6 January – when the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem with gifts for baby Jesus.
Christmas Day was the birth day of the Christ Child, not a day of gifts and Santa Claus, as it has evolved today.
With that foundation, let’s look at how my ancestors in the Presov area of Slovakia celebrated Christmas Eve.
Historically, December was a month of preparation for the Christmas season. Although babies, by necessity, were baptized in December, and burials also took place, again by necessity, couples NEVER married in that month.
In this case, never really means never. In the church records that I have abstracted in my recent one-place study, from the first record in 1827 through 1918, there is not one single instance of a marriage taking place in December.
Preparation for the holiday season begins on 15 November, 40 days before Christmas and the day after the feast day of St. Philip the Apostle.
During December, the focus was on Christmas Eve preparation because of an ancient pagan belief held by Rusyns. Anyone into genealogy will love this as much as I do. On the shortest day of the year, which is just a few days before Christmas Eve, families communed with their ancestors.
Intertwined with this belief were the Christian practice of preparing for Jesus’s birth.
My grandmother’s family would have all gathered together on Christmas Eve. This gathering provided connections not only between the younger and older generations, but also with deceased family members and ancestors long gone.
As soon as it was dark, the Holy Supper meal could begin. However, before the family could eat, the man of the household took the first food out to the animals. This was done for two reasons – the animals were there when Jesus was born and because of the belief that the animals could speak to God. The family wouldn’t want the animals to tell God anything bad about them, so the animals were well treated.
Next, the father would stand outside the home with his ax. Three times in a row, he would call all the witches and evil spirits to the house for the meal. When none appeared, he would make the Sign of the Cross with his ax, which was meant to protect the family from harm during the coming year.
It was then time to go back inside with his family to say prayers. At the end of prayers, each family member would dip a clove of garlic into heny and make the Sign of the Cross, again to protect the household. Then, it was time to enjoy Holy Supper.
The foods that could be eaten were very limited because no meat or dairy products could be on the table. Fish was allowed and was often served with pirohy (potato or sweet dumplings boiled in water and then fired in a pan), bobalki (balls of sweet bread), fruits and different kinds of vegetable soups.
However, and this was very important – no food was put away after the family finished eating. Everything was left on the table overnight so that the ancestral spirits could also enjoy the feast.
In fact, sometimes spirits might arrive while the family was eating, so it was important to blow on your chair before sitting. You didn’t want to sit on your ancestors’ spirits! Often, too, an empty chair was at the table so spirits could freely join the family.
After eating, it would almost be time to walk to church. Before departing, though, a group of what we might call shepherd carolers (all men) came to the house. They were invited inside, where they performed a short play about Rusyn shepherds traveling to Bethlehem after they learned of Jesus’s birth. One of the carolers was dirty and raggedy looking, which was meant to scare the children from evil. By the end of the play, the mean caroler had come to see the goodness in Jesus.
Before departing the house, the caroling group was given donations for the church and money, fruit and sweets for themselves to eat as they visited each house in the village.
As the family began the walk to church, likely for the midnight Vigil of the Nativity, they met up with friends and neighbors along the way.
By the time they headed back home, it was early Christmas Day.
Personally, I think I missed out on some wonderful traditions!
Happy Holidays to All!