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It’s Kalyady Time! How Belarusians Mix Christian And Pagan Traditions From Past Till Present

The bells are ringing as people across the world are celebrating Christmas. In Belarus, one finds a beautiful mixture of Christian and pagan traditions. One of them is Kalyady, a pagan holiday that unites three big celebrations – Christmas, New Year and Epiphany.

Find out why this holiday is so precious to Belarusians, why we are a little bit pagans inside and how to celebrate Kalyady like a local. Be ready to put a mask on!

What is Kalyady?

For the ancestors of modern Belarusians that was the main winter holiday. Kalyady is associated with the winter solstice. The celebration symbolized the beginning of the new year – both solar and agricultural.

Kalyady meant a murky, dangerous time when people held ceremonies to help the gods turn the wheel of the year from the dark side to the light one and receive new hope.

The word “Kalyada” originates from the word “kola” that means the “sun” or the “wheel”.

Christianity made a great effort to abolish folk pagan practices and attach the rituals to some Christian holiday. So with the adoption of the religion, the pagan Kalyady holiday turned into Christmas.

People began to celebrate Kalyady from 24 December till 6 January (Catholic tradition) or from  6 till 19 January (Orthodox tradition).

How to do it right?

Kalyady is a special holiday, and therefore Belarusians prepare for it thoroughly. They usually do a general cleaning of the house, put on the best clothes, take a long bath or go to banya.

To celebrate Kalyady one is supposed to be clean, both physically and spiritually.

Read also: 5 things to do during your Christmas vacation in Minsk

In the past, setting the table was a whole ceremony. The table was first covered with hay (according to a belief that favored good milk from the cows and protected the herd from wolves) and then with a tablecloth.

People in the family sat down at the table in order of seniority and remembered their dead relatives. During the dinner, there was a sequence of serving meals.

The first to eat was kutya – porridge from peeled barley served with butter or honey.

Until the evening of 6 January people were fasting, and only after the appearance of the first star in the sky, they would sit down at the table.

In addition to kutya, dishes with fish, mushrooms, pickled apples, sauerkraut, nuts and pancakes (of course!) were served. All the food was very filling and nourishing.

Read also: Whose pickles are the best? Belarusian tradition to stock up for winter explained

Singing carols and looking into the future

Another pagan tradition of Belarusians was “kaljadavannje”, or singing carols that turned into the glorification of Jesus Christ after the adoption of Christianity. The singers were mostly youth and were called “kaljadoushchyki”.

Nowadays you can meet people of all ages doing kaljadavannje.

Kalyady belarus

Kalyady celebration at an IT office in Minsk.

On the second day of Kalyady (7 January/25 December) “kaljadoushchyki” walk in large groups from house to house carrying the ancient Slavic symbol of the sun.

They greet people, sing songs and ditties, dance to glorify the owner of the house and his family and receiving sweets and small money in return.

Read also: People who live at Belarus-Ukraine border tell their stories

There are traditional characters such as Gypsy, Baba (old woman), Dzied (old man), Soldier, Devil, Priest, Death, and totemic animals, for example, Bear, Stork or Hare that participate in “kaljadavannje”.

There was always someone dressed as a goat. In the pagan traditions of Belarusians, the goat personified family harmony, well-being, and fertility. Goat is a key figure in the whole performance – it dies but then comes alive again, after which a song about fertility is usually sung.

Divination was another mandatory attribute of Kalyady. Only at this time girls could look into their future and recognize him. For example, in the past girls threw the left boot over the shoulder. The direction in which the sock looked was the direction from where their betrothed would come.

Rubbing two needles with lard and then dipping them in water was another popular fortune-telling. If they sank, the year would be unsuccessful, but if they came together then the marriage would happen the next year.

Are Belarusians really doing that nowadays?

Kalyady is still one of the most popular and appreciated holidays among Belarusians. However, in Belarus, like in many other places, old traditions are dying out.

During the Soviet period of the Belarusian history, Kalyady wasn’t celebrated much. But in the 60-70s this tradition began to revive, and in the early 90s, it has found its place in modern society.

Read also: Why Belarusians don’t speak their native language?

Kaljadoushchyki began to visit their neighbors and friends and the owners tried to bestow them generously so that the year would be successful.

Traditional divination has also come back, but now it’s rather done for fun. Watch how people celebrate Kalyady in Gomel:

For Belarusians, Kalyady is a good time to visit their grandparents in the village, gather at the table with family and friends, remember the old traditions of singing and dancing. It is common to celebrate Kalyady in a close family circle with the appearance of the first star.

Even today Kalyady evokes childhood memories when the whole world stands still, waiting for a miracle. Kalyady motives are found in the contemporary Belarusian culture.

Kalyady in a Belarusian village

Kalyady in a Belarusian village.

If you want a break from Christmas

Are you tired of the traditional Christmas whirl and want to try something new this winter? Here are some easy tips that can help you dive into the tradition that has been alive since ancient times.

1. Set the table with 12 dishes. On Kalyady we are modeling the next year so the dishes should represent all 12 months or at least 4 seasons. Therefore, find some dried berries, a peeled apple, mushrooms – all that accompanied peasants throughout the year.

2. Cook kutya!  But do not expect that we have a restaurant where you can taste it. You’ll need to go to the market, buy barley and boil it at home in a saucepan. Don’t forget to add honey and butter. The most delicious kutya is cooked with your own hands.

3. Dress up in costumes and put on masks! And choose the character you like as the mask gives you permission to be who you want to be.

Done? Then pay a visit to your neighbors, friends or even to the colleagues in the next door office singing traditional “kaljadki” songs and playing jokes on them.

You certainly will be rewarded with some treats!

4. Read your fortune. Love, money, business? The beginning of the new solar is a magical time when mysterious things may happen and give you the answers you are looking for! If you are an unmarried girl, before starting the festive dinner go out into the yard with a spoon of kutya. In which side the dog barks – there your betrothed lives!

5. Gather with those you care for. It’s important to celebrate Kalyady with someone you really love. It’s believed that if the family gathers at the same table with the appearance of the first star in the sky than the next year this family will be together.

Let’s go pagan!


Text by Nadzeya Prasvirava.

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