Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian world. In Belarus, it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages. Back then the folk customs mingled with the Christian one creating a mixture that has survived till these days.
Easter or Vialikdzień (in Belarusian) literally means a big or great day. The same name of the holiday is used in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia. Western Slavs – Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks – use the ‘great night’ name.
Easter in Belarus is a moveable feast – every year it can fall between 22 March and 25 April. A big part of Christians celebrate it according to Julian (old style) calendar, which is usually ‘delayed’ by two weeks.*
The date of Easter also depends on the full moon calendar (first Sunday after the full moon). Sometimes Belarusian Catholics and Orthodox celebrate on the same day, sometimes on two different.
This year Catholic Easter is on the 21rst of April, the Orthodox Easter is a week later, on the 28th.
Cleansing the sin
The Great day is always preceded by a ‘clean week’. This is the week of spiritual preparations, cleaning and cooking. It officially starts on a previous Sunday, which is called Palm Sunday.
Since in Belarus palms don’t grow, the holiday is called after a willow tree. After blessing willow catkins twigs in church churchgoers lash each wishing good health with the words: “willow lashes, not me”.
On clean Monday Belarusians took care of their house exteriors and gardens. Clean Tuesday was reserved for the inside housework —they were scrubbing, sweeping and cleaning up.
Wednesday was devoted to cleaning wooden tools, especially those used for making ‘holy’ bread. On Clean Thursday, people tried to finish all the chores and wash up before dawn to be healthy and clean all year.
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Our ancestors believed that morning bathing cleansed from all the sins. In former times, they plunged into rivers and lakes, no matter how cold it was outside.
On Friday, one shouldn’t work, drink alcohol or eat anything besides bread and water. It was a day of mourning, remembrance of the Passion of Christ, his procession to Calvary, crucifixion and death on the cross.
These days most city dwellers don’t know the details and nuances of the holiday. Some follow their inner calendar and rituals intuitively, others just wait for another weekend.
For believers, the whole week is a preparation for Christ’s resurrection and a spiritual way to be cleansed of their sins.
Painted eggs and pirahi
Saturday was a day of cooking. Every family boiled and painted eggs, the symbol of fertility and Easter holiday. They were usually painted with onion shells and decorated with ornaments.
In traditional stoves, women cooked bread called ‘vielikodnyja bulki’ (Easter buns) or ‘pirahi’. They were white, flavorless, crispy and with or without raisins.
Buns, eggs and other food were taken to church for blessing on beautifully decorated towels.
Religious people went to churches, where according to the orthodox traditions, there was an all-night mass commemorating Jesus’s death on the cross.
Before going to sleep, a light in one of the rooms was left burning to symbolize being vigil and watchful.
As at present, some might limit their cooking to boiled eggs. While some use onion shells, beet, turmerich and other natural colours, othes paint their eggs with commercial substitutes.
Easter buns can also be bought at any store.
Sundays breakfast (‘vielikodnaje razhaviennie’ literally means getting oneself stuffed) was a culmination and actual celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
The feast started with boiled eggs and other blessed foods, including meat and salt, which were now allowed after a long period of fasting.
Children played egg-games, one of them is ‘bitki’. They hit each other’s egg from both sides, the one that remained untouched was a winner and its owner took the loser’s egg.
Or they rolled eggs from a stilted piece of bark, the egg that hit those at the bottom allowed the lucky winner to grab the touched ones.
One of the most interesting customs related to the Easter cycle was ‘Valačobnictva’ usually carried out by men.
Valačobniki were a group of people roaming from hut to hut, singing songs and playing traditional instruments, such as a duda (Belarusian bagpipe) and violin.
This ritual united the community together and was a nice way of wishing a host’s family good luck.
To thank the guests the family gave them a few Easter eggs, Easter bread, homemade sausages, moonshine or a little money.
Monday was a forefather’s day dedicated to the commemoration of the deceased ancestors.
For some time people greeted each other with the words “Christ’s resurrected”, and saying “Indeed resurrected” in reply.
*The Great Day and Great Week symbolized the beginning of a traditional cycle before the Christian calendar was adopted.
*’Vialikdzień’ marked the beginning of field works and spring holidays, such as ‘radunica’ (spring version of All Saints’ Day) and the pagan holiday of Jurja (Slavic equivalent of Saint George’s Day).
*Gregorian calendar (new style) was designed in 1582 to change the date of Easter, which fell further away from the spring equinox with each year. The change has never been accepted by most Orthodox churches.
Text by Vital Voranau