A young woman meandered home from the town market. She’d found a good price on eggs and was carrying a basketful in the crook of one arm. As she walked, she sipped from a jug of water and admired her surroundings. Just ahead was a familiar landmark, a pile of boulders she passed nearly every day.
But today something was different. She noticed a man sitting on one boulder, looking tired. The woman thought he was probably a weary traveller taking a break along the way. Feeling compassion, she offered him a drink of water, and he gladly accepted.
Strange, she thought as he returned the water jug to her. I wonder what happened to his hands, why he has those wounds.
The woman turned back onto the path and headed home. Soon she was standing in her kitchen, ready to unload her goods from the market. As she looked into her basket, she called out in surprise. Every egg was now covered with intricate paintings in beautiful colors.
This was the first Easter, and the stranger she had met was the resurrected Christ.
The eggs were called pysanky.
* Story based on a famous Ukrainian Easter legend
Easter in Ukraine is marked by a melding of Christian tradition, pagan practices and folklore. We celebrate on the Orthodox date, up to several weeks later than most of the world. This year, Easter falls on April 8th.
Ukraine, as part of an early Slavic state called Kievan Rus, first recognized Christ’s resurrection when they converted to Christianity in 988. Following the conversion, the state slowly combined practices of paganism and Christianity and formed their Easter traditions.
In early days, folk celebrations began in the churchyard on Easter Eve, and games and dancing continued from several days to three weeks.
Easter is also a time for Ukrainians to remember the dead. They visit the graves of loved ones, leave cakes, and pour a glass of vodka in honor of those who have passed away. Priests visit the cemeteries to sprinkle holy water on the graves.
How We Celebrate Today
Disclaimer: some do not strictly follow these Easter traditions, but the practices I’m sharing are dear to the culture and the Orthodox and Catholic churches here in Ukraine. This is especially true in western Ukraine.
Lent begins seven weeks before Easter, and those who follow it strictly fast from meat and dairy.
Palm Sunday occurs one week before Easter. Unlike much of the western world, Ukrainians carry willow, not palm, branches to church that day, where the priest blesses them. In a custom known as “God’s Wounds,” people exiting the church tap each other with the branches and bless one another.
The week before Easter is a busy time of preparation. Ukrainians should complete all household or field work, and all their cooking and baking, by the end of Holy Thursday.
My mom, also a missionary in Ukraine, learned this the hard way. She and my dad live in a small village, where traditions are more strictly followed than in major cities. During their first year in the village, she noticed a sudden scurry of activity right before Easter. Neighbors were out cleaning their property and tending their gardens with unusual vigor. Unable to explain the phenomenon, my mom went about washing their windows after Holy Thursday. She received a sound scolding from her neighbor!
Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Christ, and traditionally, people do not work. This is not always the case in today’s Ukraine. The day is marked by a strict fast, a solemn processional around the church, and public veneration of the Holy Shroud, signifying the shroud Christ was buried in.
On Saturday, people come for a vigil at the church. In some congregations, the Easter service begins at midnight, while other churches commence on Sunday at dawn, or later in the morning.
The worshippers engage in a procession around the church, carrying a crucifix and the Holy Shroud. Their journey symbolizes the women who went to Christ’s tomb the morning of His resurrection. They complete the procession with singing and a triumphal entry through the church doors, signifying Christ’s victory over death and opening of heaven to sinners.
An important part of Easter service is the blessing of baskets. Each family brings a basket filled with cakes, eggs, cottage cheese, meats, and other items. Each of these items carries a meaning related to the resurrection.
After church, families break their fast together and enjoy a holiday meal.
Pysanka and Paska
Two of the strongest elements of Easter in Ukrainian culture are eggs (pysanka) and cakes (paska).
Pysanky are eggs that have been decorated with elaborate paintings. Traditionally, the smoothest eggs are selected, and the painter might even use a stylus to create the intricate details of their design. Ukrainians give pysanky to loved ones, representing the gift of life.
Nowadays, those of us with less artistic ability can buy plastic wrappers that easily cover eggs with a pretty picture. They’re no match for the handmade pysanky, but my kids love to help make them.
A legend describes how Mary Magdalene went boldly to Roman Emperor Tiberius and told him of Jesus’ resurrection. Tiberius scoffed at her recounting and gestured to an egg she had brought in her hand. “Impossible!” he cried. “It’s as impossible as that egg turning red in your hand.” Immediately, the egg changed to a crimson red, symbolizing Christ’s blood and His victory over death.
Paska is the famous Ukrainian Easter cake. It is shaped like a cylinder and covered with a glaze on top. Ukrainians may decorate their paska with sprinkles, with depictions of a lamb, or with the Cyrillic letters XB, standing for Христос Воскрес, Christ is risen.
I’ve heard of one tradition that the person baking paska must keep pure thoughts and a quiet house, otherwise the bread will not turn out as well. According to that tradition, visitors are not permitted into the home during this time.
He is Risen Indeed!
My personal favorite tradition is the Easter greeting.
Most people, including family, friends, and strangers who meet on the sidewalk, greet each other according to tradition on Easter. One person calls out, “Christ is risen!” and the other responds, “He is risen indeed!” Some add to this three kisses, signifying the early Christian church’s “greet each other with a holy kiss.”
When I lived in America, I commonly heard this greeting at church, but rarely in public. Here, it is an expectation among many, and it carries a sense of joy and excitement on this victorious holiday.
“Celebrating Easter the Ukrainian Way.” Kiev Check-In. Accessed March 29, 2018. https://www.kievcheckin.com/celebrating-easter-in-ukraine.
“Orthodox Easter in Ukraine.” Destinations Ukraine. Accessed March 29, 2018. http://destinations.com.ua/events/orthodox-easter-in-ukraine.
“Ukrainian Easter Traditions.” Ukrainian People. Accessed March 29, 2018. http://ukrainianpeople.us/ukrainian-easter-traditions/.
Vlasova, Victoria. “Ancient and Modern Easter Traditions in Ukraine.” Destinations Ukraine. March 27, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2018. http://destinations.com.ua/blog/ancient-and-modern-easter-traditions-in-ukraine.