While many of the Ukrainian Christmas Eve customs are of a solemn nature, the custom of caroling is joyful and merry. Ukrainian Christmas songs or carols have their origins in antiquity, as do many other traditions practiced at Christmas time.
There are two main groups of Christmas songs in Ukraine: the koliadky, which are sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; the second group of Christmas songs is called shchedrivky, which are sung during the Feast of the Epiphany. Teams of carolers start roaming their hometowns on January 7. They are often dressed as characters present during Christ’s birth in Bethlehem (the three Kings, Angels, Shepherds, Herod), but also as the ritual goat, and such characters as the Gypsy and Jew, which had a special place in the life of Ukraine’s village agricultural society, as well as Death that comes to take Herod.
Both koliadky and shchedrivky have pagan elements in them, but many have been Christianized. The themes of Ukrainian Christmas songs vary. Many, of course, deal with the birth of Christ and that occasion's joyful celebrations, and many of them have apocryphal elements; there are carols which contain purely pagan mythological elements; another group deals with Ukrainian history of the 9th to 12th centuries.
Koliadky and shchedrivky are the oldest groups of Ukrainian folk songs. They are sung by Ukrainians at Christmas time throughout the world.
Carol of the Bells is the iconic Christmas music that everyone knows. But not many know that it's a Ukrainian folksong. The Ukrainian song "Shchedryk" became the basis for the world famous Christmas carol, "Carol of the Bells". The world-known lyrics of Wilhousky speak about the ringing of bells that call to throw cares away. The original lyrics based on the Ukrainian folk song “Schedryk” are much less known. Though they are based on the same melody, the lyrics of the two songs share nothing in common. The original lyrics of Ukrainian version speaks about a swallow that flew into a master’s household and started twittering to him about the increase of his livestock.
Caroling was not a simple singing of Christmas songs, it required extensive preparation. The dressed up group of carolers in Ukraine is called Vertep. Vertep, the Ukrainian Christmas puppet theater, is a group of people going from house to house with short Biblical themed scenes and carol singing. After seeing the performance, the host traditionally pays money or gives food to Vertep.
In some places people even had musical instruments, such as the violin, tsymbaly (dulcimer), or the trembita (a wooden pipe about 8-10 feet long, used in the Carpathian Mountains by the Hutsuls).
Caroling was not a simple singing of Christmas songs, it was more of a folk opera. The carolers first had to ask for permission to sing. If the answer was yes, they entered the house and sang carols for each member of the family, even for the smallest child. The caroling always ended with short well-wishing poems, appropriately selected for each home.
Christmas celebration in Ukraine has a long history and a vivid set of traditions and rituals. Carols singing is an interesting and authentic Ukrainian tradition well preserved till these days. Through traditional Ukrainian carols foreigners can get a glimpse of a unique cultural identity that miraculously survived through many centuries.
Photos: Mykhailo Koifman/shutterstock.com, Anna Vishtak.