Hutsuls have preserved their Christmas traditions unchanged for several centuries, offering tourists a unique opportunity not only to see the old ceremonies and folk festivals but to take part in them. During winter holidays, everyone who lives in Hutsulia or comes here on a visit feels as if in a time machine, getting immersed in a large-scale event that has been shaped over centuries.
You can join these non-tourist celebrations not only in private farmsteads and cottages but in large chain hotels too. Winter holidays are full of singing, dancing, fun and great food all around. Carols and fun never stop here during two weeks from Christmas to Epiphany.
The ethno-cultural land of Hutsulia is located in the southeastern part of the Ukrainian Carpathians, stretching over a part of Halychyna, Bukovyna and Transcarpathia. Here, as everywhere else in western Ukraine, ancient Christmas customs are still alive but there are certain peculiarities. The combination of Christian and pagan traditions is what makes winter holidays in Hutsulia special. For example, Hutsuls believe that before the festive dinner, they are joined by the souls of their deceased ancestors, therefore before they sit at the table, they must blow a soul off the chair. And their Christmas carols, called kolyadki, not only honor Jesus Christ but tell a story of the entire Hutsul family – from glorious Dovbush to modern independent Ukraine.
The Christmas Eve requires thorough preparations. There must be 12 lean home-made dishes on the table. The most important of them is kutya, a sacred meal made of wheat and honey, poppy seeds and nuts. Check out cabbage rolls (golubtsi) with corn grits, borscht made of fermented beets and mushrooms, pies with poppy seeds and beans, fried river trout, and a sweet drink made of dried fruit (uzvar). The Christmas Eve marks the end of the fast and the beginning of lavish celebrations. Traditional Hutsul dishes such as polenta (banush), mushroom soup, baked ribs and Carpathian salty curd cheese (brynza) are all real treats for a connoisseur!
Highlanders know how to have fun! At Christmas, the first carolers go from house to house right after the festive church service is over. Usually a group of carolers consists of 6-10 young men (they are believed to bring good luck) dressed in magnificent folk clothing. First, they visit a priest and then walk all over the village, from one household to another. Carolers sing, play violins, cymbals and trembitas, dance with bartkas (a small mountain axe-hammer), joke and laugh. Carolers always carry a large cross decorated with colorful ribbons and bells. This performance is really one of a kind! In the Carpathians, carolers do not usually go in (as in other regions of Ukraine) but perform right in front of the windows, allowing everyone to enjoy a festive play.
One more reason to spend Christmas holidays in the Carpathians is actually the mountains as such. Walking among the scenic snow-covered slopes, skiing or sledding, playing snowballs and then relaxing in a steam sauna or in the open air in a huge hot water tank. Clean air, good food and proximity to nature guarantee that you will totally unwind even in a matter of a few days.
However, natural resources are not the only gem of Hutsulia. For example, the town of Kosiv is famous for its green-brown ceramics, which has been produced here since the 16th century and is now on the list of Ukraine's intangible cultural heritage. Potters hold painting master classes for tourists. The village of Kryvorivnya is known as a filming location for Sergey Paradzhanov's film "The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors". Ivan Franko, Mykhaylo Kotsyubinsky, Les Kurbas and other artists all visited this picturesque place.
The Museum of Hutsul Magic in Verkhovyna casts light on the ancient beliefs and rites of the highlanders. Visit Kolomyya for the Museum of Easter Eggs and Ancient Churches. And, most importantly, the enchanting Carpathians enhance the atmosphere of Christmas, making it even more magic and charming!
By Olga Koval
Photo: provided by distributers, shutterstock (8)