Bread is well known as an important item in Ukrainian culture. It was usually used to properly greet and welcome visitors to a home and was paired with salt to be presented as a gift.
In the Ukrainian culture, however, bread has several unique types and recipes that coincide with different times, and the winter season featured bread in many rituals that Ukrainians celebrated. Maureen Stefaniuk of Kamsack, the curator for the Canora Ukrainian Heritage Museum, compiled research on the many different types of bread and the unique ways it was used during winter. Following are excerpts from her research.
Amongst the Ukrainian peasantry, farm work was limited during the winter months. Time and energy usually devoted to harvest was instead devoted to participation in a ritual cycle that included many celebrations.
The Ukrainian winter calendar cycle begins on December 4 with the ‘Feast of the Presentation of the Holy Virgin in the Temple,’ or Vedannia, and ends on January 19 with the Feast of Jordan, which celebrated Jesus’ baptism.
Before Vedannia, all farm work had to be complete, as it was a sin to dig or till the earth after the celebration due to the season being known as “the resting time of the earth.” Vedannia opened a one-month period of divination, sorcery, purification, fertility and protective rites. Men speculated on the upcoming year’s harvest by observing weather patterns and women carried out a series of rituals to ensure success in the next year.
After midnight on December 4, women sat on the threshold and spun hemp so that spinning in the new year would be successful. They sprinkled hemp and poppy-seeds over cattle and buttered the udders of their cows so that there would be plenty of milk. A special sour soup was fed to cattle so that the cows’ cream would be thick while the young unmarried women were collecting “charmed water” where three bodies of water met. After passing this water over flames, they kept it in a secret place as a love potion, to give to the men they desired to marry. It was during this period of heightened ritual intensity that the many and varied winter ritual breads were baked.
Baba and didukh, meaning ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather,’ were made of one sheaf of hay and one of wheat, rye, barley or buckwheat. It was used on Ukrainian Christmas Eve or January 6 to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and also represented fertility and the presence of deceased ancestors. Prior to Christianity, it was also used for a feast known as Bohata Vechera, which celebrated Koliada, or the goddess of the winter sun.
The folk custom of putting hay on the table underneath the table was not only a reference to the manger but a prayer for wealth. It was believed that as things were on Christmas Eve, so they would be during the entire year, so a family displayed the wheat to signify the wealth of next year’s crop. In some areas of Ukraine, the didukh was the “last sheaf” which had been saved during the harvest ritual and was treated as a sacred object. It was believed that the wheat sheaf acquired renewed strength from the abundant meal and that it held the home of deceased ancestors who would protect from natural disasters.
In a Ukrainian Canadian context, only the didukh and its rituals are common knowledge. They have been popularized for a contemporary audience by works such as The Enchanted Christmas Tree by Lena Gulutzan. The story reads:
“Here comes dad with a great big sheaf
“Of grandpa’s wheat in hand
“All the kernels symbolize
“The gathering of of our clan
“Wisps of hay are spread beneath
“a table cloth adorned
“to remind us of the place
“Where Jesus Christ was born.”
A remnant of the tradition may be visible on the tables of Ukrainian families during Christmas in the form of a vase containing a few stalks of wheat.
Balabushky, also known as kukilyky and pampushky, was a bun with poppy seeds inside baked to celebrate The Feast of St. Andrew on December 13. Saint Andrew was celebrated for bringing the Gospel to Kyiv, but prior to Christianity, balabushky was used to celebrate winter solstice and the goddess Koliada. Some also used it to celebrate fate through Dolia, the goddess of fate, and rozhanitsas, who were deities believed to be the sources of birth, life and fate.
Traditionally, women would meet together and make their own balabushka to determine their marital fate. The ritual of making the bread involved retrieving water from a very deep well and carrying the bucket in one’s mouth. A woman would place a piece of paper with the name of the man she wished to marry in the bun, and once the buns were ready, they were placed on a ritual cloth. A hungry dog would be let loose amongst the buns, and the baker who made the dog’s first meal was said to be the first to marry. Today, balabushky is used as one of the 12 meatless dishes of the Christmas Eve supper.
Some dishes made with bread were simply seen as recipes to prepare during certain seasons. Banush was a dish with corn flour bread cooked in sour cream, to be enjoyed on Christmas Day. During the pre-Christmas Lenten fast, people could enjoy chudofai, which was a pie made of corn flour and potatoes stuffed with cabbage, or duzhinyk, a non-fat bread made from rye dough served with cabbage or horseradish. One of the 12 meatless meals of Christmas Eve was cabbage rolls with dough wrapped in cabbage or beet leaves, known as holubtsi. Koliadnychky were specifically given to Christmas carollers, and kukutsy were small breads given to children on New Year’s Day. Korovai was a roll with a pine branch baked into the centre. Machanka were boiled mushrooms with flour. Mantuly was a Christmas Eve dish consisting of corn flour and mashed potato dough stuffed with cabbage and seasoned with garlic. Makivnyk was a poppy-seed cake, while medvinyk was a honey cake.
For the Feast of Jordan, a thin rye bread known as palianytsia was made for a ritual just prior to the meal. Each member of the family would take a bite before the threshold and the head of the house would sprinkle holy water to expel poverty from the house.
Prisnii khlib was unleavened bread that was meant to ward off disease and prevent storms during Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, tisto or tistechko was served as a noodle dish with broth or milk.
Varenyki were boiled dumplings with various fillings such as potato, cottage cheese, sauerkraut or fruit, that were the predecessor to perogies in Canada. In Ukraine, these were made with bacon for a New Year’s Eve ritual. Girls would make these and then line them up in front of a cat, and whichever varenyk was eaten first meant that the baker of the varenyk would be the first to marry.
Vasyl and malanka were ritual breads baked to honour saints on December 31 and January 1. One loaf was placed on top of the other and decorated by copper coins and hemp and encircled with a garlic wreath. The loaves were then left undisturbed until New Year’s Day, when the malanka loaf was eaten by humans, and the vasyl loaf was eaten by cattle.
Kalyta is described as a round, biscuit-like bread coated in honey with a hole in the centre through which a red ribbon was drawn. The bread, also known as kaleta and malamai, could be topped with poppy seeds, cherries, or raisins. Unlike other breads in Ukrainian tradition, kalyta was not a traditional yeast bread but more of a large pancake. It was eaten during the Feast of St. Andrew, which was sometimes referred to by the name of the bread. In pre-Christian times, the bread represented the sun, and was used to represent the sun in a children’s game. A group of village girls would bake the kalyta, taking turns kneading the dough and cooking it long enough to make it difficult to bite through. The ribbon through the kalyta was used to tie the bread to the main beam of the house, and a group of young men representing death and darkness would ride up on sticks or hobby horses to try to jump up and take a bite of the bread. Though this was an amusing game, the boys participating were not allowed to laugh or they would be hit on the teeth with the brush. The first to bite the bread was named the ‘andri’ or winner, and would share the bread with everyone.
Kasha is not a bread, but a porridge made with millet, buckwheat, oat, barley, corn, wheat or rye cooked with milk, salt, bacon, butter, vegetable oil or honey. There were three types of kasha dishes containing unprocessed grain, ground grain, and milled grain respectively. Kasha represents prosperity, fertility, and an abundant harvest, as well as childhood in the culinary code. The dish was enjoyed during Christmas Eve as well as on the Feast of St. Catherine on December 7, which celebrated a saint who was destined to by martyred on a wheel of fire but was rescued by a bolt of lightning. Due to her being the patron saint of girls and women in Ukraine, known as Kateryna, her feast day was the day that unmarried women would divine their fate. Women would prepare a meal of kasha and borsh and set their meal up on a gate before climbing up to invite Dolia, or the goddess of fate, to supper. The woman who heard a rooster crow had received a response from Dolia, and thus would have good luck. Any woman who saw a star go out would instead have bad luck.
Since the Feast of St. Catherine and the Feast of St. Andrew were close to each other, the time was seen as an opportunity for young men and women to become acquainted. Social events called verchernytsi were organized by a hostess known as a pani-matka, and would include a supper of kasha. Prior to Christianity, kasha was eaten during the winter solstice, as well as on a celebration on December 26 known as Rozhanitsa’s birthday. Today, kasha has lost its religious significance, and is now mainly known as a morning breakfast meal.
Knyshi were baked pies in various shapes with vegetable, cheese, or meat fillings. The pies were made from wheat, rye, and oat flour, and their shape changed depending on the region of Ukraine. Knyshi were very popular and were often consumed with milk products, but today, its popularity has faded. It was made for Christmas Eve and the winter solstice, and served as a memorial and offering for the souls of deceased ancestors.
Kolach is a braided bread that is either round or oblong made of white flour with a dough that contains more eggs to make the dough richer. The traditional method of preparing it was to roll dough out into 6-inch strips that were braided together to form peliutsky, which would then be twisted together to make the loaf. The circle’s endless line was meant to represent the sun’s endless movement and the life cycle, which explains its use as a sacrificial offering to solar deities before being used for Christmas Eve meals after Christianity was adopted. Traditionally, kolach are stacked one on top of the other with a beeswax candle inserted in the top loaf to represent the Star of Bethlehem. In Canadian contemporary context, the bread represents Christ as the ‘bread of life’ and ‘light of the world.’ After the candle in the kolach is lit, the head of household dips bread in honey and shares it to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and begin the Holy Eve supper. In some areas of Ukraine, a special kolach was made by mixing a spoonful of each course of the Christmas Eve supper into the flour. Others would make a hole in the kolach to place oat stalks with cabbage, wheat and corn to represent the marriage of young family members. Young women would also play ‘loves me, loves me not’ by counting the number of twists in the kolach.
Prior to Christianity, the kolach was prepared on the winter solstice to celebrate the bohata vechera, or ‘abundant supper.’ The meal displayed the bounty of the year and predicted the abundance of the upcoming year by serving dishes that represented every category of food that the farm produced.
Similar to kolach is the kolachyky, which is the diminutive form of kolach and literally a smaller braded bread roll. The small loafs were given to Christmas carollers, and were also fed to cows that have given birth and to newborn babies.
The krachun was a holiday bread baked from rye, wheat or corn flour with whole grains such as wheat, poppy seeds, rye, beans, corn or garlic inserted into the dough. In some areas, a glass bottle of honey was inserted in the middle of the loaf, and in others, a bit of every dish for the Christmas supper was placed into a circle made in the centre of the bread by cloves of garlic.
Krachun embodied the god of fertility before it was baked on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and the Feast of Jordon after Ukrainians adopted Christianity. During the Christmas holiday, krachun was always on the table with salt to symbolize wealth and fertility. Before the housewife put the bread in the oven, she would sometimes wear special clothes and gloves to ensure wealth. Bare skin could not touch the bread, as nakedness symbolized poverty. It was often tied with string for an abundant hemp crop. On New Year’s morning, some families would put on new clothes and put the bread in a water bucket to carry it to a river. The krachun was rinsed with water, dried off with a ritual cloth, and taken back home where it was rolled from the threshold to the table three times. If the loaf fell on its bottom, it represented health for the family, but if it fell on the opposite side, luck would be reversed.
Kutia, which was made with cooked wheat, berries, poppy seeds, honey and walnuts, was either the first or last dish of the Christmas Eve supper. It was often a sacrificial offering to the deceased, and sometimes to honour the dead, the wealthy would bring kutia to poor families. The dish was used in a ritual to bless the farm and animals. The father of the family would carry a bowl of kutia with honey, water, bread and an apple in one hand, and in the other he would carry an axe of flail. The mother, carrying a candle, would walk to the threshold with the father, who would invite the ancestors to join them for supper as the family would prepare an extra place setting for them. The wife called out to the destructive forces of nature to join them, and when she did not receive a reply, she would say, “I am calling you. If you do not come now, don’t come at all.” The father would then take a piece of ritual cloth, a tureen of kutia and a candle, walking around the table three times and praying. It was also customary for the oldest member of the family to throw a spoonful of kutia at the ceiling. The more berries that stuck to the ceiling, the greater the good fortune.
Perhaps the most well-known Ukrainian ritual dish is the pyrohy, which are little baked pies with vegetable, cheese or meat fillings. Pyrohy are larger than pyrizhky, a similar dish that is oblong with tapered ends. They traditionally accompany soup or borsch. Some areas of Ukraine made one large pyrih in a roud or rectangular pie shape filled with potato. Due to ‘pyr’ meaning banquet, pyrohy were enjoyed on many pre-Christian holidays and on Midwives’ Day on January 8. Women who had babies delivered by the midwife would bring bread and pyrohy to her as gifts during the Christmas season. Some describe a child’s game that was also played with pyrohy, where a father would hide behind a pile of them and children would pretend they could not see their father. The father would pray that the family be so well off that they could make a pile of pyrohy to hide behind.
With dozens of Ukrainian bread dishes made just for the winter season, and many more being made in other months for other holidays, the hundreds of rituals involving bread shows the significance of sharing meals for Ukrainian people, and the significance of many contemporary Ukrainian dishes in a religious context.