Wydawnictwo Zielone Brygady - dobre z natury


Highlanders of Eastern Beskidy (part III)

contd from no. 6


The Lemkos, both the Greek Catholic and Orthodox, used the Julian calendar in which the new year begins thirteen days later than in the Roman Catholic Gregorian calendar. Christmas (Rozdzhenstwo Izusa Chrysta, or "Rizdvo") was preceded by the four-week Christmas fast during which women used to gather in the evenings at "viechirkas" to spin linen together. The meetings were attended by groups of boys in exquisite costumes who gave short performances followed by merry-making and dances. On the last day of the fast ,called "lamanyk", the boys broke down distaffs of spinning wheels to mark the beginning of Christmas when spinning was forbidden. Christmas Eve (Sviaty vecher) was associated with fortune-telling and magic. The Lemkos believed that souls of the dead came to the Christmas Eve supper. The remains of the meal were shared with the household animals.

New Year's Day was a holiday of ritual washing in a river, fortunetelling and exchanging greetings. Carollers called on the village houses. Especially festive was the feast day of "Jordan" (January 19) regarded as the day of Christ's baptism. The eve of the feast of Jordan, the so called "shchedry vecher", was nearly as festive as Christmas Eve. In the morning of the feast day of Jordan a procession descended down to the river where the priest blessed the water which the villagers then took home with them to use as a medicine and protection against evil powers.

The period of the carnival joy ended with "fedorovnycia" which opened the forty-day fasting followed by Easter ("Velykden"). In the week preceding Easter, including palm Sunday, the Thursday before Easter was of particular significance. On this day, according to Lemkos' beliefs, the souls of the dead wandered in the real world to open tombs and disclose underground treasures. In the evening, boys had bonfires commemorating the day "when Judas hang himself". On Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday the food was blessed. The most important thing was the bread which was called "pascha" or "paska". Young people arranged various celebrations in front of the church during which songs, for instance the song of Zellman, were sung. On Easter Monday the tradition was for people to throw water over each other.

Other important holidays included the feast day of St. George (May 23) when cattle was driven to the pastures for the first time, and witches were especially dangerous; and the Sunday of Pentecost ("Rusala") when houses were decorated with green branches and processions went around the fields. On the day of St. John, called "Kupala", a holiday of shepherds, herbs were picked. In the evening bonfires were set alight and songs connected with the holiday sung and magic rites performed to protect the fields and the cattle. Of particular significance was the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Uspeni Prechistoi Bohorodychi) on August 15. Starting with this date the cattle could be driven from "tołoka" to "tsaryna". On All Saints' day prayers were said by the priest in the graveyard. Mention is also due to fortune-telling (chiefly girls were interested) on the eve of the day of St. Andrew which opened the Christmas Lent followed by "Rizdvo".


Marriages were traditionally arranged by parents who were usually economically motivated in matching the couples. Unmarried youths were allowed a lot of freedom, however a girl who gave birth to an illegitimate child was severely punished by the village elders. Pre-marital arrangements followed an established pattern. First, two matchmakers paid a call on a girl's home to get an idea about her parents' financial status and their attitude toward the groom-to-be. On the next visit the matchmakers were accompanied by the bachelor and his father. They negotiated with the girl's parents her dowry and what the groom would bring to the marriage. The visit ended with the engagement of the young couple and an exchange of gifts.

Preparations for the wedding were carried out separately in both the families. On the eve of the wedding, bridesmaids gathered at the bride's home to the accompaniment of songs, wreathing a chaplet for the bride, flower ornaments for the hats of the groom and groomsmen, and a decorated rod for the wedding-host who was to lead the wedding procession to the church. At the same time, the groom's alll-male group gathered at his home to enjoy themselves for the whole night. In the morning, led by the wedding-host and a music band, they went to the bride's yard where they formed the wedding procession which then left for the church. After the church ceremony, the wedding party was held in the bride's home. It was only on the next day that the bride moved to the groom's house. This was also an opportunity for a treat and dances during which two married women, to the accompaniment of ritual songs, replaced the bride's chaplet with a cap and kerchief symbolising her transition from girl to a married woman. This ceremony was originally followed by seeing the married couple to the chamber or the threshing floor where the marriage was ritually consummated. In the interwar times this custom vanished or was given a jocular form (for example, the young couple was laid down onto a harrow, its teeth up, covered with straw and threshed with flails which was to ensure happiness to the couple. The master of ceremonies was the wedding-host who watched the observance of rituals and procedures.

A pregnant woman was subject to many restrictions and orders aimed at guaranteeing a successful labour and desired virtues being transferred to the expected offspring. Between the birth and the baptism of the baby, particular attention was required to avoid "spells" which could be cast on the child, and to protect it against "mamuna", a witch believed to replace babies with her ugly and noisy children.

The parents invited many godparents who brought with them pieces of homespun flax linen ("kryzma") as customary gifts. On their way to and from the church, the godparents had to observe various bans and rites to make the baby's future successful. The parents arranged a treat for the invited quests at which occasional songs were sung. Numerous magic rites were performed when the baby was bathed for the first time after the baptism. On the first Sunday after the baptism, women arranged a common-fund merry-making, "rodovini".

When in sickness, the Lemkos turned for help to quacks rather than doctors and hospitals. The soul of a dead person was believed to wander around the household to see and hear everything until the burial. The home of the deceased was visited by his family and friends for prayers. At nights, it was usually the young who kept guard on the corpse. They often behaved without due respect. They played games and brutal tricks on the corpse. Favourite things of the deceased, e.g. a pipe or bottle of liquor were placed in the coffin to tease the corpse. After the burial, the church's psalmist (diak) opened a prayer meeting, "tryzma", which was followed by a treat attended by all the mourners.

from Śladami Łemków by Roman Reinfuss

to be continued in next issue of "Grasshopper"