Rusyn Customs, Traditions and Superstitions At the Birth and Baptism of Children

©1995 by: GCU Honorary Editor, Michael Roman K.S.G.G.

The Rusyns of Šariš County in present day Slovakia also had customs, traditions and superstitions regarding the birth and baptism-confirmation (chrismation) of their children.

Before the birth of a child the Rusyns in Bardejov and vicinity prepared two sets of layettes and clothing for the infant: one for a boy and one for a girl. The linen supply was kept at a minimum level because it was believed that starting under such conditions the child would have a long life.

If the mother had a painful and difficult labor, her husband had to get a mouthful of water from a place where three little streams converged and bring it to her. Evidently he could not talk to passerby's. If her husbands mouthful of water did not help her, the mother walked on her bare knees three times around the table, touching with her hands the four corners. If this procedure did not hasten the birth of her child, the husband then gave her a good shaking, thus helping (?) her with the delivery of their child.

Baby's First Bath

When the baby was bathed by the mid-wife for the first time, all sorts of tools and coins were placed in the water in the hope that the infant would become a handyman or craftsman and become a wealthy person. Sugar and salt were also added to the water with the expectation that the child would grow to be a good, sweet and compatible human being respected by his or her peers. In well-to-do families, a pen and pencil were given to the baby hoping he or she would become a good student and subsequently a clerk or author.

Having concluded the first bath, the mid-wife gave the child to members of the household and relatives to be held and kissed as a sign of welcome, after which the mother received the baby.

The mid-wife continued giving daily baths to the infant until and including the day of baptism. However, the child's ears were not washed for six weeks for fear of causing deafness. When the child was six weeks old, a melted hot was placed into his or her navel for the purpose of getting out the growing hair within. This was done to prevent any infection of the navel.

The mother in law of the mother or a neighbor brought caraway soup, coffee and light food for the infant's mother along with bread, cheese and other foods for the rest of the family.

Baptism and Confirmation (Chrismation)

Now it is time to write about the customs and traditions of the Rusyn Byzantine (Greek) Catholic baptism and confirmation (chrismation).

A Rusyn baby girl was baptized and confirmed as early as possible after her birth because it was believed this would bring about an early marriage for her.

The godfather was usually a 17 or 18 year old youth or "parobok" in Rusyn. The godmother had to be 15 or 16 years of age. Anyone who had been asked to serve as a godfather or godmother had to accept this duty. As one translator wrote about this duty, "such was the Christian obligation, 'the obligatory Christian precept'." The child was provided with the "chrism-gift" by the godparents and it consisted of a two or three meter linen cloth and a gift of money. The chrism was placed under the baby's little pillow and was done because of the superstition that it would help the baby become a rich adult. If the parents did not provide the baptismal clothing, it was the godmother's obligation to do so.

Before the baptismal party left for church, either the midwife or the godfather said to the parents of the infant: "We shall bring back our newest Christian". Prior to their departure, the following procedure occurred in some households - an egg and a prayer book were placed in the threshold so that the child would become as firm as the egg and a good Christian.

The baptismal-confirmation ceremony was solemnized on Sunday forenoon or afternoon by the local Greek Catholic priest, with responses sung by the parish cantor. The baptismal group went to the rectory following the ceremony to record the infant in the Baptismal Registry. Either the father or the midwife had to be present at this time.

Having fulfilled this obligation, the baptismal group returned to the child's home where they were joyfully welcomed. The midwife expressed sincere gratitude for the gracious welcome. In some villages the young godmother performed this role. Having said "Thank You!" either one delivered the following brief talk; "Slava Isusu Christu - Glory be to Jesus Christ our Lord has blessed you, the parents, with this beautiful innocent baby whom we have taken to God's house of worship and there we had forsworn him or her away from the clutches of the Devil and through a solemn ceremony had him recorded in the book of eternal life with the prayerful hope that this baby will be of great help to the parents and a credit to his godparents. With God's help, may these promising words be fulfilled, and may He bless us all. Amen." After an exchange of joyful greetings among all present, the 'infant Christian' was given to the mother.

"Krestiny" - Christening

That was the signal to start drinking toast to the health of the baby. The toast consisted of a few words "Daj Boze zdorovl'a!" "God grant health to the baby" and the response was "Daj Boze!" "God do grant it!"

And then came time to participate in the "krestiny" - christening which began with a prayer by either the midwife or one of the godparents, depending on the village custom. It must be noted that the guests, relatives, neighbors and close friends had usually been invited by the midwife at the request of the parents. Most of the invited guests brought not only gifts for the baby but also foods and liquid refreshment. The monetary gifts were placed under the baby's pillow. The following is a list of foods and beverages which made up the appetizing menu of the "krestiny": soup and noodles, bread, rolls, pastries, beef meat, pork and sauerkraut, holubki (cabbage rolls), bread pudding, studenina (kochanina) - jellied pigs feet during the winter months. They certainly did not forget to bring "palenka" liquor, wine and beer. Additional toasts were also made during the delicious feast which was ended with a prayer of thanksgiving.

Then came the singing of appropriate folk songs led by the godmother. Since the young godmother did not know many songs, the elderly midwife of "baba" continues the singing of additional songs.

I (the author) have a vivid memory of the christenings in Conemaugh, PA in the 1920's which - in many instances - followed the traditions described above. However, in these years they added a very charitable act to the christenings. The invited guests not only brought gifts for the baby, but also gave a monetary gift to their parish church on this happy occasion. This offering was usually collected by the church "kurator".

Vyvodki - Churching

Another very significant custom following the child's baptism was the mother's "vyvodki" - churching or purification.

Prior to the baptism of her child, the mother lay in bed for a week to get her strength back. If the lying in period lasted longer, the people would say she was lazy. When she did get out of bed, she was allowed to perform only very menial duties. The heavier tasks in the house were done by the midwife and or husband. The mother was also not permitted to go outside the house until she and her child departed for the churching - also called the purification - ceremony performed by her priest. She had to stay inside the hut because it was believed that an evil spirit would substitute a changeling for her child during her absence.

When the mother went to be churched, she put on a certain article of clothing inside out and hid a piece of garlic and a piece of bread on her person. This was done, as she believed, to prevent her from becoming bewitched by an "evil eye".

Here are a few superstitions about the mother's returning home after the churching ceremony. If the mother met a man first, her next child would be a boy. If the mother met a woman first, her next child would be a girl. After the mother had given birth to one girl after another, or had given birth to several girls in succession, in order to have the next child be a boy, it was necessary for her to place the father's hat in the child's bath together with a live rooster and to bathe the baby girl while the mentioned objects were in the bath water. There was no mention in my research whether or not this was a successful method.

Some Odd Practices

In some backward villages or families the practice of not washing the baby with soap for a year was common, lest the child contract a rheum. Sometimes even the baby's head was not washed, nor his nails cut. The mother was allowed to bite off the infant's nails.

When two children who had not yet learned to speak met, they were forbidden to kiss each other. This was done because it was believed that such kissing would cause them to become mute.

Bone Dislocation

When the mother noticed that her child felt somewhat ill, she rubbed his or her body with oil and made an examination to see whether some bone was not out of joint as a result of rough nursing. To make sure this was not the trouble, the mother brought the child's knee to his elbow on each side of his body. When this was done successfully and the child did not scream, it was evident that the child had some sort of other ailment and not a bone dislocation. I (the author) had seen my mother perform this examination many times on my younger sisters and brothers in the 1920's.

The mother also knew what to do when her child had a belly-ache - colic. Chamomile tea was given to the baby and his or her belly was massaged with oil and the stomach ache soon disappeared.

The treatments and pain relieving practices were handed down from generation to generation and proved to be very beneficial since very few villages had medical doctors. Oh yes, the Rusyns of the past did indeed have witch and herbal doctors though.

The mother was proud and happy that she was able to breast feed her infant children who were encouraged to take the breast feeding until their second or third year of life because it was firmly believed that this type of nourishment would make them wise and strong.

Although the customs and traditions of birth had some traces of superstition, they often proved to be very beneficial.

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