Birth and Baptism

Originally published and copyright 1985. C-RA Vol VIII #2. Unauthorized duplication or use is prohibited and in violation of international copyright law.


Until recently, the number of children in Rusyn families was fairly high. The average was four or five per family, but even ten to fifteen children were not considered extraordinary. At the same time, a high mortality rate due to infantile diseases decreased their numbers. The only exception to this pattern could be found among the Rusyns in the Backa region of northeastern Yugoslavia. As early as the nineteenth century, they established the so-called "one-child system," in order to prevent progressive division of inheritance.

Childlessness was regarded among Rusyns as God's punishment. Society treated childless women with disdain: they could not sit on a church bench; when at a wedding, they were forbidden to put the marriage cap on the bride's head; they were not allowed to join their family at the table, and so on. However, a pregnancy occurring too soon after the wedding was not desirable either. In order to put it off, women used several "magic" tricks: a bride returning from the wedding ceremony sat down on as many of her fingers for as many years as she did not want to have children. Alternatively, she could make the appropriate number of bundles on her parta, a ribbon-like decoration on the bride's head.

Pregnant women were generally held in high esteem. They were exempt from hard work, fed better than normally, and their wishes were satisfied generously. On the other hand, pregnant women had to respect a number of "magic" restrictions. They did not bake bread so that the child would not have a consuming "fire" in its body. They did not dry hemp and thus avoided tuberculosis (in Rusyn: suchoty literally a "drying-up disease"). They did not eat hare meat so that the child would not suffer from harelip. They did not bathe in a stream so that the child would not drown. Other similarly motivated restrictions included leaping across fire or across a rope or shaft-bar, sitting on a grave or a log, lookimg into the sun, or watching something ugly. Pregnant women were also forbidden to stroke dogs, to touch an oven, to eat rotting food, to drink water after sundown, to steal, to become angry, to curse, and so on. In some villages, women in advanced pregnancy were forbidden to go into the fields for fear of hail destroying the crops. On the other hand, it was believed that if a pregnant woman walked around a burning house three times, the fire would cease to spread, or if she walked around a fruit tree, the yield would be higher.

The pregnant woman was expected to protect herself from so-called "unclean spirits." For that purpose, she would wear or hold close to herself a piece of garlic, a knife, or another object made of iron. In order to make sure that the child would be attractive, the pregnant woman often looked at holy pictures. Even today some young pregnant women continue the practice, canying instead, a photograph of a popular actor.

The childbirth itself was connected with a number of other customs. Normally, it took place at home with the assistance of a babka or povitucha, a midwife. When the childbirth was difficult, all the locks in the household were unlocked and all knots were loosened. If this was not "effective" enough, the woman was massaged, bathed in an extract of camomile, given wine or walked around the house, or even shaken in a trough.

Immediately after the birth, the midwife sprinkled the child with consecrated water and laid it on a sheep's skin so that it would be healthy. Special precaution was taken not to lay the child with its feet pointing toward the door, for it was feared that this could lead to an early death. A list of appearance traits in the newborn interpreted in a superstitious manner could go on for pages: for instance, curly hair was believed to signify future wealth; clenched fists indicated tight-fistedness, and eyebrows grown together marked a future sage. A child born with a caul or "cap" on the head was expected to have good luck; whereas hair grown in the shape of two little wreaths was believed to foreshadow widowhood, and so on. Sometimes a newborn son was taken to the stable to be "introduced" to the cattle.

Great importance was attached to the child's first bath. The parents would throw a coin, a grain, or a piece of garlic into the bath. Next to the tub they would lay a book, a pen, an axe, a scythe, a hammer, or a plowshare. If the baby was a girl, the parents would put a spindle, a needle, and a piece of thread into the water. This was believed to arouse a love of work and learning in the child from the very first moment. In order to make the child hardened against the cold, a pair of goose legs were dipped into the water before the bathing. The money taken out of the first bath was used as a reward for the midwife. The water from the first bath was spilled into the manure heap or into a place not frequented by people. This was also the place where the parents would bury the placenta.

When the bathing was over, the midwife usually made little "corrections" of the imperfections in the child's appearance. She would shape the head, straighten the legs, make a dimple on the chin and on the cheeks. Then she would dress the child in a new shirt, or wrap it in a diaper and put it on the floor or under the table from where the father would pick it up and lay it on the table. This act was a symbolic manifestation of his fatherhood.

The mother's bed was usually located in a corner of the room and curtained off with a piece of canvas. Here the mother was confined for six weeks after the birth, or at least until the baptism of the child. Prior to the baptism, a number of restrictions were in effect. Nothing could be taken out of the room, the mother could not turn her back on the child, nor could she leave it alone in the room because, it was feared, the "unclean spirits" would take the child and leave another in its place. Subcarpathian folklore includes a number of tales about "changelings" (odminy). In these tales, a good child was exchanged by a witch (bohynka, bosorka or povitrulja) for a bad one. In order to prevent such an exchange, the child's identity was marked by a piece of red thread bound on its wrist.

If the mother died in or after childbirth, the relatives usually wished that the child also die. They put the child to its dead mother's breast or lay it next to her. If the child remained alive, it was believed that the ghost of the mother came in through the window at night to rock, bathe, and feed the child, so they left the window open, put water into the tub, and so on.

Immediately after childbirth and in the following weeks, the mother was visited by neighbors and close relatives who brought into "her corner" the best food available, such as chicken soup, meat, and cakes. In order to "fortify" herself if necessary, the mother kept in her corner a bottle of wine or even homemade brandy. Unlike the mother, the newborn child could be seen only by close relatives. They were expected

to spit upon the child symbolically and say something critical about it, for instance, "How ugly the child is!" Any praise of the child was feared to bring misfortune.

The birth of a child was naturally a reason for festivities. A little feast arranged by the father followed the first bathing. But the big feast took place only after the baptism (chrestyny, krstyny) where the most esteemed guests were the godfather and the godmother. Sponsorship was a highly respected institution and it turned the godparents into nearest kin. To underline their respect for the godparents, the parents even ceased to address them with the informal ty (thou) and turned to the more ceremonious vy (you). To reject the privilege of becoming godparents was regarded as extremely improper. The godparents of the first-born child were then usually godparents of subsequent children. The godparents were changed only if "their" child died. If several children died in succession, the mother went to give birth in a household of strangers, and the sponsorship was offered to the humblest of people: to a tramp, a gypsy, or simply to the first person the parents met when bringing the child to the baptism.

The child was usually baptized two or three weeks after its birth, or sooner if it was sick. The godparents would bring a child's shirt (krizmo), a cap, and a piece of linen to the baptism. Into the swaddling clothes of the child they would put a piece of garlic and bread. The child was brought to the baptism by either the midwife or the godmother. Sometimes the child was taken out of the house not through the door, but through the window, in order to "outwit" the "unclean spirits." The first child was usually named for the father or mother. The girl's name was usually determined by the father. The most frequent male names were: Jurij, Mychajlo, Petro, Ivan, and Mykola. The most frequent female names were: Marija, Hanna, Kateryna, and Paraska. If the newborn child was illegitimate, its name would be determined by the priest. Often the name was unusual in the given locality, and thus marked the child for the rest of its life.

When the child was at the baptism, its cradle was filled with bread so that the "vacancy" would not be filled by the "unclean spirits." The baptism itself was connected with another series of superstitions. The crying of the child during the baptism signified a long and cheerful life; a candle that died out in the hand of the godmother, or a pit dug in the cemetery adjoining the church, was believed to foreshadow the early death of the child.

When the parents returned from the baptism with the child, they would lay the child near the oven or on the table, and the midwife would recite a customary wish, such as the following one recorded in the village of Kurov near Bardejov in the Presov Region of northeastern Slovakia. (The translation of this verse and all subsequent verses is literal, omitting the original rhythm and rhyme.)

Vzajaly zme vam pohanca,

Prinesly zme chrystyjanca,

Zebu ono roslo komu tomu,

Sameperse Bohu Ocu Nebeskomu,

A tak nanjovi, mami, didovi, babi

Na radist', na potichu,

A chresnym rodicom na dobru odsluhu

Zeby ono do cerkvi chodylo,

Ale i korcmi nezabyvalo.

We took away from you a pagan,

We have brought you a Christian.

So that it would grow up for many,

Especially for God, our Heavenly Father

And also for the father, mother, grandfather and grandmother

For their joy and pleasure

And also to reward its godparents.

So that it would go to church,

But that it would not shun the tavern either (so

that it would be sociable).

If the baby was a girl, the wish would continue as follows:

Zeby z njej byla v polju robotnvca,

V tanci tanecnica.

Do ucynja sikovna,

I do ljubynja sposobna.

So that she would be a good worker in the field,

A good dancer,

Able to learn,

And able to love

The baptized girl would then be passed from one set of hands to another so that, when grown up, she would go from the hands of one young man to those of another at a dance. If the baby was a boy, the wish would end like this:

By mo zdravja ne chybovalo.

Ale i pinjari nebrakovalo,

Zeby znal oraty--sijaty.

Ale i pirko v Nkach trymaty.

So that he would not be poor in health,

Or lack money,

So that he would be able to plow and sow,

But also to hold a pen.

The baptismal feast usually took place on Sunday afternoon. The meals served were usually quite simple such as mutton, cheese, or macanka (a mushroom sauce with meat), boiled meat, and cakes. The drinks usually included wine and brandy. The cups had to be emptied to the last drop so that the child would not be tearful. At present, the fare at the baptismal feast is usually made in a restaurant. Instead of traditional baptismal cakes, the guests eat desserts and store-bought cakes. The guests at the feast usually include the godparents, close relatives, and neighbors. Each of the women present bring a baptismal gift, usually flour, sugar, coffee, rice, a chicken, or cakes. Sometimes the parents invited a musician to the feast. The most opulent feasts were held for the first-born son.

An important part of the baptismal feasts were songs for the occasion. Cheerful feasts with merry songs were believed to foreshadow a happy and contented life for the child, whereas baptismal feasts without much singing would predict a sad fate for the child. According to one of the songs recorded in the village of Kurov:

Ani toto kresna

Vesele nebude,

Ked' mu chresna maty

Spivaty nebude.

The baptized child

Won't be cheerful

If its godmother

Does not sing for it.

The main topic of the baptismal feast songs was praise for the mother, as in this song recorded in the town of Medzilaborce, also in the Presov Region:

A nasa kumicka

Jak jasna zornycka

ZU polozi lezyt.

Dribnych rybok bazyt.

Chocoby sja mi pryslo

Po pas namocity,

Ja kumocci musu

Rybok nalovyty.

And so our dear woman

Like a clear morning star

Lies after the birth.

And wants to eat little fish.

Even if I were

To get wet up to my waist.

I much catch for her

Some fish.

Sometimes the songs make gentle fun of the godparents, as in this song recorded in the village of Kruzlov, near Bardejov, in the Presov Region:

Kresnyj otec zaspal,

Krsna zadrimala,

Skoda tej parady

Ze sja tak prybrala.

The godfather fell asleep.

The godmother is dozing too,

So why did she bother to put on

That luxurious dress.

The baptismal feast usually lasted until night. If the guests were still singing on their way home, it was a sign to the village that the feast was a success.

According to church rules, the vyvid (the mother's leaving her after-birth confinement) took place six weeks after the birth. However, many women tried to shorten this period and return to ordinary life and work as soon as possible. When the mother had given birth for the first time, she was accompanied to the ceremony of the vyvid by the midwife or mother-in-law. If the child was not the first-born, the mother would go to the ceremony by herself with the child. The usual recommendation to the mother going to the vyvid ceremony was to put on her petticoat upside down. In that case the "unclean spirits" would have no access to her. At present, the vyvid ceremony is usually connected with the baptism. The birth of a child was also connected with other folk beliefs. It was believed that the next child would be of the same sex as the first person the mother met when going to the vyvid. If the mother did not wish to have any more children, she would dig an axe without a handle into the earth, or she would throw a closed lock without a key into a well.

At present, the pattern of childbirth in Subcarpathian Rus' (Transcarpathia), the Presov Region, as well as in the Backa in Yugoslavia, is considerably different than in the past. Childbirth usually takes place in maternity hospitals with the assistance of doctors. However, some of the old customs and superstitions are still alive. In the countryside, even today, most parents have their child baptized in church, even if those parents are otherwise nor church-goers. In such cases, the baptism is usually arranged by grandparents or other relatives. More widespread nowadays are the state promoted ceremonies "welcoming the children to life," organized by local authorities. These ceremonies represent an interesting symbiosis of old folk customs with present-day tendencies. Even at this "non-church baptism" godparents are chosen and traditional songs are sung at the subsequent feasts.

Mykola Musynka - Presov

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