FOLK CUSTOMS OF CARPATHO-RUSYNS
AUTUMN FESTIVALS: THE HARVEST FESTIVAL AND ST. ANDREW'S DAY
Originally published and copyright 1985. C-RA Vol VIII #1. Unauthorized duplication or use is prohibited and in violation of international copyright law.
The Subcarpathian region, a mountainous area, was a rather poor agricultural one. Of cereals, only oats and barley produced satisfactory yields, whereas rye and wheat fared far less well. Moreover, until 1848 when feudal servitude was abolished, most of the land was owned by foreign nobility, especially Hungarian. These nobles felt little obligation to their hard-working subjects. The hardships of those times are reflected in numerous folk songs, such as the following one recorded in the village of Kurov near Bardejov:
Robyme na panskym
Od svitu do noci,
A nas pan povidat',
Ze nam n'it pomoci
od tiazkei roboty
Rucen'ky nam mlijut',
A panove sobi
We work on our master's fields
From sun-up to sundown,
And our master says
It can't be helped.
Because of hard labor
Our hands are losing strength,
While the masters
Help themselves to a good drink.
Harvest time, nevertheless, was one of the most joyful times of the year for the peasants. With it were connected many customs going back to the distant past. Before starting to gather the crops, for instance, the harvesters would roll on the ground hoping that the earth might grant them the strength needed in the work. According to another explanation, it was believed that the sheaves would "roll" into the barns in great numbers. When the harvest was over, a shock of unreaped wheat, tied with a ribbon or a straw binder, was left at the end of the field. This boroda or "beard," as it was called, was originally an offering to the pagan field gods. Later the custom was aimed at "keeping the mice in the field," i.e., preventing them from "visiting" the barns. In another explanation, the boroda was to provide a hiding place for quails.
The ears of grain gathered last were used by the peasants for making a tidy sheaf which, decorated with field flowers, was ceremoniously brought to the household. This sheaf (called dido or diduch -- grandfather) remained unthreshed, and during Christmas it was held in an honorable place at the Christmas Eve table. Since it was believed to have magic power, ears from the sheaf were woven into the wedding wreaths, put into the beds of women giving birth to their first child, and in curing diseases. The supposed procreative power of the sheaf led the peasants to place ears from it under hens in hopes of getting more eggs from them, and to put grains from it into the first seed, and so on.
With the harvesting finished, the harvesters would make a ceremonial wreath and, singing cheerful songs of the season, bring it to their master or the manager. After binding the wreath with a special ribbon, the master or his deputy would invite the harvesters for a feast (obzinky oldomas).
After the abolition of feudal servitude, many Carpatho-Rusyns migrated for the harvesting season to the Hungarian lowlands. Hired by wealthy farmers, their reward was often merely free board and a small amount of grain to take back home. In spite of the hard work among strangers and the meager rewards, the harvesters did not fail to celebrate their obzinky even here. Their songs on this occasion often reflected bath their complaints and longing for their homes and dear ones in the mountains, as in the following example recorded in the village of Mlynarovce near Svidnik:
Vze zme dorobyly madjarsku robotu,
Cekaj nja, mamocko, domu na subotu.
Ne tak na subotu, jak na tu nedilju.
Rychtoj mi, mamocko, kosuljenku bilu .
Napys lem mi, pismo, jak ti davu znaty,
Bo ja z zalu umru, budes banuvaty.
Umru v Madjarscyni z tjazkoji roboty.
Zacnu v ponedilok, tjahnu do suboty.
Now we have finished the Hungarian job.
Wait for me, mother, I'll come back home on Saturday,
And if not on Saturday, then on Sunday
Prepare for me, mother, my white shirt
Write me a letter, mother, if you get my message,
Or else I'll die from woe, and you'll be sad.
I'll die in Hungary of hard labor
Which I start on Monday, and end on Saturday
After World War I the obzinky customs became largely defunct. However, after World War II they were revived in the newly-founded collective farms both in Soviet Transcarpathia (Subcarpathian Rus') and in Czechoslovakia's Presov region. At present, when the harvest is over, the harvesters will ceremoniously bring an obzinky wreath to the head of the kolkhoz (or cooperative farm in Slovakia), singing humorous both traditional and contemporary. The obzinky feast then takes place in a local tavern or, in some places, in a local cultural center.
St. Andrew's Day (November 30) has always been one of the most popular festivals in the Subcarpathian region, because it was celebrated as a "name day" by many Rusyns, the name being a commonly-used one. But there was another special reason for its popularity: St. Andrew was regarded as a patron saint of love. Therefore, both the preceding eve and the day itself led to the evolution of a number of customs. On the eve of the day, village girls would walk around all the houses in which there lived an Andrew (regardless of whether he was a small boy or an old man) and, standing under the window, they would wish him good luck and health "na mnohaja i blahaja l'ita" ("for many happy years"). After singing their traditional song "Mnohaja lit" ("Many years to you"), they would in some villages demand an "offering" from the honored person, as demonstrated in this song from Vysna Polianka near Bardejov:
Vynes nam porciju,
Bo jak nevyneses.
Djivky tja pobyjut'.
A vy ljude, znajte,
Nase pravo dajte,
Pravo nevelycke Lem korytce vivsa.
Bo jak nam nedate,
Vsytcy horci potrepeme,
Sto v polyci mate.
Bring us an offering,
For if you don't
The girls will beat you.
And you, people, understand
It's our right.
Not a big right, though:
We want only a trough of oats.
If you don't give it to us.
You will be sorry.
For we will smash all your pots
On the shelf.
Being thus duly "warned." the Andrew in question would bring the girls the "offering" they asked for: oats, eggs, flour, and other foodstuffs. The girls would then go to the tavern and exchange the oats for brandy, and use the rest of the food for a feast in one of the village houses. (Later on they would be joined by the boys and a musician, and of course the revels would become more joyous.) The girl's party would include also some jocular palm-reading and "magic" rites aimed at finding out which of the girls would marry in the course of the year. These rites had various forms: all the girls went to the stream and each one gathered a number of small stones. These were then counted at the party: an even number meant marriage, an odd number meant further waiting for the bridegroom.
In another custom, the girls would make small flour pellets, lay them next to each other, and let in a rooster or a dog. The girl whose pellet was eaten first was "sure" to marry first as well. Given thus the "sign" of the upcoming marriage, the girl was obviously eager to know who her husband would be. She "found it out" by counting the ninth post from the left in the fence. If the post was upright and covered with bark, the bridegroom would be handsome and rich. If there was no bark an the post, the husband would be poor. If the post was crooked, the husband would be a hunchback. If there were knots in the pole, the husband would be a widower with children. Later the girls invented a new custom: slips of paper with the names of various boys would be added to the filling of pirohy (pastries filled with jam or cheese). When the girl then received a pirohy with a name of one of the boys, it was believed that she would marry him.
But perhaps the most "unfailing" manner of finding out the identity of the future husband was this. Before going to bed, the girl would sow flax around a wooden pole stuck in the ground, asking the patron of love for help (recorded in the village of Kurov near Bardejov):
Na tebe len siju,
Daj mi vnoci znaty,
Chto nia bude braty.
It is on your day that I am sowing flax
Let me know at night
Who is going to marry me
She would then use a pair of undershorts to "harrow" the patch of land she had sown with flax. At night she would lay the undershorts under her head. The boy she dreamed about in her sleep was to become her husband. There is no doubt that this "magic" technique of prediction was highly successful, for the "dream boy" would most likely be the same who figured most prominently in her daytime thoughts about the prospective bridegroom.
Carpatho-Rusyns with a harvest wreath in a procession on the streets of Presov. From a lithograph, dated 1841.
Mykola Musynka - Presov
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