©1995 by: GCU Honorary Editor, Michael Roman K.S.G.G.
There is no better way for me to begin this article than by extending the same greetings and prayerful wishes spoken by a father some 80 years ago in Jarembina of Spiš County in present day Slovakia. He said them at the beginning of the Holy Supper or "Villija" Christmas Eve. He began his prayerful greetings with the Rusyn "Christos Razhdajetsja" - "Glorify Him!" He then continued:
"Wishing you happiness, health, peace and good fortune during the Christmas Holy Days and in the New Year. May it be the will of God that we repeat this Christmas Eve Holy Supper next year. And may the Christ Child shower His choicest blessings on all of us. Amen." "S Nami Boh!" God Is With Us!"
One of the most meaningful responses or hymns is "S nami Boh!" "God is with us," which was sung with great fervor.
Let us consider some of the Christmas symbolisms. Yes it is true that garlic was used at every Holy Supper. The mother of the household dipped the garlic in honey and made the sign of the Holy Cross on the foreheads of all present symbolizing that they will experience in their lives not only sweetness but also bitterness.
It must be noted that all partakers of the Holy Supper had washed their hands and faces in a nearby stream. They did this in the symbolic belief that they would be clean and healthy for the Holy Days and during the new year. They also believed that they were following in the footsteps of the shepherds who washed themselves before going to the manger to see the Christ Child.
As we all know, little Jesus lay on the straw when the shepherds came to worship him. The Rusyns symbolized this fact by placing straw on the floor and also a little on the kitchen table which was first covered with a white cloth that symbolized the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus. Then, of course, the delicious food was placed on the table. In the center of the table was a large round bread symbolizing Christ as the Bread of Life. In the bread was a burning candle symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem which led the shepherds and the wise men to worship the Christ Child. All told, there were twelve foods on the table which included fish, pirohi, mushroom soup, sauerkraut lima bean soup, meatless holupki, stewed prunes, mashed potatoes, garlic, honey, herring and bobal'ki. These twelve foods were a symbol of the apostles of Jesus.
Living in an agricultural economy, the Rusyns especially took good care of their domestic animals. In fact, the cattle were fed earlier than usual on Christmas Eve in Jarembina, also receiving later some extra helpings from the Holy Supper table.
Prior to the beginning of Holy Supper, a yoke had been brought into the kitchens. The yoke symbolized that the families would have healthy cattle in the upcoming year. Before Holy Supper began in Kamyonka of Spiš County, the father and older sons brought into the hut a barrow, yoke chains and a whip symbolizing that these things were in the stable where the infant Jesus was born. There was a specific purpose for the yoke chains as exemplified in the Christmas customs of Velikij Lipnik in Šariš County. In that village, all present at the Holy Supper sat down at a table encircled by the chain that was clamped to the four legs, thereby symbolizing the importance of family togetherness.
One of the features of Christmas celebrations in the Carpathians and in America was the visit of the Jaslichkary - Shepherds of Bethlehem - to the homes of the parishioners where they not only hurriedly re-enacted the Nativity scene but also sang carols. The "Eastern Catholic Life" for December 21, 1975 described the "Shepherds of Bethlehem" in the following manner:
"The Jaslichkary are dressed in white garments with high stove pipe cylinder hats and ribbons of flashy colors across their breasts. The "Kuba" is a comedian and a great attraction, chasing children with his wooden hatchet and threatening to kidnap the bad ones in his bag which he carries for gifts from generous people."
It must be noted that the Jaslichkary I (the author) recall also had a generous Santa Claus. The Jaslichkary began their visit with "Rozhdestvo Tvoje"... (Troparion for the Birth of Christ) and followed with a few Rusyn Christmas carols. The visit was concluded with the intonation and singing of "Mnohaja Blahaja L'ita".. "Many Blessed Years."
Other groups and individuals added to the merriment of Christmas with their house to house caroling. This author was one of them in the 1920's singing Christmas carols in the Rusyn homes of Conemaugh and Franklin Pennsylvania....Ah what blessed memories!
It is hard to believe, but it is true that Rusyns of old held on to some superstitious beliefs while celebrating Christmas with religious fervor. I will describe a few of them in the following paragraphs.
For example, in Velikij Lipnik, the father had spread, during the Holy Supper, blessed poppy seeds throughout the hut. He did this in the belief that they would chase evil spirits out of the house.
An axe played a superstitious role during the Holy Supper in Jarembina. All present placed their feet on on axe under the table. They did this in the belief that their feet would not ache during the Christmas Holy Days and in the new year.
And back to Velikij Lipnik for another Christmas Eve superstition. It was already mentioned that the chain encircled table symbolized family togetherness. Well, there was a superstition attached to this symbol. It was also believed that the firmly locked table would clamp tightly the mouth of any wild animal seeking to destroy the family's cattle.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, all Rusyn households awaited with great anticipation the arrival of a dark haired male youngster because they believed such a person brought good luck. The same superstition was also believed on New Year's Day. The women were admitted into the huts only after the dark haired male had first entered.
However, the Feast Day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ is no superstition. It is one of the greatest religious Holy Days. S nami Boh!
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Last modified on September 20 1996
Greg Gressa [email@example.com]
The Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base