Kalyady: East-Slavic fusion of Christian and pagan festivities

Ivan Makarov | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Round up the houses, feasts, youth parties, fortunetelling, plays, and games - all that is the Belarusian Kalyady. It is a living folk tradition that you can witness yourself. You can enjoy this East-Slavic fusion of Christian and pagan festivities for almost a month, starting from winter solstice day.

What is Kalyady?

The word «Kalyady» originated from the Latin «calenda» - the old roman holiday marking the beginning of new year. People performed rites to please the ancestors or nature and asked for welfare in the upcoming year. Church turned Kalyady into a two-week-long festive period to celebrate the birth and epiphany of Jesus. Today it is possible to define three Kalyady phases. The pagan phase after summer solstice is followed by two weeks of Catholic festivities, and two more weeks of Orthodox celebrations.

Kalyady's main components are family feasts, fortunetelling, and Kalyadavanne (Slavic trick-or-treating). Family feasts are happening on the significant church dates. Catholic Christmas Eve (24.01), Christmas (25.01), New Year's Eve (31.12), New Year (1.01), and the Epiphany occur according to the Orthodox calendar on the 6th,7th, 13th,14th and 19th of January.

Top-five Kalyady fortunetelling rites

Despite Christian assimilation, the monks never managed to eradicate the most pagan custom of Kalyady - fortunetelling. Some rites, for example, hugging a wooden stick fence, are well known among all Slavs and fit both genders. On either Christmas Eve, hug a wooden-stick fence and count the sticks. Finding such a fence might be a quest these days, so instead, you can grab as many logs as you can. As a reward, you will learn if your marriage is soon (even number) or not really (odd number). 

© sputnik.by/Марына Серабракова

Other fortunetelling rites are super-local or performed only by one gender. If you’re a guy, steal a random girl's pillow and sleep on it to see your future wife in a dream. To avoid breaking any laws, bake a pancake, put it on your head, and stand at a crossroads. The side with the first dog barking that you hear is the direction to look for your future wife or husband. If you like it, throw the pancake in the same direction; if not - throw it to the opposite side.

If you are in a group, ask everybody to put a random belonging in a hat and then let everybody take something out. The item they picked will characterize their future match. Another custom involves girls throwing a shoe up in the air. After falling, the shoe-toe will be pointing in the direction of their prospective partners.

Kalyadavanne — ancient Slavic trick-or-treating

Another pagan tradition is the Kalyadavanne rite. On all Kalyady evenings of the past, a group of random locals - Kalyadniki - dressed up as animals and otherworldly creatures and walked or rode in sleights around the village. They stopped at every house, and each householder invited them inside to attract welfare and abundance. The Kalyadniki praised the landlords and wished them well with songs and poems in exchange for treats and gifts. The received goods from all hosts were collected in a big sack. Most groups carried a trumpet, harmonica, drum, and a star on a stick, a later Cristian addition.

©novychas.by/Алена Ляшкевіч

«Dzed» and «Baba» (old man and woman) characters play the roles of our dead ancestors. Other impersonators represent the space beyond regular and predictable social life. Belarusians from the XIX century were alienated by wild "Bears" and "Wolves", «Priests» and «Policemen», «Jews» and «Gipsies». Today those fears are gone.

© wikimedia.commons/ Дмитрий Романенко

There is no fixed place for Kalyady in big cities. In the villages, people know each other, they can expect the visit and enjoy it. In the cities, a lot of people are pretty much afraid of letting random dressed-up strangers into their apartments. You can look for a Kalyadniki party to join among your acquaintances, social network groups, and on Couchsurfing. Another option is to check events in your city: folk collectives perform traditional songs and plays on Kalyady dates in museums, theaters, and philharmonics. The best option is to visit the authentic village festivals.

The Tsars rite in Semezhevo, 13.01

January 13th is probably the highlight of the Belarusian Kalydavanne. Many local festivities became the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Belarus, and the «Tsars rite»** in the Semezhava village is even included in the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List**.

In Semezhevo, a group of men go house-to-house and perform the «Tsar Maximilian» drama. Folklorists say the tradition harks back to Batleika;* the Belarussian traditional puppet theater-play originated in Jesuit schools**. In a Balyevichy village close to Semezhevo*, the Batleika show is coupled with actors' performances.

The Koniki Festival in Davyd-Haradok, 13.01

It feels like the whole town of Davyd-Haradok is celebrating Kalyady. Parents team up with kids, while school classes and trade unions form separate groups of Kalyadniki. The main character of almost every group is «Konik» - a white "Horse" or a "Horseman". By tradition, only a male can wear the construction of willow baskets covered in cloth with a long fluffy tail.

©euroradio.fm/маша калеснікава
©svajksta.by/Алена Ляшкевіч

The Orthodox phase of Kalyady normally ends on the 19th of January with the Vadohryshcha - Epiphany in the ice-holes of lakes. But at some places, the phase lasts 2-3 transitional extra days. For example, the «Tsiagnut kalyadu na duba» rite in the Noviny village takes place on the 21st of January. Locals decorate a sheaf in a «Kalyada" holiday outfit. The tradition of pulling a decorated sheaf on an oak tree behind the village is another example of the Belarusian Intangible Cultural Heritage. Before that, an unmarried young man pulls down the old Kalyada from the previous year and sets it on fire. The custom marks the end of Kalyadythe East-Slavic fusion of Christian and pagan festivities.

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