It is Easter Monday, and I am still feeling the after-effects, mostly pleasant, of another Easter weekend, spent with an abundance of friends, family, food and drink. For those of us Ukrainians in the diaspora that still practice some of our ancestral traditions, Easter is one of the highlights of the year, filled with a nostalgic array of colourful pysanky, overflowing Easter baskets and paska, all laden with memories of Easters past.
It is actually somewhat ironic, that though the essential Easter Christian message is one of resurrection and new life, and a hope for a new and better future, most of our attachment to Easter tends to be focused on the past, of long ago Easters with parents and grandparents now long departed, of inherited ancestral traditions that go back a thousand years. As one personal example, the basket that we take to church every Easter is one that was used by my wife Daria’s grandmother for decades. We inherited it as a family heirloom and we have continued to use it in her memory every Easter. Even the way our paska and syrnyk (cheese cake) are decorated is in the identical manner that my wife learned from her grandmother, who likely learned it from her baba.
History indeed has a strong influence on how we celebrate Easter. The history of the pysanka, the iconic Ukrainian Easter egg, goes back even further into pagan times. With the Christianization of Ukraine, through the process of syncretism, the pysanka became assimilated into Christian symbolism, becoming the quintessential icon of Ukrainian Easter practices. I have not made pysankas for some years now, but when it was part of my regular annual Easter routine, my favourite designs were of Trypyllian origin, going back into Ukrainian history some four to five thousand years.
Though we may not either realize or be willing to admit it, our Easter traditions probably reflect our historical and cultural traditions more than they do our religious ones. In fact, probably to the chagrin of most of our Ukrainian clergy, I would hazard a guess that our typical Ukrainian Easter celebrations are more of a secular holiday than a time for spiritual reflection and renewal.
This came out clearly during my conversation with my cousin Hryts from Pidkamin when I called him yesterday to say “Khrystos Voskres”. He was in a particularly fine mood after having returned from Easter services at St. Paraskevia’s, Pidkamin’s little church that sits half way up the hill to the historic old monastery and fortress overlooking the town. It was obvious too that he was basking in the afterglow of having partaken of the usual exquisite holiday feast that his wife Yevdokia was renowned for and some of his fine home-made libations.
As I started to recount to him my tribulations in having to get up early to attend the 5:30 sunrise Easter mass and endure the three hour long service, he cut me off sharply and with a gentle rebuke in his voice:
“You know, despite your age, you are still a real smarkach! Why, I am almost thirty years older than you and you don’t hear me complaining. Besides, it’s a good thing it’s so long – it gives you more time to think of your transgressions, and you certainly do not lack in those. Stop complaining and tell me if you had a good turnout at your Easter service.”
“We certainly did!” I exclaimed. “We got almost two hundred people out for the blessing of the paskas; that’s almost three times what we usually get on most Sundays.”
“Just as I thought,” he smirked. “That is really sad.”
“Sad?” I asked quizzically, “I don’t understand? Why sad when we had such a great turnout?”
“Echh!” he spat out, “You have horseradish for brains! All those people are what I call submarine Christians. They remain submerged all year long and only surface to come to church on the big holidays. It is a good thing that God is so merciful, that he welcomes even those that, as the Bible says, come at the eleventh hour! I confess I would not be so merciful.”
“Aaahh…”, I stammered, fully aware that my own church going practices were somewhat sporadic .
“Don’t worry,” he responded, obviously sensing my discomfort, “Easter is all about starting afresh. I will pray for your sorry soul, and drink a charka of my fine home-made cherry wine to your health. Enjoy your Easter!”
As usual, my conversation with Hryts was illuminating, if not entirely comfortable.