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Faith and Tradition

The Hutsuls of Europe’s Carpathian Mountains hold steadfast to their past

I’ve traveled the world a bit and I have to say no one celebrates holidays quite like the Hutsuls,” says Yurii Prodoniuk, a resident of Kosmach, a village of 6,200.

Tucked into the Carpathian Mountains in southwestern Ukraine, Kosmach is the center of the 500,000-strong Greek Catholic and Orthodox Hutsul community.

The 13th-century Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus – which includes parts of present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine – is an essential chapter in Hutsul history. Many of those who survived the ruthless devastation of their homeland, peasants mostly, headed for the hills, seeking refuge in the Carpathians.

The earliest written references identifying these refugees as Hutsuls date to 14th- and early 15th-century Polish documents.

The intensification of serfdom, which bound the peasants to the land, provoked another exodus to the mountains hundreds of years later.

Today, the descendants of these refugees live in an area covering 2,500 square miles in southwestern Ukraine and northern Romania.

“In general, the Hutsuls are conservative,” says Roman Kyrchiv, professor emeritus of philology at the Institute of Ukrainian Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. “It was difficult for them to accept Christianity. They were attached to their pre-Christian traditions.”

Christianity, in its Byzantine form, arrived in Kievan Rus with the baptism of its grand duke, Vladimir, in 988.

“There are remnants of pre-Christian pantheism in some Christmas carols,” Mr. Kyrchiv continues. Instead of referring to the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph or the Magi, these carols simply recount village life and ask for prosperity for neighbors. To “Christianize” the carols, Hutsuls sometimes add a refrain after every verse, such as “O God, grant.”

For centuries church leaders sought to end the singing of these carols, Mr. Kyrchiv says. Bishop Hryhorii Khomyshyn, the Greek Catholic Bishop of Ivano-Frankivsk in the first half of the 20th century, advised that “Hutsul Christmas carols be rooted out.” But the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from 1901 to 1944, Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky of Lviv, thought otherwise, even writing a pastoral letter to the Hutsuls in their own distinctive dialect, which is similar to literary Ukrainian but with some Romanian influences.

Though for centuries geographically isolated, the Hutsuls were not insulated from the outside world. Depending on who governed the region and when (Catholic Poland and Austria to the west, Orthodox Russia to the east), Hutsuls, while true to their Byzantine Christian faith, were either Greek Catholic or Orthodox. “But this [jurisdictional divide] didn’t mean much to the people,” Mr. Kyrchiv says. Historically, Greek Catholics and Orthodox “celebrated religious feasts in each other’s churches.”

For centuries, Kosmach had but one parish, which was Greek Catholic, until the Soviets suppressed it in March 1946, forcing it to integrate with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Though deprived of its church, Kosmach’s Greek Catholic community survived; many celebrated the sacraments in secret while others participated in the Orthodox rite. This state of affairs lasted four decades, until the Soviet Union unraveled, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church resurfaced and Ukraine achieved independence.

Today, mixed Greek Catholic and Orthodox Hutsul communities are the norm. But with proximity comes competition; this surfaces mainly during Theophany, the great feast of Christ’s baptism commemorated 12 days after Christmas. Both communities process to the river for the blessing of water.

“The Orthodox stand at one place for the blessing, but Greek Catholics go farther up the river so the Orthodox drink ‘Catholic’ water,” says longtime resident Mykhailo Didushytskyi. “I laugh and cry. Adults act like children. There’s a contest: The Orthodox want the Catholics to try the water first and vice versa.”

For the Hutsuls, however, tradition remains more important than denomination.

“They don’t listen to the priest,” says Father Vasylii Hunchak, pastor of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox parish of Sts. Peter and Paul in Kosmach.

For example, Father Hunchak instructs his faithful that they can work on minor holy days. “They say, ‘the priest says that, but my mother says we can’t work,’” Father Hunchak continues. “Their beliefs are more important than what Christ handed down.”

“The Hutsuls are convinced this is how they avoid disaster,” Mr. Prodoniuk says. “They celebrate every minor holy day by not working the land. They celebrate not only St. Ann, St. Andrew and St. Nicholas, but St. Barbara and all the feasts of St. John,” he continues. “Misfortune doesn’t touch them. Other regions have floods, storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters. These pass by the Hutsuls.

“On holy days, the women don’t even use a knife,” Mr. Prodoniuk adds. “The day before the feast, they slice a lot of bread. They also make bread out of potatoes and corn, which can be broken by hand.”

The Soviets tried to modernize and socialize the Hutsuls with mixed results. Electricity may have been introduced, but collectivization failed. With a dearth of agricultural land, and with communities scattered throughout the Carpathians, logging and raising cattle and sheep remained the primary means of livelihood.

The Soviets frowned on tradition, particularly those traditions rooted in religion. But the Hutsuls took pride in their distinctive dress, dances and songs, says Vasyl Markus, editor of the Encyclopedia of the Ukrainian Diaspora and a professor at Loyola University in Chicago. Families continued to decorate Easter eggs, or pysanky, as well as practice embroidery and other examples of folk art. And unlike most parts of the Soviet Union, religious expression never really wavered. But that expression is not purely Christian.

“The Christian faith in the area is nuanced,” says Father Hunchak. “There is faith, but it is not exactly Christian, rather half-Christian, half-pagan … a mystical faith. In the Carpathian Mountains, there are people who know about trees, plants, nature.” The Hutsuls are intimately connected to nature, the elements and to their dead.

“Before Christmas Eve supper, people visit cemeteries,” says Mr. Didushytskyi. “They put candles on the graves of their relatives and invite them to come for supper. A place is then left at the table, with plate and utensils for a deceased relative, to show respect for the dead.”

Timing is important.

“When the cattle are fed and the first star appears, we sit down at the table, light candles and pray,” Mr. Didushytskyi continues. “The eldest takes the kuttia [porridge made of wheat, honey, nuts and poppy seeds] and throws it on the ceiling with a spoon.” If the porridge sticks, this means God has blessed the family with health, cattle and fertile fields.

Caroling remains an important Christmas tradition. “According to legend, God gave gifts to all the countries,” says Father Hunchak, “Ukraine came late and God had nothing left to give except songs. Our Christmas carols are simply gifts from God.”

On Christmas Eve, grandchildren carol for their grandparents. On Christmas Day, older children carol. After that, however, only adult men who have permission from their pastors may carol. Proceeds from the singing – carolers receive “tips” – are donated to the parish.

“In some villages, first they sing to the man and woman of the house, then the cattle and the fields so that all will be healthy, they will have a good harvest and healthy animals,” says Mr. Didushytskyi.

“They can carol for a whole day at one house, if the man of the house provides enough food and drink. In the 1980’s some carolers came to Kosmach from another village to make more money,” he remembers. “At first people didn’t know the difference, but now they don’t give outsiders anything.”

But outside ways are making an impact on the Hutsuls; a dearth of job opportunities threatens the Hutsuls and their traditions.

“There’s no work in the village,” says a native of Kosmach, Anna Havryliuk. “Young people leave the country looking for work in the Czech Republic, Portugal and Italy.”

Still, even as they venture out into the world, the Hutsuls hang on to their traditions. On Christmas visits, Mrs. Havryliuk’s three grandchildren never fail to return to carol.

Matthew Matuszak is director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. Petro Didula handles public affairs for the Ukrainian Catholic University.

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