Sound of Ukrainian Christmas

Ringing, festive, loud, majestic – carols first come to mind when we talk about the image of Ukrainian Christmas. Caroling is an invariable custom of the Ukrainian winter holidays. Caroling is a unique activity during which carolers bestow happy fate and prosperity to those they carol. For the magic to happen, the gift of wishes must be worthily accepted and generously bestowed in return.

"Master, in your yard" is a carol from the village of Selets, Narodytsky district, Zhytomyr region.
Reconstruction of the Drevo folk band, released on the disc "Drevo. Songs from Ukraine / Drewo. Pieśni z Ukrainy / DREVO. Songs from Ukraine. – Part 1"
Ivan Honchar "Carols". Folk customs of the Southern Kyiv region", 1972. Paper, gouache, tempera. 27.5x38.5 cm

Counting on help and care, traditionally, the hosts gave the best gifts to the sacred guests – "God's messengers." Carolers were presented with pies, cakes, salo, sausage, nuts, apples, and money. Each proud host tried to give more than carolers had received in the previous house and knew that this would bring prosperity to the family and the household.

In each region of Ukraine, the winter custom sounds "in its way" – male or mixed groups, recitative or with wide chanting, unanimously or with a luxurious chordal texture, with instrumental accompaniment or to a melody of book origin.

"Let us give thanks to God" is an old carol from the village of Chornyi Potik, Ivano-Frankivsk region.The peculiarity of this carol is a one-voiced melody accompanied by a flute. Carols in western Ukraine were often performed with instrumental accompaniment. Carols like this one are called "zhekanky" because in the refrain “Oi dai Bozhe” ("Oh, please God"), the initial syllables are shortened, of which only the last syllable "zhe" remains. However, the melodic basis of the carol is preserved: the missing syllables are filled by the instrumental playing of the refrain melody.


Folk icon "Christmas of Christ", Bukovyna, mid-19th century

For many centuries, in pre-Christian times and later in the period of Christianity, the winter song repertoire has been transformed, enriched by many musical practices of different eras. The modern winter traditional repertoire consists of many historical "layers." And we have the opportunity to hear these epochs in many Ukrainian carols.

It is one of the oldest carols from the so-called "household cycle." The carol wishes for the owners' well-being, with the obligatory reward requirement. Musical features, such as melody, form, and rhythm, indicate that the carol originated in pre-Christian times. However, there are already signs of Christian influence in the text of the carol itself.


"To the church for Christmas", Anastasia Rak, Poltava region, Lokhvytskyi district, the village of Vasylʹky, 1997. Glass, ink, tempera, bronze, varnish, foil, 30x 48.5 cm

Ancient carols were performed personally for each family member. A lot of such address carols were preserved. Foremost for the master, mistress, and their children. They sang separately to unmarried boys or girls and, in some regions, even to beekeepers and shepherds.

People in such songs were always exalted and sang only about their virtues. Sometimes they even exaggerated because they believed what was said or sung during the holidays would come true. That is why in a carol to a girl, she was often depicted as intelligent, hardworking, and beautiful, sometimes compared to a princess and a queen. A special place in the texts of carols was occupied by wishes for a girl to have a good couple and a happy marriage.


"Carolers under the window", Anastasiya Rak, Poltava region, Lokhvytskyy district, the village of Vasylky, 1990. Glass, tempera, ink, bronze paint, 30x33.7 cm


"Assumption Cathedral", Anastasiya Rak, Poltava region, Lokhvytskyy district, the village of Vasylky, 1998. Glass, tempera, ink, bronze paint, foil, varnish, 43.4x53.3 cm

Children's carols occupy a separate niche among the variety of winter repertoire. Children began to go with kutia to their godparents or midwives from an early age. The texts were elementary and short, and mostly consisted of an appeal to the host or hostess ("Kolyadyn-kolyadyn, I'm alone with my father", or "I'm a little girl, like a flower in the field, my boots are purple, be healthy with the holiday!") and begging for gifts (often with threats):

If you don't give me a pie, I'll take the ox by the horns,
and bring it to the threshold,
and I will twist the right horn,
and I'll blow the horn,
and plow with the ox!

These simple, at first glance, texts preserved the archaic ideas of our ancestors about the destruction of the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead during the holidays. Through carolers - intermediaries between the worlds, people tried to appease the spirits of their ancestors, so carolers were given not money but a variety of food and pastries (ritual bread, pampukhy, pancakes).


Decorative panel “Carol” by Maria Manko (1940 d.o.b.), the village of Tymanivka, Tulchyn district, Vinnytsia region. Collection of the Ivan Honchar Museum

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