Christmas in the Carpathians

After weeks of festivities, the holiday season is officially over in Ukraine.

My celebrations started with St. Andrews Day (Dec. 13) at Shevchenkivs'kyi Hai and ended with the feast of Epiphany/Jordan (Jan. 19) at a new dance friend's home with her family.

(I just finished my first week of dancing with the Bukovyna Song and Dance Folk Ensemble in Chernivtsi. Everyone has been so welcoming — we're only one week in, and all of us Canadians get to perform twice this week, and we got an amazing homecooked meal.)

You can get a birds-eye view of Lviv from High Castle, but don't expect to see much of a castle — the remaining ruins are minimal.

You can get a birds-eye view of Lviv from High Castle, but don't expect to see much of a castle — the remaining ruins are minimal.

From Dec. 30 to Jan. 9, I went on the Christmas tour of Cobblestone Freeway Tours, the company organizing my year here. Besides us six dancers, there were three other women and two men joining us.

We started in Lviv, where we spent New Year's Eve before heading to Chernivtsi, with a stop in Kolomyia along the way. In Kolomyia, we stopped at a church, the pysanka (Ukrainian Easter egg) museum, and the Hutsul museum.

We were in Chernivtsi for only a couple days, but since I knew I would have plenty of time to explore when I lived there, I was OK with it.

This was my second time in Chernivtsi, after coming with Troyanda Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in the summer, and from my first time here I knew I'd love this city. I think quaint is a good describing word for it. It's quiet but there's still plenty to do. And everywhere you look, there's something that catches your eye, from the faces in facades to unexpected-looking churches (like the pink church and the topsy-turvy church).

There was a Christmas market, much like the one in Lviv though at a smaller scale. Near the market was a toboggan run, and even though there was no snow, kids still slid down, landing in the sand at the bottom.

On Jan. 4, we went to the village Tulova to celebrate Orthodox Christmas a couple days early. We went on a walk around the village, including the church, before going to our hosts' home for dinner.

Our hosts put us to work. We tried our best at rolling dough and pinching varenyky as the experts watched on. We then went inside for the main attraction — dinner, with a side of carolling.

The dishes didn't stop coming. And the drinks didn't stop flowing. We had lots of practice on our new trick to make the homebrew burn a little less: breath out, take the shot, breath out again, smell someone's hair.

Though we had just met, our hosts welcomed and treated us like family. And who knows, maybe one day one of us will truly be a part of their family — people from the village not-so-subtly hinted there are many single men in the village ... (under the age of 31, us 20-something-year-old ladies confirmed).

After saying our goodbyes and see you agains, we headed off to Hotel Maetok Sokils'ke (my second time there this year, since I was there with Troyanda this summer), which is near Kosiv, a city with a couple remarkable markets.

The smaller bazaar (market) runs every day. You can buy embroidery, costume pieces, instruments, blankets, beads (oh, the beads!) and other souvenirs.

After the small bazaar, we went to Pistyn to drink some fresh water and walk the church grounds, including the Stations of the Cross, which took you on a small hike.

The next day we went to the big market that runs only on Saturday mornings. We were there by 8:30 a.m., and you could tell some people had already sold out of their items.

I've gotten pretty good at market shopping, which can be incredibly overwhelming since so many things look the same and everything is beautiful and you want it all. But this market was next level, and apparently we went on a day with fewer vendors than usual. (We went Jan. 6, Orthodox Christmas Eve.) There were lizhnyky (Hutsul wool blankets), vyshyvanky (embroidered shirts), jewellery, antiques, scarves, wool socks, purses, TV remotes, bulk grain, bread, Christmas tree tinsel, puppies — truly a bit of everything.

Like I said, I'm getting good at markets, the key being to have an idea of what you want, without an exact picture in mind because who knows what will be there that day, and to decide beforehand that you're going to buy something. It's hard to just browse since it all looks nice. Nothing stands out because it all stands out. You have to go into it with a bit of a mission. And you have to remember that whatever you buy will be beautiful and well loved.

At least, this is what I told myself after purchasing three blankets from the market (and perhaps one more later in the day...). My friends and I had to find our driver so he could open the bus for us, and we could empty our blanket-filled arms to continue shopping.

It must have been quite the site, the five of us walking in a triangle (two in front, three behind) through the crowded market, clearing the way with the giant wool blankets under each one of arms. This day will forever be known as the Day of the Lizhnyky.

We left the bazaar by 11:30 a.m., and by this point lots of vendors had packed up. Next we headed to Yavoriv to learn more about lizhnyky. This village is the hub of blanket making.

A woman walked us through how to make them, from carding the wool to making the thread (takes about a day) to weaving the blanket on a loom (also takes about a day) to washing it so it shrinks (takes about three or four hours) to drying it outside.

And by washing them I don't mean throwing it in a washing machine. Where we were, there was a separate blanket-making building with all the tools there to get the job done. And when you go downstairs, the river runs through the building into a blocked-off basin area where the water churns and where you throw the blanket in to be washed.

It takes about 4 kg of wool to make a queen-size blanket. And the woman leading the workshop told us the art of lizhnyky making isn't dying — students even learn how to make them in school.

I of course had to buy yet another blanket (don't worry, only one is for me and the others are gifts), because it sure is neat to have met the person who made the very blanket I now own.

After a fun day of shopping, we went back to the hotel. We had a kutya (wheat) workshop. Kutya is the first of 12 dishes served on Christmas Eve, and you should place it in the centre of the table. The head of the household is supposed to take the first serving, then everyone else follows.

Some people throw the kutya up on the ceiling, and the more that sticks signifies the more luck you'll have in the year. This tradition is well known among Ukrainian-Canadians, though it turns out not as many Ukrainians know it as you may think.


The kutya had in general the same ingredients as what my family makes — wheat, poppyseed, honey. But one difference was the addition of halva, a confection made of sunflower seeds. And gosh, was it ever a welcome addition. You sprinkle it on top, and it adds just the right amount of sweetness. My family puts cherries usually, which does the same trick. And last week when we went to the home of one of the Buko dancers for Jordan, her family served kutya with some other type of round sweet (they looked like M&Ms but tasted like sugar, not chocolate). It's neat to see various takes on the same traditional dish.

The Christmas Eve dinner at the hotel was delicious, though not exactly traditional (we didn't have the 12 meatless dishes). We went around the room to hear where the other hotel guests were from, which was really interesting. Many of the other guests were from Eastern Ukraine where there's the ongoing war. They said they have relocated to different parts of the country, including Lviv and Zaporizhia. Some of them held back tears as they described a bit about their new lives and how they're learning Ukrainian traditions that they maybe didn't know of or practise in the east.

We went to the village Kryvorivnya on Christmas Day. (Kryvorivnya means crooked straight, referring to the Cheremosh River that runs through the village.) We started to get into true Hutsulshchyna territory (Hutsulshchyna is a region of Ukraine and Hutsuls are the people who live there), with houses on the Carpathian Mountains (which are more like big hills) with no road access. School-age children walk down on Monday and stay in dorms during the week.


I was just starting to daydream about living in a cabin high on the mountain and writing stories when I learned that great Ukrainian writers, including Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka, did just that. The home Ivan Franko used to live in is now a museum about his life.

On the way to Kryvorivnya, people walked along the road on their way to church. (It's tradition to walk to church on Christmas.) Outside one church, men in big fur hats stood in one area while the women, in traditional Hutsul costumes, waited in another area.

We stopped at one point to take a few photos of the scenery. As we were nearing our bus, a blue van pulled up and out jumped a man wearing a traditional Hutsul brown wool coat with sequins and colourful pompoms with a matching hat and carrying an axe. It was straight out of a movie, or straight out of a different era.


We got to Kryvorivnya around 10:45 a.m. and went to the church. Mass had started at 10 a.m., and the church was so full the door couldn't even close at times. I'd say there were between 150 and 200 people standing in this small church. People would come and go. I left for a little bit to walk around and people were starting to gather outside. There was a man in Hutsul costume ringing the large bell at the front of the church. There were groups of men talking, some standing in the small graveyard. There were parents walking around with their restless children.

I returned to the church shortly, and mass went until about 1:45 p.m. At this point, there were about 450 people outside the church, some in traditional costume, some dressed as vertep (puppet theatre) characters. The crowd was gathering to watch the плес (ples). It comes from the Ukrainian word plesaty, to dance (thanks to my tour guide and friend Yaryna for the explanation!).

Men in the Verkhovyna of Ukraine perform this dance while singing a carol, which sounds more like a chant. (Check out this video.)

All the participants went to the middle of the crowd, forming a circle. They started by playing the trembita, a horn. It seemed each person played a different note, so it sounded a bit like chaos, but a melodic chaos. Then the fiddlers started. Then the singing. While they sang, the men would flip their axes to the beat, showing the opposite side of the axe to the front.

The song didn't last too long, but it was a sight to see and a treat to hear. After the singing, people started to disperse. Later in the day, the same men who performed the ples would go carolling door to door.

Leaving the village, we saw vertep characters. We saw carollers in horse-drawn wagons. And sitting on a fence, there was a man who appeared to be taking it all in.

I went back in time on Orthodox Christmas this year. I went back in time to a timeless year, one that I hope people will relive as they continue preserving their traditions.

That evening we went to our final destination, Bukovel. It's a ski resort town, and we finally saw snow, which seemed to be lacking the majority of our holiday season. During our time in Bukovel, some went skiing, some went skating, some went roller coaster ziplining, some went to Yaremche for one last market shopping trip, and I think it's safe to say we all had a good time.

Spending Orthodox Christmas in the Carpathian Mountains was better than I could have ever dreamed of. Thanks to those who keep their traditions alive. There's so much we can learn from culture, and preserving knowledge starts with people like those who I met this holiday season.