Of all the major winter holidays, St. Andrew’s Day, celebrated on December 13, is probably one of the most fun and anticipated ones.
In Ukrainian tradition this was a day for young people to gather in one house for the so-called "великі вечорниці" (velyki vechornytsi) - great gatherings with music, songs, jokes and rituals. The word ‘vechornytsi’ is derived from the Ukrainian ‘вечір’ which stands for ‘evening’.
The holiday itself celebrates St. Andrew the Apostle, who is considered not only the patron of the Ukrainian church, but also the founder of Kyiv. It is mentioned in the Laurentian Chronicle how one day, relaxing by Dnipro river, the Saint looked at the Kyiv hills and told his disciples: "You see these mountains? They will have God's grace shine upon them; a great city will arise here, and many churches will be built in God’s name" Then the Apostle went to the top of the mountain and put a cross on the very spot where now stands St. Andrew's Church.
Although Andrew is a Christian saint, these folk customs and rituals are more ancient, pre-Christian, connected with the mysterious rituals of love magic, which then evolved into popular divinations, liked by young people everywhere in Ukraine.
Usually vechornytsi were held in the house of the village’s most respected woman who was to supervise the young people. First, before sunset, the girls would gather to cook dinner and, most importantly, bake a ‘Kalyta’ (aka Kaleta or Korol) - a round sweet wheat bread with a hole in the middle or on the side. Each girl was to make her own portion of dough, thinking about her loved one while making it. Then everyone’s pieces would be put together, and adding raisins, dried cherries and nuts the Kalyta was ready for baking. The bread was decorated with poppy seeds and then planted in the oven.
While the Kalyta bread was being baked, the girls would clean the house, cook traditional meals and sing ritual songs. Typically, St. Adnrew’s dinner included borscht, millet or buckwheat porridge,
garlic buns, crepes, varenyky (perogies), uzvar (stewed fruit juice) etc. It was customary to make poppy, prune and cabbage filled buns or perogies, though sometimes the girls would also make one with pepper and another one with walnuts. Whoever got the pepper filled one was supposed to kiss the hostess, and the walnut filled one determined who the ‘king of the night’ was. Sometimes the girls would also use coins for the filling. They would mark those bums not to pick them themselves and wait to see which young man got it. It was believed that the man to get the penny filled pastry would marry the girl who made it.
Once the Kalyta bread was ready it was generously sprinkled with poppy seeds and covered with honey to then be hidden in some secret place.
With all the preparations complete, dinner cooked and the bread hidden the girls would sit and wait for the ‘eligible bachelors’ to arrive and thus officially begin the festivities. The young men would arrive with songs and jokes and the girls would reply in the same manner!
During these humorous retorts the clever guys would quietly start looking for the Kalyta, and the youngest ones would try entangle scarlet threads around the girls, to get them to give away where the Kalyta was, or, at least kiss each of the men. So you see that the girls couldn’t even for a moment lose vigilance!
If, despite all their efforts, the boys were unable to retrieve the Kalyta, the girls would start haggling, asking the young men for unusual gifts (e.g. the best man from the group), or the realization of any "insidious" desire, that the guys would, regardless, be happy to do, with everyone having a good laugh.
Once all the wishes were fulfilled the girls would solemnly bring in the Kalyta, decorating it with Kalyna berries. It was then hung by a red ribbon to the ceiling beam. And so the festivities were officiated.
Firstly, the group was to pick a watchman, a host - "Pan Kalytynsky" (Mr. Kalyta). This was supposed to be the most talkative, funniest man from the group, who would keep everyone entertained. In some cases, the hostess, called the ‘Vechornytsi Mother’, was the one to play this part. The evening games were initiated with the 'Kalyta game' - the host of the night was to swing the Kalyta bread, making it hard for anyone to have a bite.
After the ‘Kalyta game’ everyone sat down at the dinner table and shared a meal. For all young men, St. Andrew’s night was the so-called “ritual damage doings time”, this pretty much was the time they were allowed to do anything and everything! The morning after St. Andrew’s it was normal to find your cart on the roof of the house, the fence floating it the river or your barn completely taken apart. Often the pathways to houses where young unmarried girls lived were covered with beet juice, hay or straw. But people in the village would always pardon such boyish pranks, because St. Andrew’s was basically considered a grand stag party!
Closer to midnight the girls would begin the most mysterious and most awaited part of the night - divinations. Firstly, they would take some porridge or borscht in a cup, sit on top of the gates and loudly repeat the following chant three times - «Доле, доле, йди до мене кашу їсти!». This can be roughly translated as: Destiny, my destiny, come to me, have some porridge! By destiny they mostly meant their betrothed one. After the chant they would wait for some kind of answer. Their future husband was believed to live in the part of the village from which they heard any sound. The girl would be especially glad if, in response to her chant, she heard a rooster – this was considered to be "fate’s voice!"
One of the most common rituals of St. Adnrew’s night ‘love-magic’ was the "sowing of hemp." A girl would take a handful of hemp, flax or poppy seeds, and go out to sow it in the snow. Then she would pick a handful of snow and go back into the house. Once the snow melted she was to count the grains. If it was an even number – the girl would be getting married in the year to come.
Another custom was to walk outside of people’s houses provoking them to talk. If the people in the house said ‘go’, the girls would rejoice, as that meant a wedding proposal. But if they were told to ‘sit’, it meant they weren’t to be married for another year at least.
Different games, fortune-telling tricks and jokes would continue all night long, and only at dawn everyone would go home. To see their future husband in their dreams girls would fold their ‘kraika’ (a traditional belt) to form a cross and place it under their pillow.
Use these tips and organize traditional Ukrainian St. Andrew’s vechornytsi yourself!