«If there was no Christmas, Spring would not resurrect either» says a folk proverb
Christmas is one of the biggest, most important holidays of the year. On Christmas, the sun comes into full force. Everyday, starting with Christmas, the sun gets stronger and warms up the cold ground. This is the victory of light over darkness that carolers welcome with carols and "plyes".
Apart from carols, which are typical in every region of Ukraine, the Hutsul region is also famous for its "plyes" (also sometimes called "plys", "plyas") - an ancient religious ritual dance. The dance dates as far back as the ancient times, which is proved even by its slavonic name. The dance is part of the Christmas ritual and performed with wishes made up by hutsul carolers accompanied by a special melody performed on trembitas. The dancers are called "plyesuny", "plyesachi" or "plyesaky". An essential attribute of the "plyesuny" is a "bartka" – a Hutsul ax, with a bell tied to on a strap. Bartka is a symbol of spiritual weapons. When performing carols the dancers do a special typical movement with their axes – they swing it from the bottom to the top, simultaneously moving it in circles.
Apart from its religious, ritual character "plyes" was also a way to make a little money. For this, the carolers have a set of basic steps, similar to those in “Kolomyika” or “Kozachok”. Songs that accompany "plyes" are usually of humorous character.
But becoming part of a carolers troupe isn’t as easy as it seems, and knowing many carols or being really eager to go caroling doesn’t always do the trick! In Hutsulshchyna usually 8-13 men are chosen for caroling (carolers troupes only included men, as Hutsuls strongly believe that women should stay at home and make sure everything was going well there). In every troupe that a "vybirtsia" - a man who picks those to join him. Usually this is someone connected to the church, or an influential, respectable local, known by everyone in the area the carolers will be travelling. If a village is large, there can be more than one carolers troupes. The "vybirtsia" or the chooser then picks out a "Bereza" - a leader to the carolers. Bereza has to know all the carols and know which ones to pick to which house.
An important task for Bereza was to choose a good fiddler and trembita players, as well as the rest of the gang. Even though, technically, it is Vybirtsia who chooses all the members, if Bereza was to disagree on a candidate, he would not make the cut. You can easily tell the Vybirtsia in a group as he’s always holding a hand cross and a bell.
An important character in Christmas carolers group is a "kin’" – a horse. Not literal, of course, a horse is the man that carries the ‘besahy’ – a bag, in which carolers collect all they earn – treats, drinks, pastries and money.
Bereza always leads the way, be it entering or leaving a house. He’s the first to sit down at the table and the carolers aren’t supposed to leave the table, until Bereza stands up. He then allows the carolers to dance and entertain the hosts while making some money.
During carolling Hutsuls make a few steps forward, backward, then jump one each leg in turns, then squat, and swing their axes. Local historians explained that this was a way to recreate ancient ideas about the movement of celestial bodies and the changing seasons. During the singing and circular movements following the sun, the host and his wife take turns in pouring some vodka for the dancers. The bells tied to their bartkas were very well suited for that. When a caroler drinks, no one should dance. And it continues so until everyone has a shot.
For those who had apiaries, the carolers would do a special dance around the hives. Before starting, everyone would take their hats off and place them on the ground in one pile, then they would begin making moves imitating the flight and behavior of bees. In the meantime the hostess would put some wheat in everyone’s hat. Once the carolers were done with their dance they would return all the grains to the woman as a symbol of bees coming back home. Finally they would sing special chants and wishes which the owners of the house were always happy to pay for. And because it’s a holiday and because it’s Hutusls we’re talking about – everyone would try to outdo their neighbors and pay more than everyone else.
Early Christmas morning Hutsuls cook banush – made of corn flour and sour cream, served with huslyanka (a Hutsul kind of yogurt\sour milk). Each Gazda (host) and Gazdynya (hostess) always look forward to the carolers visit.
Hutsuls believe that as long as carolers go from house to house wishing good luck - people will live in peace.