Christmas without a tree

Our forefathers must have considered it a barbarity to fell trees on a mass-scale just to make them a short-term decoration. Obviously, their link with nature was much stronger. As a result, environmental concern was more developed and practical. Nature was respected. It was perfect, and none of its creations was futile. Therefore, there were no “extra” things in a household. Even the stalks of rye and wheat, which were unfit for culinary purposes, were used decoratively. Among these Christmas decorations was the so-called “spider” – a geometrical intricate straw figure that simultaneously combined the pagan and Christian cultural codes: a model of the universe and the adoration of an animal that announces the birth of Christ. There was also a tradition in some places of Boikivshcyna to deck widows with multicolored stems of straw. The stems were put in window frame slots, which formed triangles and rhombs. These decorations created a special holiday mood, when light ran into the room through the window. In Pokuttia, little crosses were made from straw on the eve of Epiphany and hung near windows and doors. They served as amulets against all kinds of devils that could frolic during the feast. Another thing that dates back to pre-Christian times is a bird-shaped decoration known as holubets. They were made from an egg through the shell of which a colored paper was passed. These “birds” were hung to the ceiling and identified with the sun according to the ancient cult of Dazhboh (was one of the major gods of Slavic mythology – Ed.). Yet the main New Year and Christmas decoration was didukh or “paradise sheaf,” as it was called in some localities. It was made from the ears of the first or the last reap. They were bound up in seven-stalk sheaves, which symbolized seven days of the week. Twelve of these little sheaves (one for each month) were bound in one big sheaf and decked with ribbons. Thus the didukh was at the same time the symbol of a new bountiful year, the future wealth in a family, and the crop cycle from the end of fieldwork in the outgoing year to its beginning in the upcoming one. Moreover, whenever the father of the family brought in a sheaf, his wife was to ask jokingly what he was carrying. The father was to answer: “It is gold, and we shall live the whole year in wealth!” Then the father wished his family peace, health, and harmony in the next year. Putting the didukh in the room’s corner next to the icon, the household head would wind an iron chain around it and put some farming appliances besides, which also symbolized a bumper crop. 

The name is not just a pure chance. Didukh translates as “spirit of forefathers,” a symbol of the previous generations (“did” is grandfather, forefather in Ukrainian). For this reason, on Christmas Eve, an additional plate with food was put near the didukh so that the dead relatives could also join the festive repast. In Pokuttia, the “forefather” was accompanied by the “foremother.” On Christmas Eve, an armful of straw was brought in and spread over the house floor. It was one more symbol of the cult of ancestors who were supposed to protect the future crop from floods, hail, and other dangers. Traditional decorations were made on January 2, when Hnat’s name day was marked. There was a saying, “Hnat hurries up girls,” which meant that one of the year’s greatest feasts was just a few days away.