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Pre - Easter

With the coming of Christianity to Kyievan Rus' (see the History of Ukraine Chronological Tables: 10th century), the Church merged the pagan Spring holiday with Easter - the Resurrection of Christ. Many of the ancient rituals became a part of the Easter cycle of celebrations.

The first sign of the coming of Spring was the return of migrating bird flocks. To greet the birds, the harbingers of Spring, people baked dough birds. These were given to the children who frolicked in the fields by throwing the birds into the air while singing appropriate songs and offering prescribed sayings. The Church incorporated this tradition into the Feast of the Forty Martyrs which is celebrated on March 22nd.

On the Sunday before Easter, which is also called "Willow Sunday" branches of the willow tree (called loza) are blessed in the Church and given to the faithful. This particular ritual had a magical intent in pagan times. The willow tree had medicinal properties, was considered a holy tree, and was one of the first in the Spring to show signs of life. The people believed that by tapping each other with the freshly blooming willow tree branch, they could draw from it the same energy and strength which allowed it to come to life. The Christian Church on the other hand, marks this Sunday in accordance with the Gospel and the liturgical prescription celebrating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where he was greeted by throngs of people waving palm branches. To remember this event, the Church initiated a custom of distributing palm branches. The Ukrainian Church combined the ancient pagan ritual with the Christian one, with the difference that willow branches are given to the people instead of palm branches.

The week before Easter is called "white, clean, illuminating, grand, Passion Week or willow week." The days were busy with physical and spiritual cleansing and rebirth. Following supper on Passion Thursday and until Easter morning it was forbidden to eat meat or dairy foods. On Thursday evening the Twelve Gospels of Christ's Passion were read during a special service in Church. The attending faithful held large lit candles or three candles, called passion candles, tucked in a bed of aromatic herbs. In olden times these candles were made from bees wax by the master of each household. Following the service the faithful walked home with the lit candles. Through the year these candles were kept in a safe place until the following year's Passion Thursday. The people believed that the candles had magical powers which could protect the house from lightning, prevent hail from ruining the crops, and deter illness.

During the night before Easter or sometimes even on Thursday and Friday, men and boys lit bonfires near the woods, on hills, by the water, in cemeteries or near the church. According to belief, these fires were meant to cleanse the neighborhood of all evil illness and disaster. The flames also lit the way for the souls returning to their former families. A token household item was thrown into the bonfire as a sacrifice to the gods to insure prosperity during the year.

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