Caroling warms Ukrainian hearts on the darkest nights of winter

Solemnly marching through a fresh snow, an old man, dressed as a goat, leads a small procession. Behind him, a woman carries a canvas bag and a second man hoists a six-pointed star attached to a long stick with a light in its center towards the night sky. Followed by three other shrouded figures clasping musical instruments to their thick coats, the leader knocks on the first door. When the door is cast open, warmth rushing into the frigid night, the leader asks, “May we sing you a song of Christmas?”

Long ago, the tradition of caroling had elements of a folk opera. After receiving permission to sing, carolers entered the house and sang carols for each member of the family from oldest to youngest. The costume of the goat once represented the god of fertility and sometimes carolers enacted a skit of the goat dying before being resurrected to symbolize the death of Winter and the birth of Spring. While the custom of a dressing up as a goat may have long passed, caroling rituals of many kinds endure with solemn nods to both the country’s history of paganism and Christianity.

Themes of Ukrainian Christmas songs vary. The koliadky, likely derived from the Latin ‘calendae’, meaning the first day of the month are sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The shechedrivky songs, with the meaning ‘generous’ are sung later during the Feast of the Epiphany. Both song traditions have pagan elements but have largely been Christianized. In one carol, the pagan version tells a story of a landowner awakened by a swallow and told to make preparations for three guests – the sun, the moon, and the rain. The three guests become Jesus Christ, St. Nicholas, and St. George in the Christian interpretation.

Whether subscribing to ancient rites of Paganism or the traditions of Christianity, Ukrainians continue to honor the season of darkness and light with reverence and well-being towards all those around the world. Singing the songs of the season is simply one way to mark the long days and nights of winter with joyous celebration.