The Harvest Season

Thanksgiving may be only familiar to Americans and Canadians, but Ukrainians, like many others around the world, celebrate the coming of harvest in late summer. Centuries of agrarian tradition drives the spirit of Ukraine, and rituals that give thanks to the natural world are embedded in the culmination of a good season in the fields.

Before combines and tractors, Ukrainian farmers sowed the earth with sickles and scythes. In a joint effort, men and women worked side by side in the fields singing songs about the sun, the grain, the birds, and their aching backs. Ancestors, nature, the holy earth, and bread wove their way into songs meant to drive away inclement weather and bad luck.

While the process of harvest wore bodies and souls to the quick, the reward came on obzhynky, the last day of harvest. The last sheaf of the best grain plucked from the fields was sacred. Reaped, tied, and decorated with flowers and ribbons, the grain sheaf was a mark of good luck and was a fixture in the farmer’s house at Christmas Eve. The last clump of uncut grain was special as well. Stalks were tied and braided, with the roots still in the ground, formed an enclosure where a round loaf of bread was placed. The owner of the homestead bowed to the bread, and in the four directions of the fields, while he prayed for another good year: “Sow and grow, rye and wheat, and all grain, even better than this year.”

In addition to giving thanks to the field for another prosperous year, Ukrainian men selected their queen of their harvest. Standing in the center of a circle with a sickle placed on her left shoulder, the oldest man tied a band of straw around her wait and crowned her with a wreath made of grain and flowers. A symbol of both Mother Earth’s grace, the ceremony marked a hope for marriage for the young woman in the coming year.

Perhaps the early 20th century Ukrainian writer, Vasyl Stefanyk, surmised the meaning of harvest and land best when he wrote: “Our destiny is the soil; forsake it and you are lost; cling to it and it will develop all your powers and draw out your very soul in the hollow of its hand; embrace it, subject yourself to it and it will suck the life-blood out of your veins – but in return, you have herds of sheep, and horses and full stock-yards; and for your strength it will give you a cabin full of children and grand-children who laughter is like silver bells and whose cheeks are red as the fruit of the snow-ball tree.”