If you’ve never been to L’viv, Easter time is probably the best time to go. The Julian calendar celebration is generally later than the Gregorian one, the calendar most of the world uses today. But that means the weather is farther along into spring and, with any luck, you’ll have pretty well perfect weather.
A couple of friends and I left Kyiv by car on May 1st, the beginning of 2002's May holidays. With May Day and Easter in rapid succession, the government once again decided to shut down for almost a week in 2002, as it had done the previous two years. So each of us had decided to spend the holidays with family and friends in western Ukraine.
We left a slightly overcast Kyiv around 07:45 and by 15:00 had rolled into Ivano-Frankivsk, where the driver left us. The other fellow and his five-year-old got off just before 17:00 at the village of Noviy Rozdil, not far from Mykola?v of Ciment LaFarge fame. That left me to cruise into L’viv solo, just in time for supper.
My friend Olha was in the midst of a cooking frenzy, as was most of L’viv and a good part of the rest of the west country. So the selection was good. I started with some green borshch with a nice dollop of sour cream. She cut up some fresh baton and kovbasa, and tossed up a salad of shredded cabbage, tomatoes and onions in mayonnaise with a touch of horseradish and some dill on top.
For dessert, she and her 15-year-old daughter joined me for some syrnyky, a farmer’s cheese-based Silver Dollar with cherries, walnuts and raisins mixed in. I chose to smother them in some more sour cream, while they put on some home-made black currant jam. We washed it all down with some nice hot tea.
This was the beginning of the Easter eating pentathlon.
Olha and Yustina had already prepared two different coffee cakes and were working on a third. One was crisply layered with a thicker cousin of filo pastry, interlarded with walnuts, poppyseed and cherries. Another one was yellow dough spotted like a dairy cow with huge patches of ground poppyseed – one of my favorites. A third was two-layered with chocolate and vanilla dough and a filling of cherries.
While we caught up on things, Olha began preparing a chocolate icing to put on the poppyseed cake. Needless to say, the kitchen was warm and smelled fantastic.
The next morning was Holy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper. Traditionally, it’s the day to do spring cleaning, but Olha also needed to do some last-minute shopping and I needed a haircut.
The market in downtown L’viv, near the monument to Danylo Halytskiy, were also doing a brisk business selling an amazing array of foodstuffs, flowers, and Easter goodies like candles, pastry lambs with pink bows, and pysanky. People had come in from all over the Carpathians, but especially the Kosiv region, to sell traditional hand-painted Eastern eggs for about 50? each. You could select from dozens of trays all the way down the street. There were wooden eggs and real ones, hollow ones and full ones. There were eggs done in delicately cross-hatched style, and plain ones in a single bright color. There were even real hollowed eggs covered in beadwork. I bought one for about $2.50.
On Friday evening around sundown, Yustina got together with some friends for her first all-night vigil. They went to St. Yuriy’s Cathedral at 20:00 and prayed at the plashchanytsia, a half-scale glass painting of Christ laid in his tomb. After a three-hour service there, they all moved on to another church, and then to a third one. Tired but satisfied, she came home at 07:00 and immediately went to bed.
By midday Holy Saturday, Olha began dyeing eating eggs a rich brown color that she got from boiling onion skins. By Saturday afternoon, most of the cooking was done and it was time to prepare two baskets for blessing at the church. Olha gave me some horseradish roots to scrape clean while she pulled out a ring of kovbasa, some smoked ham, some salt, and two Paskas or Easter breads, as well as some cheese and butter.
Her husband brought in some pretty greens from the garden to decorate the baskets, as well as six pysanky he had made over the years. We carefully packed the food into each basket, then covered them with hand-embroidered cloths.
The most popular place in L’viv for blessing baskets is a large park and outdoor museum known as Shevchenkivskiy Hai – pronounced “high.” In addition to some traditional Ukrainian country houses with their steep straw-covered roofs, the park has a couple of churches and there is a monastery attached to it.
We drove to the park, then joined hundreds of L’vivians as they sauntered with their baskets for the traditional Easter blessing. The blessings had started at 15:00 and the churchyard was buzzing with people. By the time we got through with paying respects to the ploshchanytsia, the fourth round of blessings was beginning. We wound our way through the crowd to where the circle was forming and placed our baskets on the grass. We had bought four candles inside the church, but there was too much wind and after attempts with matches only to have the wicks go out after a minute, Roman said, “Well, let’s consider that we lit them symbolically.”
Around us stood young couples with babies while grandparents took pictures, schoolchildren in pinafores and new suits played on the grass, and voices could be heard singing Easter verses. Dressed in a black hat and short cape with a dramatic green and yellow checked chasuble underneath, the black-bearded abbot finally began to make the round, sprinkling holy water on baskets and owners alike while intoning the Easter blessing.
As soon as we got back to the house, Yustina wailed, “I haven’t eaten since last night.” We didn’t need any more excuses to be a bit “naughty,” so we broke out the blessed food and had a yummy little snack. Late that evening, Olha and I stuffed some sconces with mocha cream. That was dessert number five.
Easter Day was the most glorious food moment of all. Everything that had been so painstakingly prepared the previous three days was now hauled out, finished off, laid out on good china, and set on the dining room table.
There was a tray of freshly cut Paska bread; a platter of sliced smoked meat and olives; a plate of egg halves sprinkled with fresh horseradish; a platter of fish-liver salad on lettuce; a plate of sliced kovbasa and ham; a bowl of apple and egg salad; another with shredded cabbage, greens, tomatoes, and peas in mayonnaise dressing; a plate of garnished fish slices; beef in aspic; a small bowl of egg and horseradish spread; another of beet and horseradish. Toasting with home-made wine and Carpathian cognac, we chatted away while the sun shone in the windows and the day grew warmer. By the time we got to dessert and coffee, I was feeling somewhat incapacitated.
After lunch, we headed back to Shevchenkivskiy Hai for the ancient spring rituals known as hayivky. “Time to work off those calories,” said Olha’s husband.
This time, they were taking Hr 1.50 at the gate and when we got there, the queue was a few hundred people long. A bevy of nuns, novices and postulants in embroidered blouses and black tunics were singing songs as they waited with us. Inside the Hai, it seemed half of L’viv had come out. Particularly the half under 20.
Most people started out with a tour of some of the historic buildings: houses, barns, bee keeps, stables, churches and schools. Ahead of us was a cluster of young recruits in camouflage with a nun as their guide. There were even some young people speaking English, a tour of new Peace Corps volunteers. Where there were open areas, smaller groups were playing and singing.
Back the main area, we found a perfect spot on the slope, in the sun but with a fresh breeze. From this vantage point, we could see all the action. What’s more, the action saw us and a dozen friends and acquaintances from as far as Kyiv found us.
Everywhere you looked, young people and children had formed circles and were performing rounds. Podolianochka, Viyu vinets or the Maypole, Sleeping Beauty. Teams of girls would challenge teams of boys, then start a tug-o-war. I couldn’t remember when I had last seen so many teenagers just playing around.
Many girls wore embroidered blouses over top ordinary jeans and mini-skirts. So many shapes, colors and designs, that there were no two alike in the entire crowd of several thousands.
Tiny little halychankas wandered around proudly decked out in the full costume: headband, blouse, vest, waistband and long reddish-brown skirt. There weren’t so many boys or men in native shirts.
There was one downer about this otherwise wonderful, sunny afternoon.
For those of us who wanted a real taste of Ukraine – some Dobra voda or Zhyvchyk to quench our thirst, or a slice of makivnyk or yabluneviy pyrih to stave off dinner, there was nothing. Just a pump of well-water that you could fill your own bottle with.
For those who wanted a souvenir of the occasion, a memento of L’viv, the Hai, or an embroidered shirt to take away, there was nothing.
At Shevchenkivskiy Hai, Christ may have risen, but commercialism is still pretty dormant. •