Christmas, falling on cold months of the year, and the beginning of astronomical winter in the northern hemisphere, has a long and rich tradition on the European continent. The winter Solstice on December 21 opens up a whole series of celebrations, including Christmas in the Christian tradition – starting Christmas Eve on December 24 according to the rite of the Catholic Church, and on the feast of the Three Kings in the second half of January, in the Orthodox Church. This year we would like, at least to a small degree, share the music that accompanies the festivities of our eastern neighbors.
We start, however, unusually, since this tradition has its roots not strictly in “Christmas carols”, but a “New Year’s song”. This goes back to the tradition of celebrating on 21 December – hinging on the winter solstice, after which the days become progressively longer again. Caroling is an old and still popular ritual in many countries of Eastern Europe, from Armenia to Poland. Carolers go from house to house and share a “New Year’s song,” now having a foothold in Christian rituals which brings the exchange of small symbolic gifts (“Ukrainian Vertep”).
Solstice festivals are also celebrated in some Muslim countries with Persian roots, such as Azerbaijan – a family feast, or Yalda, as in Slavic countries (the cult of Mithras, and the sun) – as well as in the Jewish tradition of lighting lamps, and lighting a fire (Hanukkah) on the shortest day of the year.
December 25 – Christmas Day – is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar in eastern parts of Europe, by the inhabitants of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary … The majority of our neighbors to the east will celebrate primarily on 7 January next year. What will they sing, or listen to?
This is one of the songs sung on the occasion of Christmas in Georgia (შობა, Shoba) in the tradition of Alilo – Christmas parade:
And here we have a Georgian “chichilaki” . Not everywhere is the traditional Christmas tree raised, in fact, Christmas trees hail from nineteenth-century central European regions.
Armenia, the country with the longest-Christian tradition, will celebrate Սուրբ Ծնունդ (SuRB tsnunt). In addition to the strictly religious songs, we find a song about tonatsar (Տօնածառ) or … the Christmas tree.
To the west, the Black Sea meets Moldova, sharing the traditions of Romania and Transnistria. Here, Christmas falls on both 25 December, and on 7 January. This is another country where traditional caroling – “Colinda” – also occurs. Listen to the songs of Christmas:
And the famous “Astăzi s-and născut Hristos”:
It never fails — Shchedryk by Mykola Leontovych. For Ukraine, a country at the crossroads of Eastern and Western traditions, a day to celebrate not only on 7 January, but on 25 December for some Western regions. And the song itself is a typical New Year’s (text).
Belarus: probably many traditions of eastern Europe from Lithuania to Ukraine find something in common here, including the melodies—for Poles there is much familiarity! Here’s the choir from Brest (Belarusian-Polish border city) – Chór Soboru pw. Zmartwychwstania Pańskiego – in a Christmas concert:
Estonia is a country with a long history of paganism. Religious celebrations fall on the 25th of December according to Christian tradition, and the 7th of January according to the Russian Orthodox. However, in keeping with Estonia’s deep folk tradition, rather than Christian legacy, we offer ‘Lumeingel’, or ‘snow angel’, a modern Estonian folk song.
Though Latvia celebrates Christmas on 25 December, this holiday is closely linked with pagan traditions, much their Estonian neighbors. Latvia has a long standing legacy with the christmas tree, and some legends say it was in Riga that the first Christmas tree was decorated in front of the House of Blackheads on Town Hall Square in the beginning of the 16th century.
To the south, Lithuania‘s festivities mirror those of its Baltic compatriots, with the decorating of a tree. However, in Lithuania, Christmas Eve is traditionally more important than Christmas day.
If we know the traditions and history of Eastern Europe, and its close neighbors, of the last 500 years, you may find that everything looks and sounds familiar … And you? What would you add? Do you want to share Christmas tunes that you’ve heard at the crossroads of East and West?
Please share your Christmas and winter songs on Facebook!
Authors: Adrienne Warren, Karolina Demus