Ukrainian Christmas traditions: what's Didukh and how to make it
And why you can have both a Christmas tree and Didukh at home for holidays
A lavishly decorated Christmas tree with a shining octagonal star on top is an indispensable attribute of Christmas, the main religious holiday of the year. However, this wasn't always the case in Ukraine. Folk traditions of celebrating Christmas have their roots far back in the pre-Christian era since our ancestors began to celebrate Nativity in the light of God. This holiday occupied the most honorable place among others since people understood the cyclical motion of the Sun and its significance for all living things.
It was Peter I who brought to our lands the European habit of installing a Christmas tree, but even in the early twentieth century, Ukrainian villagers used to place not a Christmas tree but Didukh, a sheaf-amulet bound with ears, which symbolized a good harvest, family well-being, peace and harmony in the family, the connection between the family generations and eternal rebirth of light.
Family and world tree
The word "Didukh" means "the eldest." The venerable Didukh has many names: grandfather, carol, caroler, sheaf, king.
From the Old Slavic, the word "didukh" translates as "ancestral spirit" and also symbolizes Grandfather, the ancestor of the family. Didukh is also a sacrifice of the best bundle to the forces of nature.
Didukh can be considered a World Tree, which unites and supports all worlds. Thanks to "legs," it stands firmly, representing the roots, the world of the dead. The upper part, which symbolizes the middle world, the world of people, has seven pieces of spikelets in each bundle. Seven is one of the symbolic numbers; it's seven weekdays, seven generations, seven rainbow colors. Spikelets' seeds are the upper world with deities, birds, and solar symbols.
Didukhs were made from unthreshed ears of grain, used for baking bread, like oats, rye, wheat, most often from the last sheaf in the field. They believed that the reaper who knitted the last sheaf of rye was soon to give birth to a child because the sheaf-binding symbolically resembled tying the umbilical cord.
Festive "trees" were decorated with dried flowers, viburnum, colorful ribbons and placed in the most honorable place in the house, at the sacred corner. As believed, together with Didukh, the spirits of grandfathers-ancestors, patrons of each house, were in the house during the holidays.
"Didukh in the house, trouble out of the house"
As soon as the first Christmas star rose, on January 6, a festive sheaf, Didukh, was brought to the house. In the meantime, they summoned: "Didukh to the house, trouble out of the house." In honor of ancestors' spirits, they necessarily put a new pot with a koliva (common dish), namely, kutia and uzvar, near Didukh.
In Polissia, preparing for the evening meal, the host grandly brought Didukh to the house; this scene was accompanied by ceremonial dialogues and sayings:
— Help God!
— God bless you!
— What are you carrying?
— I'm carrying gold!
In the Hutsul region, when a decorated oat sheaf was being brought into the house, people invited various evil forces (storm, hail, wolves, etc.) to dinner, because they believed that it'd help them escape the forces in the future.
In Eastern Ukraine, entering the house, the father said: "Holidays are coming!" "Holidays have come!" the son replied to his father. "We respect and ask Didukh and you to visit the Lord!" the mother answered.
The Christmas tree stayed in the house until the New Year, in some places until the Epiphany. Then the grain was threshed and added to the seed. The straw was burned so the souls of the dead, who visited the family on holidays, could return to heaven.
It'd be wrong to talk about Didukh as a solely past phenomenon. Lviv has a long-standing tradition of installing the great Didukh in the city center for the Christmas holidays. Straw talismans are also installed on squares in Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, and other cities.
Many folk artists make didukhs for museum exhibitions and for sale. For people interested in ethnography, finding a ready-made didukh or ordering it online isn't a problem now. But true connoisseurs of Ukrainian people's cultural heritage advise learning how to knit the king of sheaves, and they're right. Of course, the handmade Didukh will bring you and your family a lot of unique emotions and pleasure, and give you the opportunity to feel the breath of history and recreate it today.
How to make a didukh
For a long time, there were various manufacturing technologies in different places in Ukraine: didukhs were braided, made as a sheaf, or as a tree.
The major obstacle that modern city residents may face while preparing for weaving is the difficulty of purchasing material for didukhs. But you can find spikelets and straw at the markets, or ask your village relatives about them.
- You'll need at least twenty-one spikelets.
- Before work, soak them briefly in hot water to make them soft and supple.
- Then disassemble the ears by size. You should have seven pieces in one bundle (symbol of family, weekdays, and seven generations).
- Each seven should be tied with a rope, evenly, carefully, and firmly.
- Then gather the bundles together by levels to get a beautiful "head."
- Divide the sheaf into three "legs" (if there are many spikelets, then five or seven). To make Didukh more stable, you can attach a few strong straws to the base.
The most common traditional option is Didukh as a year. The composition includes four tiers, symbolizing the four seasons. Each tier has three branches, i.e. months. Each branch makes four bundles, each bundle includes seven spikelets (they symbolize weeks and days). When assembling a Didukh, you can use different grain types for each tier. Each grain represents a certain time of year.
Ancestors believed that the richer Didukh looks, the more productive the year will be, so decorate it splendidly with dried and paper flowers, berries, ribbons, nuts. Some masters add herbs to the decorations, mostly healing ones. They're woven for a reason: St. John's wort brings health, poppy brings money.
Ukrainian Christmas spider—amulet, harmonizer, family doctor
But if this year, you can't find materials for making a didukh, don't worry. Nowadays, a small bouquet of spikelets, various dried herbs, and flowers, like immortelles, often replaces the ritual sheaf. In addition, Ukrainian ideas about the world creation are also reflected in an authentic Christmas decoration, a "spider, weaving" the web of the universe and life. And it's much easier to make.
Ancestors considered "spiders" to be a talisman and a symbol of the universe. With the advent of Christianity, the "spider" received support from the religion. According to legend, the living spider netted the entrance to the cave where the Virgin Mary and Child hid from the soldiers of Herod and thus saved the Holy Family from death.
Every year before Christmas, Ukrainian women and girls set about making home decorations, like spiders, hedgehogs, and pigeons, carved vytynanky (paper decorations), made angels, bells, stars, and other toys of straw and grass. A good mood, smiles, and ritual songs accompanied their work.
For the "spider," they cut straws in different sizes, strung them on threads, and formed a variety of triangles, squares, and cubes from them. The straw "spider" was hung on a horsehair to the ceiling, where it spun and moved from the slightest puff of air. "Spider" protected the family from negative energy, absorbing it into its "web," helped a woman get pregnant, and fulfilled the most cherished desires. The "spider" was also a family doctor. If someone felt bad, the person needed to stand under it and the patient's condition immediately improved.
They also made "spiders" from thin twigs or wire. Paper flowers, candles, and decorations were attached to the joints. In modern times, the best material for weaving spiders is common cocktail straws or even an old dismantled broom. The delicate and dynamic design of the Christmas "spider" will look attractive and harmonious in today's interiors.
Employees of the Gonchar Museum in Kyiv note that one can still find miniature "spiders" in villages under icons. However, few people, even the older generation, know what these straw ornaments were intended for; they create and use them, because "that's what parents did."
It's hard to believe, but Ukrainian "spiders" could be found on Soviet Christmas trees. They were "woven" from long shiny glass tubes and were much smaller and shallower than the authentic ones. But it's impossible to confuse them in a form with anything else. Who knows, maybe one of the designers at the Soviet factory of Christmas decorations was a conscious Ukrainian, and thus tried to support the spirit of ancestors and preserve the memory of his people.
Didukh is one of the traditional symbols of Ukrainian primary origins. It brings comfort, an incredible mood, and festivity to the family. Religious people may be interested in what the church thinks of this pagan symbol. Is it possible to combine a Christmas tree with Didukh? After all, now we wish to rely on something eternal, on roots and principles, as a sign of the stability we all lack so much this year. Archpriest Oleksandr Dediukhin, the rector of St. Nicholas Church in Poltava, answers: yes, you can combine them. If you perceive the didukh not as a spirit, but as a memory of ancestors.
So create actual Ukrainian ornaments and didukhs from spikelets and straw, sow grain in spring, albeit symbolically. Didukh is an ancient symbol not only of the Christmas holidays but also of the connection between generations, which must be inseparable. Let's revive this great old Ukrainian tradition.
As reported, the main Didukh was made with a record height in Lviv.