Kaliady – Belarusian Style
By Anne Coombes
During our long cold winters, it’s easy to imagine that we’ll never see the sun again. The warm days of July and August fade as if only a distant memory and we fear that we’ll be forever consigned to woolly hats and scarves and our heavy fur coats. Our pagan ancestors naturally felt much the same way - hence Kaliady, a series of rituals to honour the sun god Yaryla and warm our hearts during the long dark days.
Since gaining independence from the USSR in 1991, the Belarusians have been celebrating their old festivals with verve, especially Kaliady; a time of parties and fun. In earlier days, people dressed up as animals and mythical beasts, wearing masks to hide their identities and to encourage great fun and high jinx. They paraded through their villages singing carols, playing games and generally having a festive time. These traditions are now being revived, with carollers visiting each house to wish the occupants health and wealth in the year ahead and beg for tasty treats. Of course, they are apt to play tricks on anyone not joining in the lively frolics. This has come to be known as ”going Kaliadying”. The festive groups carry a symbolic sun and toy goats’ heads (denoting fertility) on sticks. Belarusians are well known for their love of jokes and improvisation; a get-together isn’t complete without calls for poetry recitation, a few songs and a little amateur dramatics. Unsurprisingly, ”Kaliady” is a time for enjoying all of these simple pleasures.
The word ”Kaliady” may come from the Latin ”Calendae” or from ”Kola” (meaning wheel, hence the turning of the year). Since Catholic Christmas is on December 25th and Orthodox Christmas is on January 7, Kaliady is now celebrated between these two holidays, but this pagan festival really has no relation or religious relationship to Jesus’ birth. Like many of our ancient customs, it was ”highjacked” by the church to discourage people from indulging in their old and superstitious ways.
No celebration is worth its salt without food and Kaliady is a time for overindulgence as well as wistful moderation. Three ritual dinners are customary. The first is the ”fasting” dinner (no meat or fat), the second is a veritable feast of meat, eggs and sweets; traditionally held on New Year’s Eve, and the last meager meal is the ”hungry” dinner. These symbolic meals remind us that we shouldn’t take plenty for granted while we show true appreciation for the bounty we have received.
Kaliady is a time for family and friends and for frivolous fun and feisty frolics. Whether you are in Moscow, Kiev, Baku, St. Petersburg, or Minsk; as the year turns, remember to make a wish as the New Year is rung in. Give thanks for all the wonderful people in your life and smile at the thought of all the exciting moments yet to come.