Postryzhennya - The Haircutting

Copyright 1996 by Tania Diakiw O'Neill

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POSTRYZHYNY - an ancient custom currently preserved and practiced by Ukrainians on the territory of Ukraine's central lands.

During a visit to Ukraine in 1995, my mother and I had the pleasure of visiting a family and village in the area of Kiev/Cherkassy, on the east (left) bank of Dnipro). As guests of a member of that family, who now lives and works in Kyiv, we were privileged to witness the celebration of an ancient custom called postryzhyny (po-STRY-zhih-nih). This is an event marking the one-year anniversary of a child's birth.

The family prepared a rich and generous feast. A young pig ("po-ro-SYA") had been slaughtered, and various foods were prepared from that (including two different sausages). There were also "studynets" (aspic), liver-filled nalystnyky (crepes), liver-based palyanychky (pancakes) stacked four-high and resembling a "torte" with an egg-yolk crumble decorating the top, a variety of salads, and lots of own-baked bread. "Stil ohynavsya!" The table groaned under the weight of the food,

Someone had set up a large radio (or was that a tape player?), which played current Ukrainian music. It was a warm sunny day, about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and everything was outdoors. A long table with benches on both sides was set up in the shade between the house and the kitchen-house, and places were set for some 26 persons with double plates and glasses. When the ceremony was about to start, the music was turned off.

The child was brought out from the house in mid-afternoon after her nap and the "kumy" ["kum" (koom), godparent; "kumY" (plural)] gathered near. Then one "kum" took a soup-plate (the kind with a rim) and, placing a coin and an envelope in it, carried it around to allow all attending the day's event to contribute their coins into the plate.

The coins were soviet coins. My mother put in a 5-dollar bill (USA), which was simply removed from the plate and given to the child's mother. Meanwhile I had found the largest 1994 USA coin I had - a quarter, which I contributed to the plate. There was a bit of excited satisfaction among those present that the quarter was minted in the year of the baby's birth! All the coins were left in the plate.

The child was stood on the seat of a chair at the head of the table and the first "kum" (there were six, I believe) took the scissors and, picking up a small bit of hair from the front of the child's head, cut a lock off. He did the same at the back of the head, and also on each side of the child's head. Having thus cut from the four cardinal points of the head (the four directions of the world), each gave the scissors to the next "kum" or "kuma", who proceeded to do the same. After all the "kumy" had done the ritual cutting, the child looked just as fine as before. The hair was collected into the envelope that had been in the plate with the coins. I neglected to ask what would be done with the cut hairs, but I overheard someone mention safekeeping.

After the haircutting was done, either vodka or "samohon" (home-brewed spirits) was poured into the plate to cover the coins by a good bit (about 1.5 cm.) The baby's shoes and socks were removed and her feet were dipped into the alcohol in the plate. We were told that this symbolized that the child should trample (dominate over) alcohol and money in her life, and not have them dominate her. After this dipping, the "kumy" took turns drinking the alcohol from the plate until it was gone and the coins could be removed dry. The coins were then picked up dry from the plate and put away for the child.

Then the party really started. Besides the wonderful food, there were drinks, including wonderfully tasty and pleasantly aromatic "samohon" and delicious non-alcoholic fruit juices from vyshni (cherry). The local guests started to ask us "American" guests about how we lived, as we had seen how they live. They seemed surprised to learn that we "americans" don't all live in enormous palatial houses (as they might have seen on TV?), but in normal three-bedroom houses much like their own, except for the differences in architectural style. And they were also surprised - pleasantly, I think - that we spoke Ukrainian and that we could easily understand each other (no serious dialectic differences between us, western-Ukrainian emigrees from WW-II, and these in-place natives of central Ukraine, as opposed to the major differences between the Russian and Ukrainian languages.)

Then they started singing their traditional Ukrainian songs. The minor key was not too sad, and I actually knew some of the songs from my childhood years. I saw several people's eyes smile when they saw that Mom and I, too, were singing with them. Remembering that moment puts me in mind of Taras Shevchenko's poem -- "The Cherry Orchard by the Home" ("Sadok Vyshnevyj Kolo Khaty").

Unfortunately, the evening inexorably approached, and they seemed surprised that we weren't staying overnight. After all, the party was just starting! As we were preparing to leave, I went to the house for my bag, and didn't witness the following, which was told me later. One young man came up to my mother, a USA "senior citizen", and with a serious face invited her to dance. After dancing a moment he said to her: "I have never danced with an American lady before," to which she replied (with a smile) that now he has. Mother's sure that he must have known that she had been born and grew to adulthood in Ukraine, but I keep wondering if he'd heard that part of her story.

As we started to leave, I asked to take a group picture, and everyone gathered for group photos with us. Then a couple asked me to take their picture. As promised, I forwarded the photos to them. All my photos are just snap-shots, so I do not include them here.

As to the questions of retaining traditions and material culture, I would like to mention that this is a village that has only existed since the late 1930s. It came into existance after the 1932-34 genocide-famine of Ukraine instituted by Stalin/Kaganovich.

The child's great-grandmother told us that hers had been the only "old-time" folk costume in that village. But it was not traditional for this "new" village, but of the village she had been born and raised in, which no longer existed after the famine. In the years that followed, most of the young women in this village borrowed her folk costume for their wedding dress. But now, even that was gone, and no-one in the village was interested, nor knew how to do the "old-style" (counted-thread) embroidery. So it was not surprising to me that no-one at this event was dressed in any "folk" or embroidered shirt nor blouse, but simply in everyday western-style clothes. But other, non-material traditions such as the haircutting, and the songs, have been retained. I'm glad I could share that day with them, and this remembrance now with you.

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