Negotiating Magic: Ukrainian Wedding Traditions and Their Persistence in Canada

By Kukharenko, Svitlana

ABSTRACT: Magical efficacy has been important in Ukrainian wedding ritual. The korovai, rushnyk, omens, gifts, the showering of the couple, and other “sacred” objects and acts of the Ukrainian folk wedding are believed to be imbued with prophetic qualities. Uprooted folklore tradition, however, faces inevitable transformations, and Ukrainian immigrants in Canada tend to know and believe in magical objects and actions significantly less. The examination of magical beliefs and practices in the context of weddings among Ukrainians in Ukraine and in Canada shows that the two groups possess different belief systems: magical and anti- magical respectively. Rural and urban dwellers, divorced people, and the clergy from both countries were interviewed retrospectively about their wedding days. Their answers confirm that magical beliefs and practices are the most fragile part of the folklore complex transmitted to a different cultural context. By contrast, material culture, which becomes a major means of ethnic identification, remains well preserved and cherished. The straightforward transformation of traditional values and worldviews from one country to another is impossible, and permanent emigration always brings cultural changes. Some elements of “Old World” folklore get preserved in new surroundings, while others get lost. In multi- ethnic settings, as Voigt states, ethnic heritage has a symbolic value and the “locus control” of ethnic groups is external: “…ethnic symbols are mostly formulated by the outsiders, the members of the receivers, and not by the members of the ‘we’-group, the senders of the message.”1 As a result, folklore traditions displayed by ethnic groups to the larger society tend to be “the more entertaining and usually less essential or central traditions of the old culture.”2 This phenomenon follows universal patterns as demonstrated by scholars in regards to various ethnic groups that experienced migration.

Interest towards one’s own heritage, ethnic symbols, and forms of cultural expression changes from one generation of immigrants to the next, and can experience both dramatic decreases and revivals. This process is governed and universally explained by the Hansen’s Law.3 According to this Law, the first generation usually keeps faith in the folklore complex they brought from the Old Country, while the pressure of assimilation and desire to enter the dominant society, blend into the new cultural context forces the second generation to negate their own cultural baggage. Conscious reconstruction of ethnic identity usually happens to the third generation and leads to interest in, and energetic revival of, ethnic traditions.

Not all the items of the folklore complex, however, are equally valued and revived even by the third generation. Guntis Smidchens found that among the “items” that survive transfer to the New Country and are used as symbols of ethnic identity “music, song, and dance are the most popular symbols.”4 Traditional folk beliefs and superstitions of various ethnic groups, on the contrary, become meaningless or inappropriate for the new life, time, place, or the expectations of others, and hence tend to vanish by the second generation.5

Ukrainian emigration to Canada started at the end of the nineteenth century, and the transition of the folk culture from the Old Country to Canada has been studied quite intensely. Magic and its function among modern Canadian Ukrainians is reflected, however, in a relatively small scope of studies and is usually not the main concern of the authors.6 This has happened because, on the one hand, immigrants’ interest tended to be “almost exclusively devoted to the non-verbal, sensory appeal of the Ukrainian folk heritage in Canada: the sound of Ukrainian folk music, the taste of traditional foods, and the visual attraction of folk arts and crafts.”7 On the other hand, the very words “magic” and “superstition” in everyday use have quite a negative connotation. Yet studying magic is important, for it permits to “provide insights into the deep ontologies of culture.”8 Without studying magic beliefs and practices, a description of the culture, and hence of acculturation processes, would not be complete.

The knowledge of such beliefs and practices cannot be acquired through reading or watching folkloric materials: it comes as a result of co-actions of the tradition bearers during the live folkloric process.9 And studying magic beliefs in the social context of a wedding-one of the main rites of passage-provides the best opportunity to describe them through people’s behaviours.

Magic and superstition are closely related but not identical notions. Magic implies manipulation of supernatural forces for achieving desirable outcomes, and thus is empowering. Accidental events do not exist for people who see the world magically, and, within the magical worldview, power is perceived as something physical, a “thing freely given, sold, extorted, stolen, or exchanged.”10 Leaving aside the broad popular use of the word superstition, it is useful here to adopt Kenneth Pimple’s definition of the term as “a belief, usually about luck or concerned with the successful completion of a specific task, often associated with ritual behaviours.” ‘ ‘ Superstitions help to explain man’s relationship with social, natural, and supernatural phenomena, as well as influencing these phenomena. Not only magical acts but omens bear the magical function of foretelling. Those are events or conditions “over which human beings have no control and which they regard and interpret.”12

Therefore, studying Ukrainian wedding magic beliefs and practices helps to better understand traditional Ukrainian culture and the process of its acculturation in Canada. And magic does accompany Ukrainian weddings. Documented ethnographic literature on traditional Ukrainian weddings from the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries reveals that magic beliefs and practices associated with this ceremony are numerous: there are magical acts for giving one spouse superiority over the other; enhancing the fertility of the couple; facilitating marriage of the yet unmarried; enhancing love and attachment of the couple toward each other; ensuring the couple’s wellbeing and prosperity; protecting the couple from evil forces or misfortune, and so forth.13

Petr Bogatyrev classified magical elements used at traditional Ukrainian weddings into contagious and imitative ones.u His classification is based on Frazer’s distinction of two main laws of magic-the law of contact and the law of similarity.15 According to the law of contact, the object transfers its magic quality to the person who directly contacts this object. According to the law of similarity, the actions performed resemble the desired results. Often, however, according to Bogatyrev, both kinds of magic can be identified in some magical action. Furthermore, Bogatyrev utilizes Frazer’s division of magical actions into positive and negative (or taboo). Positive magic is present in the wedding actions aimed at achieving some desirable effect, while negative magic consists in avoiding those actions, which would bring some undesirable effect.

Additionally, Bogatyrev distinguished motivated and unmotivated magical actions: if a person performing some action can explain the reasons why the action produces a desirable result, then the action is motivated. If the “cause-effect” relation is unknown to the performer, but she or he still believes in the result, the magical action is unmotivated.

According to Butler, magical tradition includes three components: ritual act, formulaic expression, and magic artifact.16 Many of them are present at a traditional Ukrainian wedding. For example, special ritual bread, the korovai, is used at weddings where it represents a “magical circle,” the fullness of life and marriage. Regardless of being touched or not, the korovai bears magical symbolism by its very presence: the korovai is “…efficacious independently of magical actions… It possesses magical power in itself.”17 The baking of the korovai-which happens before the wedding day-is in fact an act of divination: any unwanted defects, according to the law of similarity, foretell marital problems for the couple. At the same time, any touching of the korovai (kissing, cutting, and obligatory consumption), according to the law of contact, passes the magical quality of this ritual object to those performing the actions. Korovai baking is a ritually structured process restricted to only happily married women with no histories of previous marital misfortunes.18 It is believed that divorced women or widows, or those whose children died can transfer their unhappy fate to the new couple.

Similarly, there are magical actions performed with the rushnyk, a ritual embroidered cloth. The rushnyk is usually described as part of a church ceremony and as having a magical power in and of itself. Stepping on a rushnyk is believed to give one spouse superiority over the other: according to the law of similarity, whoever steps first on the rushnyk will become the head of the family.19 To attain the same goal, a bride sometimes might put her hand atop the groom’s hand while the priest is binding their hands together with a rushnyk.20 There is a belief that the couple possesses magical powers that can facilitate the marriage of the yet unmarried. Here the law of contact comes into effect: while standing on a rushnyk in church, a bride can step aside a little so that her druzhka (bridesmaid) can put her toes on it as well and thus marry the same year.21 In addition, the bride can throw greenery to the girls or just give them a look. All this will facilitate their marriages. The groom and the best man possess the same magical power that can help their male friends marry before others.22 Among magical actions that ensure love between the couple is a treatment with honey, accompanied by the verbal formula “May your love be as sweet as honey.”23 Here the law of contact and the law of similarity coincide.

Showering the couple with wheat, rye, oats, or hops is a traditional magical act for ensuring the couple’s well-being and prosperity. In this ritualistic showering both the law of contact and law of similarity apply. People wish a couple a happy and full life, and put the couple in contact with metaphorical materializations of their wishes. Grains traditionally symbolized wealth in Ukrainian rural agrarian traditions. Besides, the Ukrainian word for rye, zhyto, has the same etymological root as the word for life, zhyttia.

Children are very important to Ukrainians, and the guests repeatedly wish the couple fertility. Although children of both sexes are welcomed, boys are valued more. In the past, magical actions were performed to ensure male babies are bom: the bride would hold a little boy in her lap in the groom’s house. According to both laws of magic, this ensured that she would bear male children, for she not only held the boy but also “fondled his testicles.”24

There are many natural omens, e.g., rain during the wedding, that are believed to have special meaning. Omens appear spontaneously as messengers, and their meanings are usually interpreted within a binary opposition of “good-bad.” There are also numerous taboos for the whole family to observe.

To trace magic beliefs with respect to Ukrainian weddings and the extent to which they have been accepted in Canada, two groups of Ukrainians, one from each country, were retrospectively interviewed about their weddings. The questionnaire was compiled according to the description of the magic objects and actions provided by Bogatyrev (the korovai, the rushnyk, the showering of the couple, wedding day omens, and so on). Informants explained not only the reasons for having or not having certain objects (performing or not performing certain actions), but also what they knew about the object or action, i.e., what beliefs were associated with it, and whether they believed these things themselves.

Twenty Ukrainians from different regions of Ukraine and fifteen Canadian-Ukrainians of different ages, and from different generations of immigrants, were respectively subdivided into subgroups of rural dwellers, urban dwellers, clergy, and divorced people.25 This was intended to provide cross-comparison of the belief systems of people who possess different social and marital statuses in both countries. In this respect, comparing the magic beliefs of the clergy to these of secular laymen was interesting, because, despite all possible differences, as Versnel states, “magic and religion have in common that they refer to supernatural forces and powers, a reality different from normal reality.”26 The divorced group was of a special interest as well because, in the eyes of Ukrainians, a divorce represents misfortune, an undesirable outcome, and divorced people are traditionally excluded from some activities connected to weddings (korovai baking). Each informant was included into one category only, though there is an overlap between some categories. For example, both the clergy and the divorced groups consist of both rural and urban informants, since their statuses (professional and marital, respectively) were more important for my study than their social origins. Also, defining the rural Canadian Ukrainian proved difficult due to the lack of a Canadian equivalent of a Ukrainian village. I, therefore, defined them as people born and raised outside of large cities, in rural areas, where, as John Lehr states, old country life style endured without much change until the 1950s.27

Analysis of the interviews of Ukrainians in Ukraine and Canada reveals two entirely different attitudes toward traditional beliefs in the supernatural and toward magic as such. First of all, Ukrainians in Ukraine felt free and eager to talk about magic beliefs and practices. They had enough vocabulary to communicate such beliefs, and were precise in their definitions of magic objects, actions, formulae, and persons. They explained their meanings and presented numerous and diverse beliefs. Among the leading ones were beliefs in the evil eye, taboos, bad luck, and the need for protecting the couple. They readily provided examples of personal encounters with the magical. Their narratives were emotional and detailed. Not only did they know about magic powers but-what is more important-they believed in them. Their “magical knowledge” was immediate: the answers they provided started with either “I heard” or “I know,” thus pointing to either personal experience or the wider cognitive field around them, that of close “others.” Though none of the informants could identify a traditional ritual for ensuring the sex of future children as described in Ukrainian ethnographic literature, they, however, presented a colourful picture of magic beliefs and practices connected to the wedding.

Sixteen Ukrainian informants had the korovai either baked by relatives or had it purchased. Those who had no korovai explained that circumstances of their weddings, not the lack of personal desire, were responsible for the absence of this ritual object. Even when informants could not describe the ritual of baking, they provided ideas about the meaning of the korovai, explaining its symbolism in terms of financial and psychological well-being: “The korovai is a symbol of life and wealth, of marital harmony. I do not know any beliefs related to the korovai but I know that are happy when it rums out well. They hire knowledgeable people for that” (rev. Ivan28); “ symbolizes wealth, well-being. Bread is generally the basis of life. Probably it should be baked with feeling, thus making an impact on future happiness” (Nina, urban). All informants who had the korovai shared it with guests to ensure that everything was eaten.

Seventeen informants were showered, and there was little variation in terms of substances used: candies, grains, and coins. The showering was accompanied with verbalized wishes for happiness, wealth, love, and joy in marital life. Informants connected it directly, through the law of similarity, to future wealth: “We were wished wealth, happiness, and fortune so that we would not be poor” (Vira, divorced); “It symbolizes wealth, well-being of the future family. The main thing is to shower abundantly: as much grain and coins as possible. Small children will later collect and count the money. The more they collect, the better for the well-being of the future family” (Nina, urban). “We were showered with rye, grains, and sugar. Rye is a symbol of life; therefore they wished us a sweet life. They also sprinkled us with blessed water. Coins or candies are not used in our area, but as far as I understand you [always] wish the same thing-a wealthy and sweet life-to the couple” (rev. Pavlo); “When we went to the sil’rada29 we were showered all the way there with wheat and rye, money coins, and candies. Grains-for the good crops to follow; coins-so that there’s money in the house; candies-for the marriage to be sweet. And they used to repeat: “For your health! For your happiness!” (Tonia, rural)

Informants also had rushnyky. During the twentieth century, when religion was associated with unenlightened thinking in the USSR, wedding rushnyky became secularized and taken over by the institutions that granted marriage licenses: sil’rada in villages and ZAHS30 in the cities. Most informants explained the symbolism of the rushnyk in terms of a trip. They compared it both to a road and dolia, i.e., fate, meaning that a couple was entering a new phase of their lives, when their two separate paths joined into one and from now on they were starting a new journey together: “People step on the rushnyk for happiness and good luck” (Nadiia, urban); “A couple stands on it as if on a common road so that they would share both joy and sadness, so that the two would have one common fate, the way rushnyk ” (Maryna, rural).

All informants knew about divinations and many performed these acts to determine the head of the family: “I heard about ‘who steps first’ and I tried to step first. As a result, I used to think for both of us, I used to be the moneyearner, and he enjoyed a carefree life” (Ol’ha, divorced); “Oh, yes, I knew about it, and stepped on it with the right foot!” (Tonia, rural); “I kept in mind that whoever steps first would become the head of the family, but we stepped together” (Nina, urban). “I know about ‘who steps first’ but it is a superstition” (rev. Ihor).

A bride tossing a bouquet to unmarried girls was considered by many informants an American practice, brought to Ukraine relatively recently. Yet this action was frequently used to facilitate the marriage of others along with a ritual performed in the western parts of Ukraine, called rozhuliuvaty velion. It involved the bride dancing with every unmarried girl consecutively while putting her veil on the girl’s head. Most of the informants believed in the validity of the ritual.

Since the wedding registry is unknown in Ukraine, the likelihood of getting an unexpected gift is very high. Most Ukrainians were convinced that certain gifts possessed magical powers capable of inflicting unwanted or even fatal outcomes and thus should be taboo at weddings. If they were offered (purposefully or inadvertently), they became bad omens. Among such items were knives and forks. According to the law of similarity, sharp metal objects would “cut off’ the marriage; or the couple would live “on knives”-the Ukrainian idiom for endless quarrels and animosity. The informants also mentioned mirrors, wrist watches, and black fabric: broken mirrors bring bad luck; wrist watches count down either the couple’s time together or their lifetime; and everything black is appropriate only for funerals. “I heard that knives should not be presented. And that baby clothes are not acceptable” (rev. Petro); “Even if guests present some toys at a wedding, they say it is for the couplenot for their future children” (Mariia, rural); “I wouldn’t be happy if I were to get knives, wrist watches or something connected to fire, like a lighter. I heard about those objects, and I have examples from my own life that they cause separation from the people who presented them. But in this case , separation can happen between those to whom they are presented” (Nina, urban); “Mirrors, baby clothes, and artificial flowers-these are bad omens” (Vira, divorced); “Children’s clothes should not be given because it might cause the couple not to have children; someone can cast a curse through those clothes” (Olena, divorced). Not only objects but also certain types of behaviour at a wedding were feared as omens foretelling bad luck. For example, it was bad luck for a couple if someone came to a wedding in a black attire, or if a couple forgot something in the house while heading to the ceremony; it is a taboo to return home on a wedding day. It was considered a bad omen if someone crossed the path of a couple, especially with something empty, like unfilled buckets. It can, according to the law of similarity, “cut” the couple’s marital journey; it can become an obstacle on a path that was supposed to be clear or, literally, make it empty. It is also a sign of bad luck if a wedding party meets a funeral procession in the street: “It is bad if they meet a funeral. They will not live together” (Kira, rural).

Ukrainians on average, and especially those in villages, feared deliberate harm more than the appearance of natural omens. They were unanimous in their belief that there were magical, non-material influences coming from other people that were dangerous to the wedded couple. All informants believed it was possible to ruin a marriage through either natural or supernatural means, and they specifically talked about the evil eye: “Mean people can give them sunflower seeds to gnaw on, and they will not live well. Someone gave them to my friend at her wedding and… they have been fighting all the time since then. Oh, there are lots of things that can be done! They can toss soil on the couple or they can put a wreath on a bride’s head backward, or they can twist the bouquet on a groom’s jacket” (Tonia, rural); “Of course people can ruin a marriage by presenting a gift with evil intentions… It is prohibited for others to pass between the couple. They should keep their hands locked all the time. God forbid they break their hands apart and let someone pass between them!” (Vira, divorced).

To counterbalance negative influences, to escape from evil, married couples protected themselves assiduously by prayers and magical substances: “They put garlic in their pockets and attach a safety pin. When a bride exits the house, an ax and a broom are put on the threshold and she jumps over them, and the parents sprinkle her with blessed water” (Hanna, rural); “They make a roll out of paper, inside they put pieces of garlic, wheat grains, honey or sugar, and a coin; they put golden wrap around it and glue it all with honey and put it into the bouquet on chest and into wreath so that the couple could not be evil-eyed and their life would be sweet” (Mariia, rural); “I was blessed with an icon. Then I put my baptismal cross on a safety pin and tied it to the hem of my dress… I do not know, probably there are some precise rules for that but I sincerely tried to do what my heart told me. In the morning, I washed my face with blessed water, prayed so that nothing bad would happen during the wedding, and not to have bad thoughts…” (Nina, urban)

Talking to Ukrainians in Canada about magic beliefs was quite difficult. Asked to share recollections about their wedding days, informants often felt uncomfortable with questions about good or bad luck. Soon after the beginning of the interviews, Canadian- Ukrainian informants started using the word ‘superstition,’ meaning backward, irrational, and silly beliefs: “It is superstition. You can wear anything you want here in Canada or North America. I have gone to a wedding in a black dress. It is only superstition” (Natalia, rural). They manifested their negative attitude towards magic beliefs in various ways. To them, magic was something outdated, backward, while believing in it was shameful. Traditional Ukrainian beliefs, however, are still present in the Canadian context but mostly on the level of theoretical knowledge. Most of the Canadian-Ukrainian informants have never been exposed to the oral tradition conveying knowledge about magical objects, individuals, or actions at weddings. They gained their knowledge through family narratives or printed sources, not as personal experiences: “There was something written in our booklet about it . I wrote it down: I had done research before the wedding. But since then I have forgotten” (Sofiia, urban). Such a “theoretical” stance explains why Canadian Ukrainians were sure that there were some unknown beliefs about weddings worth learning: “If we would know there is such a part of the ritual that should be performed we would perform it, but we did not know about it” (Semen, divorced).

Informants who read books on Ukrainian culture were able to interpret certain actions or objects even if they did not personally possess or perform them. Those who had not read about these rituals often could not elaborate on the meaning of objects or acts even if they did have them or performed an action at their own weddings: “I did not know why ; because somebody told me to do it… Just for fun, I think. One who got it was very happy, but… what that means I do not know” (Oksana, rural); “I threw her garter because everyone does it! It is sort of a Canadian tradition… No symbolic purpose” (levhen, urban).

Canadian-Ukrainian informants knew little about the beliefs associated with the korovai. Three striking things about it became apparent: the korovai has become “trendy” relatively recently; the korovai is not consumed at the wedding, but kept for display afterwards; and the marital status of the person baking it does not matter. An informant who was a widow subordinated the baking ritual to the laws of the market economy: “The korovai started coming back… let’s say 10-12 years ago… I put a hundred-my minimum is a hundred-birds on it. Then I decorate it with flowers… It depends how the bride is going to use it. If she wants to eat or keep it then I treat it differently. For if they want to keep it then I start a drying process… I have lots of korovai that did not turn out. It does not mean anything. The only thing it means is that I have to get another one baked” (Liubov, rural).

Ten informants got showered at their weddings; others were not. The reasons provided by the latter are unknown in Ukraine: “Churches do not like it, and it was not something I particularly wanted, so… we never asked them to do it, we never gave them anything to shower us with” (Sofiia, urban); “They do not really do it now because the priest does not like it on the steps because they have to vacuum it up. Besides, birds will come and he does not want them to choke” (levhen, urban). The substances that are used for showering are significantly different from traditional ones: rice, confetti, rose petals, and even soap bubbles. Many informants were unable to explain the meaning of the action: “I really do not know why they do it. It was something… that people just did. Now they don’t because of the environment” (Liubov, rural); “I have no idea . I really do not know” (Halyna, urban).

Canadian Ukrainians were not particularly comfortable with questions about omens, which they immediately branded as ‘superstitions.’ “Marriage is supposed to last forever. I do not think there are any symbols or signs saying it would not” (levhen, urban); “If there is I did not hear and I did not know about it… I heard, if it pours people will be rich but we can’t control the weather” (Oksana, rural).

Older informants did not have a wedding registry for gifts since it was not customary at that time. For younger informants, however, a registry is common and there was very little chance of getting unwanted or unexpected gifts. They all, however, were surprised by the question about tabooed gifts. Informants tried to reason logically and come to a conclusion on the spot: “Children’s clothes? That’s very unusual; I have never heard of that before! That’s really neat but I think you have to really know the couple… because there are couples that would not have children, it would be tough for those couples…” (Sofiia, urban); “I am guessing now: a knife is a dangerous object, it could be used as a weapon. Why would you present somebody with weapon?” (Semen, divorced).

Canadian Ukrainians generally did not believe that non-material forces could ruin a marriage: “No, I do not think so. That’s witchcraft, I do not believe in that. Witchcraft is what is written in books, and on television… No, I do not believe in that! We go to church every Sunday” (Natalia, rural); “Only if someone would destroy the wedding, become totally drunk and obnoxious and embarrassing himself… Any kind of an embarrassment to anybody, especially to the bride and groom” (Sofiia, urban). Canadian informants wholeheartedly denied being superstitious. For them superstitions implied any action or omen that predicted bad luck, but not something that ensured good luck. If the couple performed some action for the purpose of good luck it was mostly based on Western wedding traditions (e.g., having ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue’ in the bride’s attire; hiding the bride’s dress from the groom before the wedding ceremony, or tossing a garter by the groom). Such actions had three distinct characteristics: 1) they were performed for fun only, i.e., they were not treated seriously; 2) they could have been skipped, omitted, or performed partially; and 3) they “worked” in one direction only, i.e., they could not have brought bad luck if left unperformed or if some problem occurred while being performed. Hence, ritual acts enacted for good luck were called “just a tradition” and became a game with no magical essence-like bubbles used for showering the couple.

Representatives of the third generation, who consciously wanted to organize ‘Ukrainian weddings,’ took the best elements from the Ukrainian wedding tradition and rejected the rest, namely folk supernatural beliefs. The elements they chose and used were discussed, researched, and performed in front of an audience that might have no knowledge about Ukrainian wedding traditions. Those elements were aimed at making a statement about one’s uniqueness, about one’s Ukrainianness: “I wrote it down because there were many non-Ukrainian guests, so that they would know what was going on” (Sofiia, urban); “We demonstratively did not want to have a white wedding cake… We wanted to say: ‘We are not like all others who have the white cakes'” (Semen, divorced).

Cross-comparison of the subgroups illuminates the differences among them even more sharply. Thus, informants from rural areas of Ukraine provided a clear and convincing picture of a magical world- view: magic for them was an integral part of life. They might not use the word ‘magic’ itself, but their answers demonstrated how much they believed. Magic beliefs circulated in villages on the level of common knowledge, as elements of social life. Villagers attributed supernatural protective qualities to various objects or substances like a safety pin, red thread, salt, garlic, etc.

The village wedding was stable and followed known ethnographic sources closely. It invariably included a korovai baked by relatives or by other female villagers. The korovai was routinely shared and eaten. For villagers it was important to “purify” the power of the korovai to magically predict a good future for the couple: “When it is being baked no door slamming, loud talking, or arguing are allowed. There must be silence and peace” (Maryna).

In Soviet times, even in villages, there was a ban on public church ceremonies of any kind. Despite this fact, the villagers were not anti- or a-religious, but it seems that their faith did not prevent them from believing in magic: a village wedding was surrounded by numerous magic actions, omens, and taboos.

Ukrainian rural dwellers in Canada still maintained many of the traditional beliefs. They, of course, were not as abundant as among villagers in Ukraine, and it seems that persistence of those beliefs depended to a large extent on the attitude of informants’ parents. All Canadian-Ukrainian rural dwellers were married in churches. What united the group was an implicit statement that their faith alone was enough to fight any misfortunes, should they appear; their religion gave them the strength they needed to build their lives without any kinds of magic actions: “Oh, I do not believe in that ! If you go to church, and you say prayers you should believe in that” (Marta).

And yet they believed in church symbolism and blessings: “Our parents blessed us with bread for good luck, happy marriage, prosperity, and healthy children… Parents and grandparents give their blessings with bread and prayers… We got married on Tuesday because it was a Ukrainian holiday, St. Peter’s Day. So, we chose that day to get married” (Natalia).

Canadian-Ukrainian rural dwellers expressed a belief that some actions can bring good luck: “They keep it for good luck, I think. Forever…” (Natalia); “My husband had a silver coin in each shoe for luck” (Lidiia); “Parents blessed us for good luck and good health… I tried to have ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ for good luck” (Marta).

These informants knew about some Ukrainian wedding beliefs, but there were many more they never heard of. Ukrainian villagers were able to express twice as many beliefs as their Canadian counterparats. When Canadian-Ukrainians tried to explain beliefs, they looked for rational explanations, and they did not recognize any bad luck omens the way Ukrainian villagers did: “I have lots of korovai that did not turn out. It does not mean anything. The only thing it means is that I have to get another one baked” (Liubov, Canada) vs. “If it does not turn out, rises and then settles, or cracks-the marital life of the couple will be bad” (Maryna, Ukraine); “Witchcraft is what is written in books, and on television… No, I do not believe in that! We go to church every Sunday” (Natalia, Canada) vs. “There are people who have the evil eye. Maybe they do not want to harm but they have such bad eyes… They can even ruin marriage… Maybe some girl loved the groom but he did not marry her, then she can do something… she can go to the sorcerers” (Hanna, Ukraine).

The Ukrainian urban dwellers in my study had strong ties with the village: most of them became urban dwellers only after they had graduated from schools and moved to urban settings to get their degrees. Therefore, their worldviews were very much affected by their rural background. Even though the Ukrainian urban group expressed half the beliefs of the rural group, they cited numerous omens and taboos, and provided examples of how the world of the supernatural was able to ruin the marital life of a couple. To a large extent, the urban dwellers took information on wedding omens from contemporary books or magazines, and they often specified reading something on the topic. They appropriated printed beliefs, treating them as trustworthy as those reported or practiced by others. In a word, the source did not seem to influence the strength of their beliefs. They believed that both human and supernatural malevolent forces were able to cause harm, and that a wedding was a special space and time when those forces can work with extreme effectiveness: “I do believe there are people with mean eyes… and there is a folk belief that those people can affect not only a wedding, but generally human health… And if you do not have strong protection, the evil eye affects you” (Zoia); “Yes, of course! Something can happen to the kitchen utensils. For example, forks can be put at an acute angle; a pin can be tied to a dress with vicious intentions and special incantations… There were people at our wedding who could have wished us ill, and strange events started in a year. I could not find any explanation for them, but I have no doubt it was due to the interference of evil people” (Nina).

Ukrainian urban dwellers were more likely to control weddings by setting up celebrations in restaurants or cafes where only invited guests could attend. They would buy ritual bread, the production of which is now well marketed in cities. Nevertheless, the korovai, rushnyk, and showering of the couple were regular objects and rituals at their weddings.

City people were eager to create theories about particular omens or beliefs, looking for rational explanations for traditional rituals, and even non-believers demonstrated the power of the belief system around them. Their responses showed that no one is immune to popular folk beliefs with their magic prescriptions and taboos, and non-believers often modified their behaviour in accordance with the magical worldview of the people around them: “I placed my bouquet in the hands of a girl, who wished to marry soon. No, I personally do not believe in that, but she did” (Zoia).

The further away Canadian Ukrainians were from rural traditions, the shorter their answers became about their beliefs. At the same time there was a strong desire to return to these traditions, especially by representatives of the third generation. Urban Canadian Ukrainians presented very contradictory views but were nearly unanimous in their negative attitude toward Ukrainian magic beliefs, which were mostly unknown to them but were nevertheless perceived as backward and irrational. Canadian urban dwellers believed that nothing intangible, otherworldly could affect a wedding day or a marriage, and protection given through the church ceremony was sufficient: “I believe in God: the Holy Spirit will help you make marriage successful” (Victor); “I do not think it is necessary to protect them . But if there are very close friends who could handle a crisis situation that can just happen during the wedding-that’s a nice thing” (Sofiia).

In neither group were the clergy immune to folk beliefs, but the intensity and amount of beliefs differed. Interestingly, priests of both groups expressed half as many beliefs as rural dwellers; and among Canadian-Ukrainian priests that number was half of what the Ukrainian clergy believed. It seemed that Canadian-Ukrainian priests found it easier to reject folk beliefs than the Ukrainian clergy. One reason might be that the former worked in an environment, where beliefs in the supernatural were neither appreciated, maintained, nor passed down. Ukrainian priests, on the other hand, provided examples of every day dealing with folk beliefs and the people’s fears of the supernatural. Ukrainian priests used the formula “The folk say/do this, but it is a superstition”; the Canadian priests said: “Nobody says/does this, and this is a superstition.” In both cases the word superstition implied irrational, backward beliefs. Ukrainian priests maintained the korovai, rushnyk, and showering as mandatory traditional elements of their own weddings. They continued to perceive them as sacred objects and ancient rituals essential for the present. All Canadian-Ukrainian priests used the korovai in their weddings but considered showering of the couple as an annoying redundant ritual: “Some would like to , but we do not allow it because someone has to clean that afterwards… Those who clean up protest” (rev. Fedir).

Only Ukrainian priests were familiar with the ritual of stepping on a nishnyk as a means of establishing a leading role in the family, and they routinely dealt with it when they blessed young couples.

Both groups of priests admitted the existence of supernatural powers and diabolical forces capable of doing harm. Yet Canadian priests recognized-in theory-diabolical forces only in terms of their place within the Christian cosmology, while Ukrainian priests provided detailed examples from their own every day practice: “There are people who can use all those things for sorcery even inside a church. There are people with different spiritual states and intentions… The church uses ‘living water’ and wizards use ‘dead water.’ They summon the devil’s curse through that water and then use it. They also use water from washing the dead body, candles from funerals; they cross the path of the couple, even inside the church… The wizards use a myriad of things: they bring nails, hair, poppy seeds, or dried frogs with them to church. Let’s remember that these are people who wish the couple not happiness, but misfortune… The wedding candle has a certain meaning. Together with the icons and a rushnyk it is a mute witness of the wedding. You can take it with you from the church… but under the condition that it will not get into the hands of strangers… You’d better leave your wedding candle in the church so that it will burn down and there will be a guarantee it will not get into enemy hands” (rev. Ivan, Ukraine). Compare the Canadian view: “Some people do not want to have a wedding candle because it is somewhat dangerous, and then, you know, those candles can spot the floor in the church…” (rev. Mykyta, Canada).

Canadian priests did not believe that life outside of church was full of supernatural dangers or that a couple needed special protection, while Ukrainian priests did: “Both priests and church- workers watch carefully so that everything is efficient and proper. Therefore, it is improbable that someone might harm the couple in church. They are under the spiritual protection of God… The priests instruct the couple to pay attention so that nobody cuts a piece off the wedding dress or the veil, or takes away their wedding candle so as nothing would end up in strangers’ hands… Magic-it is serious” (rev. Ivan, Ukraine). “Oh, there are such things connected to black magic that can harm the couple. bury a korovai in the ground, can give them some objects or take the wreaths away from them. There are different factors. Some girl maybe is offended by the groom and she desires to do evil; or there is someone who really is an expert in black magic. The only protection is faith in God” (rev. Vasyl’, Ukraine); “There is no stronger protection than confession and communion. And a cross must always be on the body. The couple is protected through blessing with the icons of the Savior and the Mother of God for marital life. In addition, they are sprinkled with blessed water and poppy seeds, according to folk custom” (rev. Petro, Ukraine).

Answers provided by divorced informants stressed the difference between magical and rational worldviews even more. The Ukrainian divorced group was convinced that nature itself sent them omens, foretelling their unhappy marital lives and that something magical had happened at their wedding, i.e., that malicious people performed some acts. The most characteristic feature of the divorced group was the abundance of their examples as well as their strong belief that evil forces interfered and caused the failure of their marriage. Divorced Ukrainians tend to look back on the day of their wedding (or on prewedding events) and find, post hoc, omens that predicted the failure of the marriage. It seems that personal predispositions do not matter: in peoples’ minds, a happy marriage lies outside of the sphere of their own power since the informants attributed the breakdown of their marriages to some supernatural force. “It is a bad omen to forget something, and we forgot our passports. Besides, we were married on June 21st, and this is the day when the War started. So, we were quarrelling all the way through , all five years” (Vira).

Canadian divorced informants, on the contrary, did not believe that otherworldly forces can interfere with their happiness. To lead a happy life, they felt it was enough to have strong desires and abilities. Periodic questions addressed to married Canadian interviewees about their divorced friends showed that this topic was taboo even between close friends: “I do not think any of can relate to the day of the wedding. It is a sort of event that occurs after the wedding… that makes marriage deteriorate” (levhen, urban). Avoidance of the issue might indicate that an unsuccessful marriage is perceived as a personal failure. Canadian Ukrainians rely very much on personality, on strong intentions, on one’s own will, and on the wedding vows as the best way to protect a marriage. In short, they rely on human and institutional resources. Their answers imply that they believe in personal responsibility rather than in supernatural intervention. They were very rational and logical: “I do not believe in the evil eye. I have a degree in hard sciences, and I approach things empirically. That’s why it is hard for me to believe that someone would come to the wedding, curse us, and it would ruin our life” (Semen).

Overall, the Canadian-Ukrainian group had a very pragmatic and rational worldview that can be called anti-magical: even though they did believe in and even performed some magic actions, the prevailing attitude was not to believe completely, to deny their importance or possible influence, i.e. there was no sense of causality. Generally, it appeared that treating superstitions seriously was a sign of weakness, passivity, and helplessness-traits not appreciated in Western culture.


Ukrainians on two different continents possessed two different worldviews: one magical, the other anti-magical or empirical. There is an obvious incongruity between them. In Canada, magical tradition has little or no relevance. In Ukraine, on the contrary, magic is unrestricted, ever-present, filled with meaning, and is the basis for interpreting life events. For Canadian Ukrainians there is a conflict between simultaneously believing in God and in magical powers, while for Ukrainians, such conflict is mostly non-existent. In Canada, there are social and experience-related restrictions on discussions of magic beliefs and practices, while in Ukraine magic is a widely accepted phenomenon recognized even by the clergy. For Canadian Ukrainians-even if they express some beliefs or knowledge of magic-this tradition is restricted to their immediate families, whereas in Ukraine it is both discussed and performed in a public context. Using Butler’s classification of group acceptance of supernatural tradition,31 we can say that in Ukraine people’s acceptance ranged from total to marginal, while in Canada it ranged from uncertainty to total rejection.

In the wedding context, ritual acts and sacred artifacts perform different functions for Ukrainians and Canadian Ukrainians. In Canada, they are very much interwoven into ethnic identity issues, performing an ornamental function for conscious Ukrainian identity objectification. Belief in their initial magical qualities, however, is no longer current in Canada. In Ukraine, on the contrary, all three magic components (ritual acts, utterances, and sacred artifacts) retain an unbroken continuity with the past.

The traditional Ukrainian wedding complex in Canada has been experiencing changes and losses: the ritual of making a korovai has disappeared or the korovai is baked without any accompanying “fortune-telling”; korovai sharing is not practiced; a couple is not showered; the concept of a “wrong” gift is almost absent. On the other hand, some new wedding traditions have appeared and are now considered traditional (e.g., preserving the wedding korovai, including certain elements in the wedding attire, or hiding a bride’s wedding dress from a groom). According to Bogatyrev, this is natural since “new rites and magical actions are always being created.”32 This remains true for both groups in the study, yet the Ukrainian group seemed to be more conservative in terms of creating new magical wedding elements.

Weddings of Ukrainians in Canada are designed mainly according to Western standards. They may or may not contain Ukrainian elements. If they do, those elements are pre-selected by the couple according to the principle “The best from Ukraine.” Their main function is to underline one’s marked status, i.e., one’s belonging to a different, Ukrainian, culture within a multicultural environment. It is about making a statement about one’s Ukrainian heritage and a conscious desire to preserve it: “If I would know there is such folk ritual I would probably perform it. Not because I believe in it but because the folk do it. And it would be one more way to underline my Self, my Ukrainian Self. I would do it for the sake of that tradition. But whether I would believe in that or notthat would be secondary for me” (Semen, divorced); “It is part of the heritage and part of the tradition. I really want to keep that tradition in a family” (Sofiia, urban). The symbolic meaning of the magical actions, however, is neither socially relevant, nor central to their ethnic identity. Traditional Ukrainian wedding elements are emphasized in Canada through visual means, on the level of physical objects and vivid actions. They serve an ornamental function and reflect purely theoretical knowledge; they lack the inner, originally magical, essence. Canadian-Ukrainian weddings have become a “staged art,” a learned tradition where every step and element are precisely choreographed and-if necessary-verified through books since “tradition competence” is no longer alive. The number and quality of these elements depend on the individual couple. But even if they are numerous, magic cannot be “staged”-and thus simply disappears.

1 Vilmos Voigt, Suggestions towards a Theory of Folklore (Budapest: Mundus Hungarian University Press, 1999) 236.

2 Carole H. Carpenter, Many Voices: A Study of Folklore Activities in Canada and Their Role in Canadian Culture (Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1979) 374.

3 Marcus L. Hansen, The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant (Rock Island, IL: Augustana Historical Society, 1938).

4 Guntis Smidchens, “Immigrant and Ethnic Folklore,” The Emergence of Folklore in Everyday Life: A Fieldguide and Sourcebook, ed. by George H. Schoemaker (Bloomington, Ind.: Trickster Press, 1990) 135.

5 See, for example, Marvin Opler, “Japanese Folk Beliefs and Practices, Tule Lake, California,” Journal of American Folklore 63 (1950): 385-397; Barbro Sklute, Legends and Folk Beliefs in a Swedish American Community: A Study in Folklore and Acculturation (Ann Arbor, Michigan and London, England: University Microfilms International, 1971); Carla Bianko, The Two Rosetos (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974) for discussion of transformations of Japanese, Swedish, and Italian traditional cultures in North America.

6 Robert Klymasz, Svieto: Celebrating Ukrainian-Canadian Ritual in East Central Alberta through the Generations (Toronto: HSS, 1992); Marie Lesoway, “Ukrainian Ritual Breads,” Migrations from Western Ukraine to Western Canada, ed. by Alesander Makar and Radomis Bilash (Edmonton: Canadian Center for Ukrainian Culture and Ethnography, 2002).

7 Robert Klymasz, “Introduction,” Continuity and Change: The Ukrainian Folk Heritage in Canada (Ottawa: The Center, 1972) 11.

8 Galina Lindquist, Conjuring Hope: Healing and Magic in Contemporary Russia (New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2006) 3.

9 Olexandra Britsyna and Inna Holovakha, Prozovyi Fol’klor sela Ploske na Chernihivshchyni (teksty ta rozvidky) (Kyiv: IMFE im. M.T. Ryl’s’koho, 2004) 24.

10 Rosalie Wax and Murray Wax, “The Magical World View,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1.2(1962): 185.

11 Kenneth Pimple, “Folk Beliefs,” The Emergence of Folklore in Everyday Life: A Fieldguide and Sourcebook, ed. by George H. Schoemaker (Bloomington, Ind.: Trickster Press, 1990)53.

12 Robert Georges and Michael Jones, Folkloristics: An Introduction (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995)97.

13 The wedding literature from the turn of the century tends to be a more genuine and reliable source of information than the Soviet Ukrainian publications. Western scholarship on magic in the post- Soviet countries focuses primarily on the urban setting. My work tries to balance that with a look at life in villages.

14 Petr Bogatyrev, Vampires in the Carpathians: Magical Acts, Rites, and Beliefs in Subcarpathian Rus ‘ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998 [1929]).

15 James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (New York: Macmillan Company, 1963 [1890]) 11.

16 Gary Butler, Saying Isn’t Believing: Conversation, Narrative and the Discourse of Tradition in a French Newfoundland Community (St. John’s: Institute of Social and Economic Research Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1990) 83.

17 Bogatyrev 34.

18 Hnat Tantsiura, Vesillia v seli Ziatkivtsiakh [Wedding in the Village of Ziatkivtsi], ed. by M.K. Dmytrenko and L.O. lefremova (Kyiv: Narodoznavstvo, 1998) 54. Tantsiura collected his materials in 1918-1930.

19 Bogatyrev 106.

20 Pavlo Chubyns’kyi, Mudrist’ vikiv, vol. II (Kyiv: Mystetstvo, 1995 [1872]) 140-141.

21 Chubyns’kyi 141.

22 Bogatyrev 106.

23 Bogatyrev 106.

24 Bogatyrev 104.

25 The often problematic methodology of my study is expressive of the problematic nature of studying beliefs and attitudes. Not trying to be representative, I, however, was looking for nuance and diversity. My limited sample does not permit strong generalizations, but presents patterns of the contemporary magic beliefs across different social strata in Ukraine and among Canadians who identify themselves as Ukrainians. Apart from the clergy subgroups, the majority of my informants were females, most probably due to the idea of “gender relevant” activities: Ukrainian men, often believing that women were better narrators, would more readily provide information about domestic animals or households, than about their weddings.

26 Henk Versnel, “Some Reflections on the Relationship Magic- Religion,” Numen 38.2 (1991): 178.

27 John C. Lehr, “Introduction,” in Zhorna: Material Culture of the Ukrainian Pioneers, by Roman Paul Fodchuk (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006) xviii.

28 All names are changed. See the list of informants in Appendix A.

29 The main state-representative institution in rural settings.

30 Abbreviation stands for Zapys Aktiv Hromadians’koho Stanu, a state institution that officially certifies marriages, births, and deaths of the citizens.

31 Butler 98.

32 Bogatyrev 15.

SVITLANA KUKHARENKO is a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, Ukrainian Program, University of Alberta. Her major field of interest is contemporary Ukrainian folk beliefs. She has published an article on animal magic in Folklorica and is currently writing her dissertation on accidental death memorials and magic connected to travel.

Copyright Canadian Association of Slavists Mar-Jun 2008

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