Faith and Tradition

Celebrating with the Hutsuls of the Carpathian Mountains

text by Matthew Matuszak and Petro Didula
photographs by Petro Didula

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I’ve traveled the world a bit and I have to say no one celebrates holidays quite like the Hutsuls,” says Yurii Prodoniuk, a resident of Kosmach, a village of 6,200.

Tucked into the Carpathian Mountains in southwestern Ukraine, Kosmach is the center of the 500,000-strong Greek Catholic and Orthodox Hutsul community.

The 13th-century Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus – which includes parts of present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine – is an essential chapter in Hutsul history. Many of those who survived the ruthless devastation of their homeland, peasants mostly, headed for the hills, seeking refuge in the Carpathians.

The earliest written references identifying these refugees as Hutsuls date to 14th- and early 15th-century Polish documents.

The intensification of serfdom, which bound the peasants to the land, provoked another exodus to the mountains hundreds of years later.

Today, the descendants of these refugees live in an area covering 2,500 square miles in southwestern Ukraine and northern Romania.

“In general, the Hutsuls are conservative,” says Roman Kyrchiv, professor emeritus of philology at the Institute of Ukrainian Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. “It was difficult for them to accept Christianity. They were attached to their pre-Christian traditions.”

Christianity, in its Byzantine form, arrived in Kievan Rus with the baptism of its grand duke, Vladimir, in 988.

“There are remnants of pre-Christian pantheism in some Christmas carols,” Mr. Kyrchiv continues. Instead of referring to the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph or the Magi, these carols simply recount village life and ask for prosperity for neighbors. To “Christianize” the carols, Hutsuls sometimes add a refrain after every verse, such as “O God, grant.”

For centuries church leaders sought to end the singing of these carols, Mr. Kyrchiv says. Bishop Hryhorii Khomyshyn, the Greek Catholic Bishop of Ivano-Frankivsk in the first half of the 20th century, advised that “Hutsul Christmas carols be rooted out.” But the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from 1901 to 1944, Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky of Lviv, thought otherwise, even writing a pastoral letter to the Hutsuls in their own distinctive dialect, which is similar to literary Ukrainian but with some Romanian influences.

Though for centuries geographically isolated, the Hutsuls were not insulated from the outside world. Depending on who governed the region and when (Catholic Poland and Austria to the west, Orthodox Russia to the east), Hutsuls, while true to their Byzantine Christian faith, were either Greek Catholic or Orthodox. “But this [jurisdictional divide] didn’t mean much to the people,” Mr. Kyrchiv says. Historically, Greek Catholics and Orthodox “celebrated religious feasts in each other’s churches.”

For centuries, Kosmach had but one parish, which was Greek Catholic, until the Soviets suppressed it in March 1946, forcing it to integrate with the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Tags: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Carpatho-Rusyn Kievan Rus