Ethnic traditions

Eastern Orthodox Christmas traditions. Koliada -January 6 -7

Koliada or koleda is an ancientpre-Christian Slavic and Baltic winter festival. It was later incorporated into Christmas.

The word is still used in modern Russian (Колядá, Kolyada) Ukrainian (“Коляда”, Kolyadá), Belarusian (Каляда, Kalada, Kaliada), Polish (Szczodre Gody kolęda [kɔˈlɛnda]), BulgarianMacedonianSerbo-Croatian (Коледа, Коледе, koleda), Lithuanian and Latvian (Kalėdos, Kalėda) and CzechSlovakSlovene (koleda).

The word used in Old Church Slavonic language (Колѧда – Kolęnda) sounds closest to the current Polish language pronunciation, as Polish is one of two Slavic languages which retains the nasal vowels of the Proto-Slavic language (the other is closely related Kashubian). One theory states that Koliada is the name of a cycle of winter rituals stemming from the ancient calendae as for example the Kalenda Proclamation.

Some claim it was named after Kolyada, the Slavic god of winter or Koliada, the goddess who brings up a new sun every day.

In RussianBelarusian,Ukrainian (koliada), CzechSlovakCroatian (koleda), Kashubian (kòlãda [kwɛlãda]), Romanian (colindă) and Polish (kolęda[kɔˈlɛ̃da], Old Polish kolenda) the meaning has shifted from Christmas itself to denoting the tradition of strolling, singing, and having fun on Christmas Eve, same in the Balkan Slavs. It specifically applies to children and teens who walk house to house greeting people, singing and sifting grain that denotes the best wishes and receiving candy and small money in return. The action is called kolyadovannya (Russian: Колядования) in Russian and is now applied to similar Old East Slavic celebrations of other old significant holidays, such as Generous Eve (Russian: Щедрый вечер, Belarusian: Шчодры вечар, Ukrainian: Щедрий вечiр) the evening before New Year’s Day, as well as the celebration of the arrival of spring. Similarly in Bulgaria and North Macedonia, in the tradition of koleduvane (коледуване) or koledarenje (коледарење) around Christmas, groups of kids visiting houses, singing carols and receiving a gift at parting. The kids are called ‘koledari‘ or rarely ‘kolezhdani’ who sing kolyadki (songs).

Verteps parade. Lviv, Ukraine

Koleda is also celebrated across northern Greece by the Slavic speakers of Greek Macedonia, in areas from Florina to Thessaloniki, where it is called Koleda (Κόλιντα, Κόλιαντα) or Koleda Babo (Κόλιντα Μπάμπω) which means “Koleda Grandmother” in Slavic. It is celebrated before Christmas by gathering in the village square and lighting a bonfire, followed by local Macedonian music and dancing.

kolyadovannya in Ukraine

Croatian composer Jakov Gotovac wrote in 1925 the composition “Koleda”, which he called a “folk rite in five parts”, for male choir and small orchestra (3 clarinets, 2 bassoonstimpani and drum). There is also a dance from Dubrovnik called “The Dubrovnik Koleda.”


Kolyadka (Ukrainian: колядка, Russian: колядка, CzechkoledaBulgarian: коледарска песен, Romaniancolindă) are traditional songs usually sung in Eastern SlavicCentral Europe and Eastern Europe countries (UkraineSlovakiaCzechPolandBulgariaBelarusRussiaRomania) during the Christmas holiday season which is typically between January 7 and 14. At the same time Ukrainians sing kolyadkas and schedrivkasuk between December 19 and January 19. Catholic Christians and Protestants living in these countries sing kolyadkas on and near Christmas Eve. It is believed that everything sung about will come true.

Russian Kolyadka

Singing Kolyadkas is a very common tradition in modern Slavic countries. Additionally Kolyadkas are often sung in countries where big diasporas are present, including Ukrainians which live in Canada (1 251 170 persons). 

Ukrainian Kolyadka, Lviv

The history of kolyadka

Kolyadka have been used since pre-Christian times in Kievan Rus’. Those songs were used with ritual purposes. First kolyadkas described ancient people’s ideas about creation, natural phenomenons and structure of the world. With the advent of Christianity content of kolyadkas began to acquire the relevant religious meaning and features.

Thus now kolyadkas are mostly Christmas carols which describe the birth of Jesus Christ and biblical stories happened in connection with the event. However heathen roots are still there.

Russian Cossaks

Ukrainians sing kolyadkas and schedrivkas from the holiday of Saint Mykolay or Saint Nicholas Day (December 19) till the holiday of baptism of Jesus (January 19). There are other types of winter holidays ritual songs except kolyadkas in Ukraine, named schedrivkas and zasivalkas. In fact their purposes are clearly divided. But in modern Ukrainian culture these concepts are intertwined, mixed and acquired traits of each other.

Kolyadkas which are dedicated to saints

There are several kolyadkas which are dedicated to Saint Mykolay in Ukraine. Among them: “Ой, хто, хто Миколая любить” (“Who Loves Saint Nicholas“),”Ходить по землі Святий Миколай” (“Saint Mykolay Walks Around The World“), “Миколай, Миколай ти до нас завітай!” (Mykolay, Mykolay, Come To Visit Us!).

Russia, Saint-Petersburg
18 Christmas carols for Christmastide (Russian Northern Three Voice)
Russian celebrations. Yaroslavl.
Russian celebrations. Saratov.
Russian celebrations, Bugrovo village
Ukrainian polyphony
Ukrainian traditions and kolyadki

Serbians and Montenegrins sing kolyadkas dedicated to Saint Nicholas in their churches. SlovaksCzechs and sometimes Belarusians sing kolyadkas not only on Saint Nicholas Day (which they celebrate on December 6), but on Saint Stephen Day (December 26) too.

“The Little Swallow”

One of the most popular kolyadka (schedrivka) in the world is Ukrainian “Щедрик” (Shchedryk”), known in English as “The Little Swallow”. This carol has pre-Christian roots. Folk song was arranged by Ukrainian composer and teacher Mykola Leontovych in 1916. “Shchedryk” was later adapted as an English Christmas carol, “Carol of the Bells“, by popular American composer, educator, and choral conductor of Ukrainian ethnic extraction Peter J. Wilhousky following a performance of the original song by Alexander Koshetz’s Ukrainian National Chorus at Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921. Peter J. Wilhousky copyrighted and published his new lyrics (which actually were not based on the Ukrainian lyrics) in 1936.

M. Leontovich – Shchedryk, Kiev children’s choir “Joy”

Conceptually Ukrainian lyrics of this song meets the definition of schedrivka while English content of “Carol of the Bells” indicates it as kolyadka or Christmas carol in other words.

Shchedryk – performed by different countries
Shchedryk – Ukrainian choir and ensemble Choir im. Grigory Verevka

On December 9, 2016, Georgian-born British singer Katie Melua and The Gori Women’s Choir (which is conducted by Teona Tsiramua) sang original Ukrainian “Shchedryk” on BBC. Source 1, Source 2

Related story: Vertep

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