Purposes of Ukrainian-American Folklore
The relatively large Ukrainian community in the United States has many traditions and customs, most of which stem from a feeling of Ukrainian nationalism. As Ukraine was being overtaken by Russia, Ukrainians were immigrating by the thousands to the US. Ukrainians moving to the new world were leaving behind a disappearing culture and moving to a completely different land. Immigrants were proud of their heritage, and many of the traditions that were started in America exist to preserve this heritage and to pass it on to future generations.
The Ukrainian Boy Scouting program is one such tradition. Ukrainians in America started this program in the early 1900s to train their young to return to Ukraine and drive the Russians out. This began as resistance to Russian rule over Ukraine. All boys and girls participate in this intermittently throughout the year, starting at age seven and continuing for life. Ukrainian Boy Scouts is very different from the typical American view of Boy Scouts, in that it involves a more rigorous wilderness-training program. This is because the program was essentially started as a military training program, and although it exists now only for fun and tradition, many of the subjects and ideas taught to the youths remain the same. People who are involved in the program put their children through it, as an attempt to preserve Ukrainian culture. When Ukrainians turn eighteen they become counselors, and at age thirty-five they become seniors and run the program.
This program, along with a handful of similar programs, was started for various reasons. To begin with, Ukrainian youths had trouble adjusting to American society. They (Ukrainian youth programs) are helping to solve some of the social problems of the second generation that does not seem to be able to find its way into American society or does not feel at home there. Ukrainian youths were out of place in America with no sense of identity, and these programs made the adjustment less difficult. These programs also serve to maintain youth interest in Ukrainian heritage. The adults are perplexed at the indifference of the American-born youth to such worthy institutions (Ukrainian-American organizations). The youth programs involve American-born Ukrainians at a young age, insuring that they will grow up to preserve Ukrainian heritage and culture. A third reason for these programs is that, at the time of their creation, the Ukrainian community in America was divided into two groups. One of them represented independent Ukrainian nationalism and the other, being stimulated by funds from Russia, was pro-Russian. The nationalist group was responsible for these programs. In addition to the other functions, they started these programs to compete with the pro-Russian faction and ensure the survival of Ukrainian culture. These programs exist today to ensure the future of Ukrainian culture, essentially serving the same function it always has.
The Red Flower is a traditional Ukrainian song. It also comes from Ukraines history with Russia, and although it is sung in Ukrainian, The chorus goes as follows in English:
Down in the valley
A flower wilted
And our sacred country
Went to ruins
The flower in the song is a metaphor for Ukraine, and when Russia took control of Ukraine, the flower wilted. This is a somber song, which is sung at serious gatherings such as funerals or church. It is also sung often during the Boy Scouts training, to teach the young to sing it.
Clearly this song serves as a source of nationalism, because the words remind those who hear it of Ukraines sad past. The song also reminds Ukrainians of why it is important to preserve their culture, to restore Ukraine to glory.
The Hopak is a traditional Ukrainian dance, which is performed frequently by Ukrainians in America. Outsiders often refer it to as the Russian Dance, but it is actually a Ukrainian dance. The dancer is a man wearing leather boots, loose fitting red silk pants, and a white shirt with colored embroidering down the middle. His hair is shaved to the scalp except for a small circle on the top of his head, where the hair is about half a foot long. He squats down low, and kicks his feet out with his body upright and his arms folded. The dance has a historic meaning behind it, dating back to when Russia took over Ukraine. A group of organized rebels known as the Cossacks, who hoped to end Russian Rule, isolated themselves in a fort in the Carpathian Mountains. The dancer symbolizes a triumphant Cossack warrior. During festivals and other celebrations, the Hopak was a common dance. This dance is still taught to Ukrainian Americans today, starting at age seven. At Ukrainian debutante balls, the men who know the dance do it during a specific song, which is played at every ball. There are also professional dance groups who perform the Hopak around the United States and Canada. The dancers today still wear the traditional clothing, but the hairstyle has become much less common. Many Ukrainians forget the dance with time, but those who remember it take great pride in their ability and perform the dance at nearly every ball and celebration they attend.
This dance exists as a representation of Ukraines history, in particular the conflict with Russia. However, in the past, it served an entirely different function. The Hopak originates from the Kozac, which is an older Ukrainian dance. The Kozac is named after the Cossacks, who performed it, and its essentially the workout they performed to warm up for battle. The movements were part of a regime of calisthenics to keep the Cossacks fit for battles. The refined Hopak is similar, but with more difficult dance maneuvers, such as leaping and twirling. To Ukrainians, the Hopak represents the Cossacks, who gave their lives to protect Ukrainian culture as Russia outlawed the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian books. The Hopak exists today to remind Ukrainians of their heritage and to serve as a source of nationalism.
Ukrainian debutante balls have many similarities to American debutante balls, but the differences are important. The Ukrainian version comes from Ukraine, but is still performed by Ukrainians in America. It originates from the days of arranged marriage in Ukraine, when girls at the age of sixteen would participate in these balls, and the young men who attended would speak with the father of any woman they found suitable hoping to arrange marriage. Today, sixteen-year-old Ukrainian women still perform the tradition, but to keep with modern values no marriages are arranged. The population of Ukrainians in the US is very close-knit, so the same group of people attends many of the same balls. These Ukrainian debutante balls are also different from American ones because while American balls are restricted mainly to wealthy families, Ukrainian debutante balls are a tradition performed by Ukrainians of all statuses, in Ukraine and the US.
This is another example of a tradition that was started in America to give new Ukrainian immigrants a sense of identity in American society. The original purpose of this tradition, in ancient Ukraine, was to arrange marriage. In America, marriages arent arranged, so the tradition assumed this new function. Families of all economic backgrounds are invited because Ukrainians needed to bond together in the new world, a necessary part of forming a sense of identity as a people.
The Bandura is a Ukrainian instrument, which is somewhere between a guitar and the Indian sitar in sound. It is a string instrument, and Ukrainians use it for most traditional songs. It is played at weddings, some church services, and also during the aforementioned song, The Red Flower. This instrument serves as a, symbol of Ukrainian music which evokes pride from most Ukrainians. Therefore, the Bandura serves as a source of nationalism for Ukrainians.
The Ukrainian art of decorating Easter Eggs, or Pysanky, is an ancient Ukrainian tradition. Pysanky are a religious art form that all Ukrainian families create before Easter, both in Ukraine and the US. They dye an egg one color, put beeswax over the portion of the color they want to stay, and then wash away the leftover color. This process is repeated with different colors until the whole egg is covered in different colors and wax. Then the yolk is drained, and the egg can be displayed forever. Not every Ukrainian can do this particularly well, but those who can consider it a high art form. Professionally done Pysanky can be sold for as much as 1000 dollars, so clearly outsiders to Ukrainian life feel this way as well.
While these eggs are worth a large amount of money when done well, the cultural meaning of these eggs is far more important. In many countries around the world, spring is a celebration of new life, and Ukrainians believe there is a great power in the new life embodied in an egg. Ancient legends tell of a giant egg from which the Universe emerged. Eggs were believed to have the power to heal, protect, and to bring good luck and wealth. Many Ukrainian households in America keep Pysanky around the house to ward off evil. Of course, today it is doubtful that many families strongly believe that the universe hatched from a giant egg or that a decorated egg can protect them from evil, so the continued existence of this tradition suggests that it serves another function. When these eggs are done well by an experienced artist, they can be beautiful. Ukrainians are very proud of this artistic tradition, to the point that it becomes an issue of national pride. This art form has become a source of nationalism for Ukrainians today.
Ukrainians celebrate Easter in a very specific way, both in Ukraine and the US. The day before Easter Sunday, each family weaves a basket. In the basket they put kielbasa, babka (special bread), hard-boiled eggs, one peeled hard-boiled egg, butter, and cream cheese. The family takes the basket to church on the night before Easter to have it blessed, and the priest puts holy water on the peeled egg. Easter day, no one eats until after church, and when they come home, the family divides up the peeled egg and eats it. Then there is a feast consisting only of the items that were in the basket, in larger quantities of course. After the meal, everyone takes one of the other hard-boiled eggs, and tries to break everyone elses. The last person with an egg has good luck until the next year. This originates from the old country, when crops were the primary source of income, and the good luck was meant in relation to the growing season.
The Easter tradition is again based on the valuable life force which is in an egg, which explains why families get the egg blessed. The egg game at the end of the meal reminds Ukrainians of agricultural life in the old world, and every Ukrainian child learns this when they are old enough to understand the tradition. Parents teach the story behind this game to their children so that they know something of the old world. Passing on Ukrainian history from generation to generation is a large part of the national pride Ukrainians feel.
Many of the traditions practiced by Ukrainians in America can be traced back to some form of nationalism or pride in Ukraines history. Many other immigrant groups in the US practice their respective traditions for the same reason. Many Cajun traditions, for example, are a result of the Spanish and French people who lived in Louisiana early on. National pride inspired them to incorporate pieces of their old cultures in the new land, and as a result Cajun culture, or at least a portion of it, can be traced back to Spain and France. Most immigrant groups feel a natural need to preserve various parts of their old traditions in their new world, resulting from a sense of national pride.