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A popular Ukrainian Christmas tradition: Didukh (and how to make it)

5 min read

A lavishly decorated Christmas tree with a shining star on top is an indispensable attribute of our modern Christmas.
However, this wasn’t always the case in Ukraine, where folk traditions of celebrating Christmas have roots far back in the pre-Christian era. And This holiday occupied the most honorable place among others since people understood the cyclical motion of the Sun and its significance for all living things.
It was Peter the First who brought the European habit of installing a Christmas tree, however, even in the early twentieth century, Ukrainian villagers used to place not a Christmas tree but a Didukh, a sheaf-amulet bound with ears, which symbolized an excellent harvest, family well-being, peace and harmony in the family, the connection between the family generations and eternal rebirth of light.

A didukh, in Ukrainian дідух, is a traditional Christmas decoration.
It can be considered a World Tree, which unites and supports all worlds.
Thanks to its “legs,” it stands firmly, representing the roots, the world of the dead. The upper part, which symbolizes the middle world, the world of people, has seven spikelets in each bundle. Seven is one of the symbolic numbers: seven weekdays, seven generations, and seven rainbow colors.
Spikelets’ seeds are the upper world with deities, birds, and solar symbols.

Made from the unthreshed ears of grain, used for baking bread, like oats, rye, and wheat, it is a symbolic sacrifice taken from the autumn harvest, and Didukh literally means “the spirit of ancestors”.
Didukhy are traditionally made from the first or the last stalks of wheat reaped during the year, and they symbolize the household’s wish for an abundance of nature and a bountiful harvest for the upcoming year.
Locals believed that the reaper who knitted the last bunch of rye would soon give birth to a child because the sheaf-binding symbolically resembled tying the umbilical cord.
Either way, before the holidays, festive “trees” were decorated with dried flowers, viburnum, and colorful ribbons and placed in the most honorable place in the house, at the sacred corner. As believed, together with Didukh, the spirits of grandfathers-ancestors, patrons of each house, were in the house during the holidays.
While it is at a place of honor inside the house, the souls of all ancestors will unite and bless the family.
On Sviat Vechir (Christmas Eve), it is brought into the house by the hospodar (head of the household), and placed in the pokutia (corner with icons) of the house, along with the kutia (ritual food) and uzvar (ritual drink).
In the Hutsul region, when a decorated oat sheaf was being brought into the house, people invited various evil forces (storms, hail, wolves, etc.) to dinner because they believed it’d help them escape these forces in the future.
The decorations stayed in the house until the New Year, in some places, until the Epiphany.
Then the grain was threshed and added to the seed, and the straw was burned so the souls of the dead, who visited the family on holidays, could return to heaven.

In other areas, a didukh is placed in most Ukrainian homes before Christmas, and kept until Masnytsia/Maslenitsa, or “Butter Week”, an ancient Eastern Slavic holiday that celebrates the end of winter and welcomes spring. Masnytsia doesn’t have a designated date, it is usually celebrated in late February or early March, before the beginning of the Great Fast, the most important fasting season.
The celebration lasts for one week and has existed in Slavic cultures since pagan times. It is believed that this holiday was dedicated either to Jarilo, the god of the sun, or Veles, the god of livestock and welfare.
Traditional food on Masnytsia includes dishes made with cheese and butter.
During Masnytsia, Ukrainians eat varenyky (dumplings), pancakes, syrnyky (cottage cheese pancakes), and various desserts.
On Masnytsia, didukh is burnt symbolizing the end of the winter.

Many folk artists make didukhs for museum exhibitions and sales, but true connoisseurs of Ukrainian people’s cultural heritage advise learning how to knit the king of sheaves, and they’re right.
Of course, the handmade Didukh will bring you and your family good luck and allow you to feel the breath of history.

How to make it?
There were various manufacturing technologies in Ukraine for a long time: didukhs were braided, made as a bundle, or as a tree.
You’ll need at least twenty-one spikelets and, before work, soak them briefly in hot water to make them soft and supple.
Then disassemble the ears by size.
You should have seven pieces in one bundle, symbol of family, weekdays, and seven generations, and each seven should be tied evenly, carefully, and firmly with rope.
Then gather the bundles by levels to get a beautiful “head.”
Divide the bundle into three “legs” but, if there are many spikelets, then five or seven.
You can also attach a few strong straws to the base to make Didukh more stable.
The most common traditional option is Didukh as a year.
The composition includes four tiers, symbolizing the four seasons, and each level has three branches, i.e., months. Each branch makes four bundles, including seven spikelets, suggesting weeks and days. When assembling a Didukh, you can use different grain types for each tier and each grain represents a particular time of year.
Ancestors believed that the richer Didukh looked, the more productive the year would be.
So decorate it splendidly with dried and paper flowers, berries, ribbons, nuts, St. John’s wort and poppy.
Some masters add herbs to the decorations, mostly healing ones, and they’re woven for a reason: St. John’s wort brings health, and poppy brings money.

But It’d be wrong to talk about Didukh as a solely past phenomenon.
Lviv, for example, has a long-standing tradition of installing the great Didukh in the city center for the Christmas holidays, while straw talismans are also installed on squares in Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, and other cities.

Images from web – Google Research