Bees At Christmas

Posted on December 14th, 2017 & filed in The Healthy Hive FARMACY

Each year I’m reminded of Orysia Paszczak Tracz’s wonderful story “Bees at Christmas.”  Although she is no longer with us her words live on and will forever.  I would like to share them with all those who hold a special place for honeybees and all the good that go with them! (Printed with permission of the author)

To the memory of Myron Surmach Sr., and for the New Jersey Ukrainian beekeepers & friends of the Honeybee.


Orysia Paszczak Tracz

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Let’s see – among the many traditional Ukrainian Christmas themes are wheat, hay, garlic, spiders, feeding farm animals, going from house to house singing, eating, and drinking, unusual food cooked according to rules and numbers, flax as high as your knees and hemp up to the ceiling, poppy seeds, dead people (ok, the departed) and, of course, the bees, the beehive, honey, and the beekeeper.

As one of the earliest, probably the earliest, instant foods, honey has always been there for the taking.  This is the reason is it one of the three basic ingredients for kutia, the special symbolic food for Sviat Vechir[Christmas Eve supper].  The twelve dishes of this supper are symbolic in their number (lunar cycles), and in their ingredients (mostly gathered and simple), originating in hunter-gatherer times.

The bdzhola – the bee – was considered more than a regular insect, and was held in high regard and respect. It was known as “God’s insect” or “God’s little fly” or “God’s bird” [Bozha komakha, Bozha mushka, bozha ptashka], a creature of paradise.    It was a sin to kill a bee, and this was the only insect that had to be buried rather than just left on the ground when found dead.  And the word to use for a bee’s demise was not zdokhla[an animal dying], but umerla, like a human being dying. The bee is still considered the ultimate example of industriousness – a good man without work is like a bee without honey.

pasichnyk is a beekeeper – pasika being an apiary.  In modern times, the bees were kept in hives built of wood and wooden slats.  But originally, a beekeeper was called a bortnyk, this word surviving today as a surname.  A bort was a hollowed or burnt-out trunk or log in which the hive resided.  The borty [pl.] were usually suspended from trees.  The stages of beekeeping began with the wild bees and their honey, then the semi-domestication of swarms in trees and the bortnyk stage, then domestication of swarms into beehives.  In southern Ukraine, in the warmer steppe zones where trees and logs were lacking, hives were made/plaited of straw, and of straw/mud, or twigs and reeds.  In 1814 the scientist P. I. Prokopovych invented a better frame hive, which spread throughout Ukraine.  The very fertile Ukrainian fields and steppes grew a multitude of wildflowers and blossoming bushes, ensuring an excellent crop of nectar for bees.

According to Ivan Ohiyenko [Mytropolyt Ilarion], the word pasika comes from prosika [an opening or hewn-down space in a forest], because the original apiaries were located there, in the trunks of trees.  The wordpasichnyk referred not just the beekeeper, but also to the spirit who took care of the bees and hives [the waydomovyk took care of the dim or home].

The community held beekeepers in high regard.  The pasichnyk was a “person of God” [Bozha liudyna]. They were considered close to nature, knowledgeable about the environment, and even as sorcerers.  They lived a moderate lifestyle, and did not smoke nor drink alcoholic beverages.  They rubbed their clothing with scented flowers to appease the bees.

Honey is important in wedding rituals, and in bathing newborns and infants to ensure a sweet life [Mala maty odnu dochku, ta y kupala u medochku – The mother had one daughter, and bathed her in honey].  The nutritional and medicinal properties of honey are well-known, as are the ones from bee by-products such as propolis and apitoxin or honeybee venom.  Beeswax was the only pure and proper source of candles both for the home and the church [try svichi voskovi – three beeswax candles – a phrase often used in koliady].  It is also the only wax for pysanky.

The importance of bees and beekeeping since antiquity in Ukraine is evident from the rituals of the Christmas season and the koliady and shchedrivky [carols and ritual New Year’s songs].  In Polissia, the koliadnyky [carollers] would ask, “Komu koliaduvaty?” [Whom should we carol to?]  — and the reply would cover the members of the family, as well as “Pcholam!” [to the bees!  The “p” and “b” – pcholy/bdzholy are regional and interchangeable].  An ethnographic expedition to villages in Polissia (Rivne and Chornobyl regions) in 1998-2000 recorded six specific koliady and shchedrivky for and about the bees.  In writing about these verses, Tetiana Parkhomenko notes that the description of old [trunk, borty] hives vs the newer hives, and their mention in the shchedrivky describes the rituals of welcoming the new year and the fading of the old.  The queen bee [matka, or mother, in Ukrainian] is connected to the image of the Mother of God.  Without the mention of bees, there are many ritual songs about the potions drunk at the festive table, and they include medok-solodok – sweet honey-mead.

It is buzzing and humming, the queen bee is coming, she is leading all the swarms.  She is leading them and instructing them.  Children, settle in the new hives, and I, the old one, will settle in the old tree.  [Krasno village, Chornobyl rayon, Kyiv oblast’]

Humming and buzzing through the grove, [refrain:  Grant God, a good evening!]  The queen bee is leading her swarms, and asking them, “Children, where should we land?”  They reply, “At pan Ivan’s, in his courtyard, that’s where he has vyshnevi [sour cherry] orchards and new hives.”  “Settle, children, into the new hives and, I, the old one, will land in the old one.  Carry, children, the sweet honey, and I, the old one, will carry the yellow wax.  The sweet honey, for the daughters’ weddings, the yellow wax, to make candles.”   [This shchedrivka recorded by many ethnographers and other scholars, including Chubynsky, Holovatsky, Potebnia, and Hrinchenko].

In our lord hospodar’s house a pine stands in the marketplace.  In its root are the quails, in the trunk are the spring bees, and at the top of the pine are the black martens.  The quail is for lunch, the bees are for mead, and the black martens for his lady’s fur coat.  [Vahylevych]

Above the beech forest the thunders are thundering, but those are not clouds, only three swarms of bees flying.  The first set down on the kalyna [viburnum, high-bush cranberry], the second in the apiary, the third on the fir tree.  In the apiary – for the hospodar [master of the house], on the kalyna – for the hospodynia [mistress of the house], on the fir tree – for their daughter.  Ensure, o God, thick honey and yellow waxes, the thick honey for the horilka, the yellow waxes [for candles] for the church. [Recorded by Z. Khodakovs’kyi, 1820]

What is that cloud coming from the forest?… That is not a cloud, but spring bees.  St. Mykolai came before them, and stopped them with his right hand, and blessed them with holy water, and took them to the town.  He divided them into three parts:  one group he placed into a thick log [a trunk hive], the second into a white lypa [basswood or linden tree], the third into a yellow fir.  The first for the hospodar, the second for the hospodynia, the third for his son.  God, ensure the growth of thick honeys, thick honeys and yellow waxes, the yellow waxes [for candles] for the praise of God, the thick honeys for the people’s glory!”  [Khodakovsky]

May your New Year be as sweet as the honey in your kutia, mead, and medivnyk!


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