Easter is a family holiday. Traditionally, we rush to church, we rush to visit our parents, grandmothers and grandfathers, to spend time with our closest of kin. At the same time, there are always people nearby, who are deprived of such opportunities. And as a result of the war, the number of such individuals has multiplied.
The Ukrainian Catholic University’s “Easter Together” Festival aims to offer a little bit of warmth and the spirit of tradition to those who, due to certain circumstances, either have no one to celebrate with or simply wish to familiarize themselves more in-depth with Ukrainian culture. For a couple of years in a row, UCU students had been organizing the festival in Odesa, Kharkiv and Kherson. This year, because of the war, the residents of Odesa, Kharkiv and Kherson came to Lviv.
Thus, our conversation today – with UCU philology student, volunteer and festival coordinator, Iryna Didych – focuses on the various challenges which the organizers were compelled to face, including the setbacks that were experienced, as well as the intended accomplishments that were achieved.
The conversation is being conducted within the framework of the UCU project “Little Stories of a Big War”.
Iryna, please elaborate, in more detail, about the “Easter Together” initiative?
This is a project of the UCU Student Association, which has already been taking place for many years in succession. The goal behind this initiative is to unite people around common traditions. I don’t know in what year it was first held; no one seems to remember. I think Archbishop Borys [Gudziak] initiated the project back in 2008. The current format of the “Easter Together” Festival took shape in 2018. I should point out that we hold a “Christmas Together” Festival as well.
A year ago, for the Easter holiday, we went to Kherson, which, unfortunately, is now occupied. This was during the Covid-19 pandemic, so the overall situation was very difficult. The year before that, we even had to cancel the live festival and instead held it online. This year we had planned to hold the “Easter Together” Festival in Odesa. By the way, we did manage to hold the “Christmas Together” Festival in Odesa this year. The combined celebration of both major holidays creates a bigger impact and people tend to remember more. Such back-to-back initiatives provide a broader and more integral picture of our traditions and the reasons why people unite around them.
We even debated whether to organize the event in Lviv this year, but two weeks ago we agreed that we will hold the “Easter Together” Festival after all. We basically joined forces with the older generations of the Student Association and began to make preparations for the holidays.
How does the overall festival take place and what are its major components? Were you compelled to change the program due to the war?
For the most part, the festival’s program is rather traditional: one component consists of Springtime folk song & dance numbers [so-called “Hayivky”] for adults and Springtime games for children; another category is comprised of artistic workshops, where we create Easter eggs [so-called “Pysanky”], woven dolls [so-called “Motanky”],and other crafts such as mini-horses and mini-angels. This year, since we remained in Lviv and had access to the university’s technical equipment, we were able to bring on board a number of folk ensembles and choirs, who performed the Springtime “Hayivky” and folk songs.
We also added a component titled “An Easter Basket for the Soldiers” and collected food to devise holiday assortments for the soldiers. Children will make Easter eggs [Pysanky], write letters to our soldiers and create woven dolls [Motanky] as talismans. We will continue to ship these items to the men and women on the frontlines. The original premise of the festival called for travelling to the eastern and southern cities of Ukraine, but now people from the east and south of the country are being forced to come here due to the war. However, for the most part, the demographics of our participants have not changed.
There are people who take sides and go to extremes: on the one hand, some ask, how can you sing and dance when there is a war raging. On the other hand, some claim that the soldiers are preserving the peace, so that we may live a full-fledged life. What is your opinion on this account?
I believe that there is always an appropriate time and place for a holiday, even in wartime. The coming together of people as well as the offering of support to each other – such principles are even more important at a time like this. It may seem that folk dancing or Hayivky are trivial and unimportant. However, when people are ready to extend a hand to one another in order dance together, this means that they trust each other, which is why this festival is more important than ever before. Building trust between the residents of Lviv and its guests, is very timely. Thus, I believe there is definitely a time and place for a holiday. Yet, we need to remember for whom this holiday is taking place. For this reason, the festival has been supplemented by the added attraction “An Easter Basket for the Soldiers”.
I’m certain that during our celebration no one will forget, that the war continues to rage on. Those people who will attend the festivities have arrived from embattled hotspots and occupied territories. It’s understandable that many of those who have been internally displaced are not necessarily ready to celebrate. For a number of individuals, it’s simply inconceivable how – simultaneously – there can exist a horrible reality from which they fled, crossing checkpoint after checkpoint, as well as a world, in which people frequent cafes and celebrate the holidays, as they do in Lviv. This is all very complicated, but the key is for no one to point fingers at one another. Both sides of reality have their time and place as well as their right to exist. Each one of us needs to find the strength inside of us to celebrate the holidays in wartime, to believe in Christ’s resurrection, to keep one’s faith in God, to preserve one’s faith in humanity. I hope as many people as possible will attend these festivities. At the same time, I realize that we need to be very prudent, flexible and cautious as we encourage people to attend such celebrations. As a result, such questions as “Why are you sad?” or “Why don’t you wish to celebrate?” will obviously be inappropriate.
What do the preparations for the “Easter Together” Festival entail? Who is involved in this process? How often do you convene for organizational meetings?
Preparations have been very difficult. We have only two weeks to do this and the most active phase of preparation has been this week. We plan to celebrate the Easter holidays on Sunday and Monday, April 24 and April 25, respectively. In addition, traditionally, every year the day before Easter, we always visited a number of shelters and children’s orphanages in order to bring the holidays to them. The goal is to do the same this year. We plan to bake Easter bread [“Pasky”] in the shelters. For the overall festival, we needed a very large number of people. We managed to sign-up 70 volunteers, each one of which has his/her own designated responsibility. Someone is preparing the Haivky and the creative workshops for the children in the shelters, while someone else is preparing the same type of creative workshops and Haivky, which are scheduled as part of the festivities for Sunday and Monday.
Over the course of this past week, we have already met three times to discuss and prepare for the Haivky. We had assumed that the traditions of celebrating Easter in Lviv had been well-preserved and that the residents of the city know these traditions well. However, that is not exactly the case. As it turns out, the residents of Lviv also need to be taught how to perform Haivky, so that they can also teach and pass on the tradition to others. On the surface, it often appears as if we are “aware” Galicians, who know and foster these traditions. Yet, often times, we also find ourselves first learning these traditions and only later on do we end up teaching others. Although many of the volunteers who have signed up are residents of Lviv and have a childhood notion of Haivky and baking Pasky, they still need annual reminders how to do all these things. In addition, a lot of the volunteers arrived here during the first weeks of the war, so all of this is new to them and they are learning everything from scratch.
What do you anticipate as a result of this festival?
I hope there won’t be any rain nor any air raids. In the past, we simply held the festival on the street, but now we have to think ahead and plan what we will do in case of an air raid, and where we will transfer 200 people, since we can’t just leave them on the street. This is an additional responsibility and as a result, we are currently figuring out the logistics based on a couple of potential scenarios.
I also anticipate that during the festivities we will be able to relax a bit and play some children’s games, in order to take everyone’s mind off certain things and to simply remind people how to enjoy themselves again. I hope a lot people will attend, especially those who have recently arrived in Lviv. I remember what a positive reaction we had last year from the residents of Kherson, when we walked the streets of their city dressed in embroidered shirts under the accompaniment of Ukrainian music. The people were glad we showed up in their city. Therefore, I hope those people who have now arrived in Lviv will look forward to learning about these traditions here, even in watime.
What are some of the hurdles you are now facing?
We are dealing with the reality that volunteers are burned out. People have been volunteering non-stop for almost 60 days, which is why it’s now difficult to find volunteers. Furthermore, a lot of people think that learning about Haivky is less important than, for example, unloading humanitarian aid or weaving camouflage nets. That does appear to be the reality, since you do spend a lot of time learning how to sing Haivky, when in fact you could be doing something more useful.
In the past, on our road trips, we would take with us 10 volunteers, who were constantly engaged in the program. Today, these people, based in Lviv, either have jobs, or families or planned trips to visit their grandparents. In reality, I’m glad they are not putting off a visit to their grandmother’s place during the war, but our project has in mind those people, who actually can’t visit their grandmother, because grandmom lives in occupied territory. This is the type of dissonance I’m dealing with in my head: I want people to continue visiting their next of kin, but at the same time, I would like for them to sacrifice one of their days off from work, just so that we could prepare the holiday for those people, who don’t have a chance to visit their relatives.
Another challenge is the forecast for rain. We are hoping for the forces of nature to be on our side, though.
Why is it important for you to be involved in what you are doing? What motivates you to do volunteer work?
I’m motivated by the fact that every project, which I work on – whether it’s in conjunction with the Student Association or a personal project – always paves the way for a community setting, for a coalescence of like-minded and motivated people. I like when people unite. There is a lot of strength, energy and emotion in such a phenomenon. It always generates new, even better projects, ideas and relationships. The “Easter Together” endeavor can also be considered a community setting of people uniting to celebrate. This year I’m going against my own initial wishes not to organize the festival. If not for the war, I would have declined to organize this holiday due to sheer exhaustion and other responsibilities. But the war rages on and we need to continue to live despite it.
How is it that volunteering became such an important part of your life?
It goes back to my childhood. I remember volunteering for the first time when I was 9 years old. Together with my father and his friends, we cleared the banks of the Dnister river of trash. This type of activity was a constant part of my life, because I’m from a family which allotted a substantial amount of time to volunteering. In order to fulfill those endeavors which we were engaged in, you had to believe in them. In other countries, volunteering is not all that well developed, and they are surprised how Ukrainians are waging war through volunteering. I think the Euromaidan  turned out to be the peak of realizing just how strong volunteering is in Ukraine, precisely because the essence of that major event was based on volunteering. I was only 12 years old then, but I was making sandwiches. My father, together with my mother, was there as a commantand.
Later on I studied at the Ukrainian Leadership Academy, where one day in the week is set aside for volunteering. This is where, for the first time in my life, I helped elderly people with disabilities, and cared for animals. At the moment, I’m active with the Student Association and a couple of other student organizations. Everything we do is volunteer-based.
What type of emotions did you experience during the Euromaidan? This was indeed a peak of realization, but your father died on the Euromaidan [Serhiy Didych perished on February 18th, 2014, during a skirmish between the protesters and the “Berkut” Special Riot Police Force]. What did these events change vis-à-vis your worldview?
The Euromaidan changed everything in my worldview. I was there the first week of the new  year, before Christmas. I arrived to visit my parents, who were on the Euromaidan the whole time. This was the most peaceful time of the Euromaidan, when it was wonderful and safe. It was my first time in Kyiv. The city was a big revelation for me. The Euromaidan significantly changed my perception of Russian-speaking people, because from an early age I had an aversion to everything Russian. But it became obvious to me that they [Russian-speaking people] belong on the Euromaidan just as much as the residents of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. It was then that I realized these people are Ukrainians, and that language is not the main indication.
I remember New Year’s Eve very well. We were standing in front of the October Palace and before us was the entire square of the Euromaidan. Thousands of people sang the national anthem exactly at midnight. This was the greatest moment of my life. Alcohol was forbidden, which also set aside the traditional concept of how people in Ukraine celebrate the new year. We stood on a hill, and I saw thousands of flickering flames and everyone was singing the anthem. This was a very powerful feeling. I still get emotional every time I sing the anthem amidst a large crowd of people.
I had planned to revisit the Euromaidan at the end of January, but the attacks had begun on Hrushevsky street, and the Euromaidan stopped being a positive and safe place for children, so I was never there again.
On the subject of a full-fledged war, which began on February 24th, how has it changed your life?
On an emotional and spiritual level, I can’t say that something changed inside of me. I didn’t consider February 24th as the beginning of the war, because I knew that the war had been raging for eight years already. I lived with the trauma that my father had perished on the Euromaidan, I kept reliving it over and over and no one understood me. Every year, on February 18th, I would feel what we now experience every day, as our acquaintances and relatives perish. For this reason, the understanding that death and life exist in parallel realities and we need to rejoice in life, has always existed in me. At the present time, this seems to be my natural state of being.
I have a friend whose father perished in Ilovaisk. She and I would often discuss the fact that neither of us experienced anxiety or a sudden realization that a war has begun. We lived with this notion already for eight years. Now, all of society is realizing this. I know that for many people the war has changed their view of this world, about russia, about what Russia is truly like. Since childhood, I had been blocking out the entire russian milieu. Therefore, when all of Ukraine began boycotting russian products, there was nothing for me to block out. Many of my friends, particularly those from the eastern oblasts, cut off a large portion of their life and their families; they finally understood the need to make such a break. This changed their life significantly. For one thing, they are now compelled to renounce the language, which they have been speaking in their entire life. This is very difficult. I don’t have such a challenge, nor the feeling that the world is big and cruel and that one’s next of kin perish in it. I don’t know how exactly to refer to such a natural condition which I find myself in. For eight years, I strived to be effective and to do something in such a condition, and the war basically activated me.
During the first days of the war, we simply went home, but on March 1st I returned to Lviv and began to work with foreign journalists. I had a very distinct feeling that I would not be going abroad during the war in Ukraine. I realized that I would not be serving in the military nor as a paramedic. I also knew that I would not be going to Kharkiv to save people there, because I didn’t have the necessary skills. I’m certain there are people who will do this better than me. And besides, my family won’t let me go, because we have already experienced our share of losses. My philosophy is such that, during wartime, people need to do what they know how to do best. I knew how to write, how to translate and how to organize events. All of this jelled together and my job found me. Every day, for the past two months, I’m working with foreign journalists. For me, it’s very important to present an honest depiction of Ukraine’s history. The war has cut me off from my studies, because reading “The Iliad” seems the least important at this time. I can’t read anything unrelated to the war, which is why focusing on my studies is a challenge. At the same time, I understand that my education is very necessary, particularly during the war; just like the holidays.
Can you elaborate in more detail about your “cutting off” of everything russian? Why did this happen?
I’m sure this is a result of my parents’ upbringing. In childhood, we all knew our history well. I’m from the village [Iryna hails from the village of Strilche of the Horodenka district of Ivano-Frankvisk Oblast], and all my relatives have village roots. But just about everyone in my family is a teacher of history, geography, Ukrainian language, literature or music. My parents were involved in the tourist industry. In the 2000’s in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast being engaged in tourism was synonymous with being a patriot. It was not just about showing someone the Dnister Canyon. These are the values I was raised on. I had a distinct realization that russians had introduced nothing of benefit to Ukraine. Today I understand this even more. In my family, not one generation was spared suffering at the hands of russian rule. I had more than sufficient access to Ukrainian and European literature, and music. I learned to read russian only at the age of 16; before that I had no need for it.
What do you plan to do initially, when we win?
I don’t know. My friends and I often talk about what we will do when the war ends. I’m sure that whatever they propose, will be beneficial and it’s something that can actually be done during the war as well. I can’t say that I will wait to go home only after the victory. I would like to go home sooner. I can’t say I will go abroad only after the victory, because I’m certain I can go sooner. I can’t say I will go to Odesa only after the victory, because I really hope that this will happen sooner, i.e. before the ultimate victory. There is nothing that I would like to postpone for “after the victory.” I like to do that, which I want now, not after the victory.
Tell us please how your family used to celebrate Easter at home? Are there any elements from your home-based celebrations, you would like to incorporate into this festival?
This is a very traditional holiday for our family. Year after year we even set the Easter basket the same way. We never experimented and we never even purchased different types of produce. We always got up early in the morning and went to liturgy. The church in our village is situated on a hill with the cemetery adjacent to the church. When we would arrive for liturgy, we would first set the Easter baskets on the ground, light candles in memory of our next of kin and in the morning the entire hill was shining brightly. This was a very beautiful sight. On Easter we always attended a litany at the cemetery. Before returning home for Easter breakfast, we would return to the cemetery once more and spend time there with the entire family. We celebrated Easter Monday and on Easter Tuesday we would organize Haivky and Springtime songs near the church. I always went there with my grandfather. He too has passed away already. Near the church we would congregate and form a human beetle [so-called “Zhuk”] and a church [so-called “Tserkva”] – a three-tiered tower out of people. This human beetle would wind its way around the church and the people would sing Springtime songs. I really want to try to do this at our festival. I hope it works out.
This interview was conducted during the period of preparation for the “Easter Together” Festival. However, during the celebration, the opportunity had arisen to supplement the interview, in light of the fact that certain events had already taken place.
Even though the celebrations are still taking place, could you sum up the preliminary results?
We had only two weeks to prepare for the holiday, which is not enough time for a project on such a scale. For prior festivals we began to prepare a half a year in advance. But we did everything in our power that we could do, so I think the holiday is well-organized. The people who attended, came to listen to music, to celebrate and to enjoy themselves. This completely meets the goal and mission of our “Easter Together” Festival. People come together, hold hands, dance and strive to create the best Easter egg.
What are people’s needs in times of war and what did they manage to find and experience at your festival?
I think people seek simple delight and interaction, to tell someone about what they are going through, or just simply to talk. This is exactly what they managed to fulfill here. For example, when people who don’t know each other get to sit side-by-side at a table during an Easter egg workshop, over the course of a 90-minute creative process, they have the wonderful platform and opportunity to get acquainted, to communicate and to find like-minded people.
In addition, for many individuals, this celebration has provided some respite, because right now there is little opportunity to just sit down quietly and, as you create your Easter egg, reflect on what his happening to you. And for those who came to dance, to simply enjoy themselves and to release some of that pent-up energy, we prepared the Haivky accompanied by Ukrainian folk music.
What have these celebrations meant for you personally?
I anticipated a lot of radiance as a result of this holiday. When I woke up in the morning, I glanced outside and witnessed a sunny street. Given the fact that the entire week had been cloudy, I immediately thought to myself that these rays of sunshine appeared especially for our “Easter Together” holiday.
Today, there is a lot of radiance among us and not just due to the weather. This bright glow radiates from the people as well. As I already mentioned before, we only had two weeks to organize this project. Furthermore, it was only yesterday that we had the chance to re-acquaint ourselves with all of the volunteers. This paved the way to solidify a sense of trust and camaraderie amongst ourselves. Because of all the amazing support, I realize that it was probably well worth it for me to undertake this project.
Under the current circumstances, not everyone is able to celebrate Easter, to rejoice nor even to bless the Easter bread. What would be your response regarding the experiences that such individuals are now facing?
I completely understand those people who, at this time, are not ready – be it physically, emotionally or morally – to celebrate Easter, especially when we take into account the tragedy which took place yesterday in Odesa [on April 24, 2022 an enemy rocket hit a 16-floor apartment building]. However, the holiday of the Lord’s Resurrection is a manisfestation of life, which always conquers death. Through this holiday, we are provided the opportunity to rejoice in union with others. I think we need to celebrate the fact that we are here now, even during such a challenging time, no matter how difficult this may turn out to be.
The interview was conducted by Olya Katsan throughout the month of April 2022
Translator: Illya M. Labunka
Photo: Olha Shakhnyk
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