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The Lemkos – A People on the Edge

The Lemkos are a small but interesting bunch. They can be found on the periphery of the western Ukrainian border in the Beskids, a series of mountain ranges in the Carpathians, which stretch from the Czech Republic, along the length of western Poland and Slovakia, up to Ukraine.

Their name is derived from the word “lem”, meaning “only”, and is a term they use often in the Lemko dialect. Though many Lemkos consider themselves ethnic Ukrainians, some believe there should be a distinct separation between themselves and their geographical neighbours. Though, truth be told, the idea of a Lemko ethnographic group is relatively new. Before the 19th century, this group (along with many in the region) considered themselves ethnic Rusyns.

A Historical Narrative

The Lemko people have a long and sordid history, not unlike most groups in Ukraine. Lands they considered home were traded regularly between Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of course Russia and the Soviet Union.

Between the first and second world wars, Lemkos found themselves in a precarious position. Those in the Polish part were subsumed into Polish culture, their Ukrainian schools and education centers closed down. Lemko/Ukrainian organisations inside the Czechoslovakian sector, on the other hand, were allowed to operate, though the people who used them were considered “Russians” by the local population.

Following WWII, about two thirds of the Lemko population in Poland were relocated to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR. Unrest was regular with the Lemkos that remained in Poland, and there are many tales about Lemkos joining the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist paramilitary formation, who regularly fought against the Polish armed forces, with varied degrees of severity.

Cerkiew Opieki Matki Bożej

Today, found within the borders of Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, the numbers of those from Lemko descent are in big decline. That’s not to say, however, that they have been forgotten. The Lemko school of Folk Temple Construction, for example, continues to guide architectural principles, which can be seen in the Church of St James of Povrozhnik or the Church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary both of which are in the UNESCO World Heritage List, among others.

All Dressed Up

If we look more closely at how the Lemko population dressed, the Lemko men looked not unlike their neighbours – the Hutsuls. They wore linen shirts, embroidered at the collar and sleeve cuff. Their pants too were made of linen in the summer, or wool in the winter, which often featured a red ribbon sewn along the length of the pant and were tied at the waist. The ensemble was sometimes pulled together by a thick leather belt – or cheres. Their feet were usually protected from the elements by postoly-like walking shoes, called kerptsi, in the summer, and boots in the winter.

For special occasions, a woollen gunka or serdak was worn, which featured loops of woollen thread in the front and three flaps with the same thread in the back. Over this went a cloak of dark bronze with an intricate kind of hood that featured fringe of white lace and black thread.

On the head, over hair that wa s usually grown to the shoulder, they wore straw hats in the summer, or a felt hat termed ‘Hungarian’ in cooler temps or for special occasions. Their headgear proved an important part of the outfit, with the edges rolled up and a leather band featuring a feather floating out of the top.

Need some help with Lemko costuming? Get in touch any time!

The Lemko women complemented the men in their dress, with linen sorochky or long blouses that featured embroidery at the shoulder, cuff, and along a standing or folded collar, sometimes featuring lace, where the openings at both the neck and wrist were typically tied with a ribbon. In the winter, they wore skirts made of wool, sometimes pomegranate in colour, while warmer temperatures saw Lemko women dressed in skirts made of percale, a fine woven cotton. The skirts always featured three and sometimes four ribbons along the bottom in colours of red, sky blue, yellow, and white. These same ribbons were sewn onto the aprons as well as head scarves and were often finished with lace.

A korsetka or tight-fitting vest, often in blue or black velvet and decorated in red and gold thread and lace, was worn over the blouse. When going out, the ladies would throw a khustyna lined in lace around their shoulders.

In the winter, women from wealthier families wore a wool coat called a menta, made of white sheep’s fleece lined with fox fur. On their heads, unmarried women wore a scarf over braids which often featured ribbons in green and red for special occasions. Married women also wore a scarf over their heads under which was a cap or ochipok, which covered their hair completely. At the neck, ladies wore a beaded collar called a sylyanka along with beads made of coral. Their footwear featured simple leather shoes for every day or ‘Hungarian-style’ boots in black or sometimes yellow for special occasions.

Lemko Traditions

Like in many cultures, the Christmas holiday is one of the most important to the Lemko people. As a rule, Lemko culture can best be defined by its connection to the mountains, and where Hutsuls, for example, have a great affinity for the land and their animals, Lemkos connect with the mountain slopes and the farmers who traverse them. Most symbols celebrated at the time of Christmas then focus on the ancient rituals of the farmer, the land, and all that comes from it.

Christmas Eve was like the beginning of a new economic year and divinations dictated the fates of the land, livestock, health, and love. The home was cleaned and decorated in ribbons made of paper with a Lemko “spider” made of straw, for the Lemko believed that spiders were a great talisman against evil.

Lemko Christmas talisman

Before sitting down to dinner, the family fed the cattle bread and garlic, which was also believed to offer protection against unknown evils. Then, only after honouring the animals, the family would sit down.

The oldest man of the household was known to gather a didukh, or sheaf of wheat, which would often feature flowers and sacred medicinal herbs. Bringing the didukh into the house and placing it in the corner, he called out “Khustos pazhdae!” Christ is born! The family would light a candle and pray, inviting the family’s dead to dinner, while mice, rats, and evil spirits were requested to remain at bay for the coming year. While the family feasted, three spoons of each dish were set aside for the family’s livestock so respected were they.

After dinner, not unlike families in other parts of Ukraine, everyone sang carols, while nuts and candies were thrown into the didukh and straw spread out on the floor, for which the children took great pleasure in trying to find. One tradition in the village of Bonarivka specifically saw the family sleep upon the straw on the floor, which they believed was reminiscent of the birth of Jesus.

Čeladenka (the river)

To really celebrate Lemko culture, you’ll have to make a trip over to eastern Europe. Whether you come for Christmas or in warmer temps, our friends at Cobblestone Freeway could definitely help you find your way around. Likewise, the Lemko Fire festival is definitely one to consider. It takes place in the summer in the Polish village of Zhdynya and gathers groups from all over the world who identify themselves as Lemko. There are a few smaller festivals that take place in Ukraine from time to time too, and all of us here in this magical part of the world look forward to hosting you when the world finds its way back to balance.

Illustrious Lemkos

Do you know some of the most famous Lemkos?

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), famous artist

Sandra Dee (1931-1999), American television actress

Khrystyna Soloviy (1993-), popular Ukrainian singer/songwriter

Andriy Savka (1619-1661), the Lemko Robin Hood

Photo credits:

Wikipedia – Western Beskids, Olena Kulchyntska, Zinadiy Vasinoi, Olga Freymut. Treti Pivni, Andy Warhol, Khrystyna Soloviy, Sandra Dee, Čeladenka, Cerkiew Opieki Matki Bożej

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