My father began singing about young Vasylko getting on his beautiful horse, taking off his hat and bowing low to say good-bye, riding off into battle with his spear and sword, and meeting a beautiful “kniazivna” (princess). It was after supper on “Sviat Vechir” – Ukrainian Christmas Eve, and I was around 7 or 8 years old. My father said that this was one of the “koliadky” he sang as a young man back home in Strilbychi, Staryi Sambir, in western Ukraine. I remember thinking, “What in the world does this have to do with the birth of ‘Isusyk’ (Baby Jesus)?”
When I wrote this as the beginning of the preface for my book “First Star I See Tonight: Ukrainian Christmas Traditions,” I did not have a specific koliada (carol) text – this was just what I remembered from long ago. Since then, I have found a few koliady that come close to what may have been my Tato’s song. I’m sure the one he sang is out there in some collection. In the koliady, everything is glorified, over-the-top lush and rich (beautiful, gold, silver, silk), whether an item or a person. Well, wishing makes it so, doesn’t it?
The somewhat military koliady combine romantic, familial and war themes. You can’t get away from the romantic. The young man, the “lytsar” (knight), the “kniazenko” (prince), or just a guy with a particular name, usually in the diminutive – Ivanko, Vasylko, Petrunyo – is the main character of the koliada. He is saddling his horse, bidding farewell to his parents and is off to either conquer Tsarhorod (Constantinople), Lviv or another city, or to collect an army. He rides to particular countries – to the Lithuanian Kingdom, to Hungary, Germany, Wallachia (Rumania), Hungary, Turkey – to get horses, weapons, riches, and a young maiden. The Ukrainian cities and towns mentioned in the Kyivan era koliady are Kyiv, of course, Lviv, Nizhyn, Kryvorivnia, Myrhorod, Hlukhiv, Kozelets, Poltava, Lubny, Nedobir, Mutyn and others.
When Volodymyrko “conquers” Tsarhorod, its residents wonder what tribute he desires. He takes the horse offered, but does not thank them, and does not remove his hat or bow to them; the same happens with the bowl of gold. Then they present him with a maiden, and he accepts her, thanks them and only then does he remove his hat and bow.
Ethnologist Stepan Kylymnyk explains that the conquest of Constantinople was not the subjugation of the city. The Kyiv kings – the kniazi – fought for trade treaties. They wanted tribute and proper treatment of their traders and merchants. They took rich tribute and departed back to Kyiv. Often the Byzantine emperors asked the kniazi, as allies, for military aid for either internal or external issues. Then there were the romantic connections at the highest level, with royal marriages the norm – Volodymyr married Anna, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, and Yaroslav and his daughters married European royalty.
Later military-themed koliady sing about battling the horde (orda), which in the songs is combined to include also the Pechenihy, the Polovtsi, as well as the Turks. Some royal fraternal conflicts are also mentioned. A number of koliady have been linked by scholars to specific historical figures and events.
Vasylko rode through the woods on a golden horse. His father asks where he is off to. “I am going to my sweetheart,” he replies. His mother asks the same question. Then he arrives, and his girl comes out to greet him. “Be well, kind Vasylko, be well with your father, your mother, your girl. Kind Vasylko, on your golden basking horse.”