Why we use a white linen tablecloth on Christmas Eve. contributed by William Jula


Christmas, 2007

Christmas table cloth in Pittsburgh, PA,



Have you ever stopped to wonder why we use a white linen tablecloth on Christmas Eve?  Why it is white, linen and unadorned?  This cloth falls into the genre of the rushnyk.  The rushnyk, ritual cloth or ritual towel, as a unique sacred object, is a cultural characteristic of many nations, chiefly Slavic.  These cloths, as part of our traditional and spiritual culture, have generated a considerable interest.  The cloths pass concrete information about the history of our people and also about the planetary and cosmic genesis.  These linen cryptograms, which the Slavic woman, as the guardian of the ancient traditions and values, was able to store and preserve to this day, and maintained the codes, which are the keys to understanding the laws of how the Creator created this world.
Beginning at birth and ending with death, a ritual cloth accompanied every Slav through life.  A newborn child was placed on clean cloth of pure white linen, which was called a kryzhma, symbolizing the cleanliness of the newborn soul.  To our ancestors, a long rectangular cloth always meant a road, a way that guides the human through life.  Similarly during a burial, grave towels or linens were used to lower the deceased into the grave.  As in the case of the kryzhma during the birth of a newborn, the body of the deceased was wrapped in a shroud of clean and bleached linen, to wish the deceased further bright roads in the kingdom of the stars.
Throughout life, the rushnyk accompanied and was part of daily Slavic life.  These rushnyky were used during holidays and ceremonies.  Long before Christianity, our people hung the towels in sacred groves and woods, where they offered prayers to the Creator.  All Nature is His creation and He is present in every living and lifeless form.  Ritual towels were the original mediators between God and humans.  The codes, embroidered or woven on the towels in lines and colors, were the keys that helped people to associate with various spirits.  The belief was that these spirits, the four elements - Fire, Air, Earth and Water - together created all living forms, including humans.  Our ancestors sought to communicate with these spirits and they sought to attract the good ones to help them with the daily chores and to ward off the specters of evil.
Linen by itself, even with out ornamentation had five sacred levels. The first level is the spinning of the fibers from hemp or flax and twisting them into one.  The threads are imbued with human energy, along its entire length, from the three basic power fingers.  We make the sign of the cross, holding the thumb, index and middle finger together.  These same fingers were used to twist the threads and this energy becomes part of the threads and later the material as they are woven into a living cloth of life.  After spinning a sufficient amount of threads, the weaver sets up for work.  Since ancient times, this profession was associated with the Creator, who weaves the tapestry of life.  The thread from the shuttle runs across the base warp threads on the loom in a continuous oscillatory motion from side to side, creating a road and this personifies a living cloth of life.
The second level is represented by the rectangular form of the linen.  The rectangle, along with a square, rhombus and a circle, belong to sacred geometric figures.
The third level is the interwoven cross form of the threads.  Because of this peculiarity, linen was valued and used as a kryzhma, rushnyk, shroud, Christmas Eve tablecloth, etc.
The fourth level is the forming of the scroll, by rolling of the finished linen cloth.  The spiral is the most basic form of living material, the genetic D.N.A. helix.
The fifth level is the color of the cloth, which is white.  The process of whitening the linen was considered a magical process.  The cloth was whitened by the Sun and the Moon and moistened in the morning dew and dried by the wind.  The spirits of all the elements of Nature took part in the whitening process; thus lending the humans a helping hand. White is the color of power, because it comprises all the other colors.  White embroidery was done to motivate logical thinking, mediation and spiritual needs.  The white color radiates force and energy.  Wearing white was believed to have protective power, we find this mentioned in the Holy Bible. In the Old Testament the priests were to wear long linen chemises when taking part in ceremonies near the Ark of the Covenant.
Certainly going through these stages the linen acquired unique properties and was able to serve as a ritual cloth. Even a ritual cloth without adornment on it, symbolizes a clean and an untarnished future as documented by the fact that in certain regions of Western Ukraine at the time of the wedding ceremony, the parents took the young couple for a walk on a clean, bleached linen towel. A plain white linen cloth has an advantage over   embroidered or woven ritual towels, as it carries no program for the future and completely entrusts all to the hands of God.  It was believed that each person should weave and make the linens with there own hands in order not to carry a stranger's unwelcome energy.
Memorial towels were made for special days of commemoration during the year.  The towels were hung out of an open window, with one end hanging on the outside and the other end inside the house.  At the center of the towel, a lit candle, water and bread were placed.  In doing so, the departed ancestors and kinfolk were honored and invited to use the rushnyk as a road to return to the home.  So too, the Christmas Eve tablecloth is a road and acts as a path for the souls of our ancestors to commune with us during this holy and special evening.
These excerpts were taken from "The Semantics of the Ukrainian Rushnyk" which is a synopsis of research by Yuriy Melnychuk. Mr. Melnychuk is a director of the textile division of the Honchar Museum in Kiev, Ukraine.  This information was compiled by Vasyl Jula, a master traditional Ukrainian folk art artist, who was a participant of an apprenticeship grant, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts.

William Jula
Carnegie, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
[whose grandfather went by the last name of Джула pronounced Dzhula,
emigrated to the US in 1904 from the village of Hanczowa]


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Date Posted: January 8th, 2008
March 10th, 2008


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