Baking Forty Lark Birds: the Holy Forty’s Day and Numeric Traditions in Ukraine

Numbers, their meaning and associated rituals are important in many cultures. Ukrainian beliefs are particularly rich in ‘numeric’ traditions, especially in customs relating to religious celebrations or special family events. Significant numbers are: one, two, three, six, seven, nine, twelve, thirteen, twenty-seven, thirty and forty. In anticipation of the Day of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (the Holy Forty’s Day), which is celebrated on 22 March, we’ll discuss the number forty.

Holy Forty’s Day, like many other religious holidays in Ukraine, also incorporates many pre-Christian beliefs and customs. One delightful custom associated with this day is to bake forty ritual pastries or buns in the form of birds (see page 277 of Taste of Ukraine for recipes). The name of this type of pastry varied throughout Ukraine, including ‘Larks’, ‘Magpies’, ‘Doves’ and ‘Birds’.

In Ukrainian folk beliefs, the forty larks predict the final arrival of Spring on 22 March, and the return of birds and insects from Vyrii (Vyrii, or Vyriy is similar to the concept of heaven in Ukrainian mythology), where they spend their winters. It is thought that these ‘lark’ pastries were a kind of offering to Spring, asking it to arrive sooner; or an offering to the ancestors’ spirits, which travelled with the larks from Vyrii; or to the spirits that were guardians of the fields and meadows to bless the people with good harvest.

Forty-Article-WebTraditionally, lark pastries were given to the neighbourhood children, who would then run onto the streets singing ‘vesnianky’ (Spring songs) to welcome the Spring. It was believed that the ritual pastries eaten by the children would contribute to the success of farming affairs – in particular that poultry would multiply better.

Holy Forty’s Day also involved rituals performed by young women. On that day Ukrainian girls turned to magic. Using forty bobbins or forty sticks and reciting specific spells, they aimed to enchant the men they loved to return their feelings.

Here are some other beliefs and superstitions that include the number forty and are associated only with this one day of the year:

  • On the Holy Forty’s Day a magpie brings forty twigs to make its nest. (In Ukrainian, ‘forty’ is ‘sorok’ and ‘magpie’ is ‘soroka’, so there are several folkloric sayings that mention both ‘forty’ and ‘magpie’.)
  • The weather pattern on the Holy Forty’s Day will be the same for the next forty days.
  • There is a chance that forty frosts (i.e. forty freezing days) will come after the Holy Forty’s Day.
  • Plant your peas on the Holy Forty’s Day and your harvest will be rich: at least forty pods of peas will be on each plant.

Centuries ago, when Ukrainian folk and myth tellers wanted to express that something was great in numbers, they used the number forty: ‘the army was huge – it encountered forty thousand warriors’ or ‘when the gods threw out the devils from the Vyriy it took the devils forty days to reach the earth’. Old superstitions suggesting how to get rid of unwanted sins include: ‘whoever kills a viper will be forgiven forty sins’ or ‘whoever sees forty departed in their last journey (i.e. goes to 40 funerals), will be forgiven three great sins’.

In Ukraine the number forty features in the human circle of life. The relatives of a departed person organise a special prayer and dinner to commemorate their loved one on the fortieth day after his or her death. It is believed that on this day the fate of the soul’s future destiny is decided and it finally leaves the mortal world.

Fortieth birthdays are significant but provoke different attitudes. Some strongly advise against celebrating this occasion, as it would be practically inviting death; yet for others, this date represents a person at the peak of their abilities.

In Ukrainian, ‘forty’ is also a special number from a linguistic point of view. When spelt, all but one double-digit number ending with ‘0’, ends with ‘dtsiat’ or ‘desiat’ meaning ‘ten’ – for example, 70 is ‘simdesiat’ (7 ‘sim’ + 10 ‘desiat’). The only exception to this linguistic pattern is forty. It has neither ‘dtsiat’ nor ‘desiat’. It is just ‘sorok’.