How do you introduce country to a foreign audience? Where do you start? Perhaps, you should start by telling your listeners about the traditional way of life of your people, how they managed their household, their daily lifestyle, and their traditional crafts.
Heart 2 Heart Festival invites its guests to dive into the atmosphere of ancient Belarusian traditions. Thanks to the efforts of the sisters of St Elisabeth Convent (Minsk), an authentic “corner” of a 18th-19th century Belarusian hut has been recreated in an ethnographic installation The Belarusian Hut. It has been a stage for folklore sketches and a demonstration of traditional Belarusian crafts, as well as a venue for workshop sessions on folk crafts, such as belt weaving, straw plaiting, and doll making.
The Belarusian Hut never fails to draw the visitors’ attention. The folk history corner naturally becomes the place for informal conversations between the participants and the guests of the Festival.
Sipping monastery tea, the sisters tell the visitors about Belarus, its people and history, and about the life of the Convent. There is always so much to talk about, regardless of the geography. Friendly atmosphere helps people to find points of common interest and mutual understanding.
Those who love folklore and ethnography will enjoy listening about the real Belarusian hut, which is the prototype of our exhibition. A Belarusian hut was built according to certain well-defined and time-honoured principles. The building’s layout reflected the mentality of its owners.
Christian worldview of the residents of a Belarusian village made its imprint on the way they managed their house. They built their wooden huts so that the “red corner” where the home iconostasis was located would face east — the traditional prayer direction for Christians.
Only wealthy homeowners could afford building their house on a full-fledged foundation. When building without a foundation, Belarusian peasants put the logs on oak chunks, and the first rim was made of oak, too — enough for three or four generations. They would place rot-proof birchbark under the first rim, and stuff the slots between the subsequent rims with moss, which is a natural antiseptic. If a winter was predicted to be severe, residents of villages in some regions of Belarus insulated their houses. They would coat the walls of the house with “armour”, i.e., cane or straw mats.
Cane-covered roof could endure half a century. A straw roof was slightly less durable but more affordable. They would fasten straw or cane bundles with raw vines, which would then dry up, squeeze, and bind the twigs together. Clay floors were traditionally used in the southern and central parts of the country. These floors were sufficiently warm, easy to sweep, and durable. Wood planks, placed either directly on the ground or on a log frame, were used in the northern regions.
People slept on plank beds because they did not have beds in the 19th century Belarusian village. These sleeping places were called “polaty” (poh-LAH-tee). Everyone could fit onto these “beds”: the husband’s parents, the married couple, and their children. Several generations of the same family lived under one roof. Historians claim that people at those times where shorter.
Even armour of those times will barely fit a 21st-century teenage boy. By the way, even the most affluent families did not have separate beds up until the early 20th century.
People kept domestic animals that could not endure winter in barns under the polaty or in a slot under the oven. Some people even dug a hole under their polaty and kept a calf, nanny goats, or lambs there during winter.
Depending on its owner’s wealth, a house could have two or three chambers. It normally consisted of a living room called “hata” (HUT-ah) and an unheated spacious entryway. There could be two hatas (or living rooms): one pass-through room, and the other a “clean” room. In this case, each hata had its own icon corner and its own oven.
The oven was located in the west corner of the room, near the entrance. A family gathered at the table that stood opposite the oven.
A women’s or oven corner where the housewife did her household chores was located between the oven and the opposite wall with a window. There was a bench with tableware, pots, pans, and other home utensils. This corner was isolated from the rest of the house with a curtain or a plank barrier.
Even men of the same family were strongly advised against entering this corner. Men from outside of the family were strictly forbidden to enter this place, and if they did, it was considered a terrible affront. It was in the “oven corner” that a bride was waiting for her bridegroom before a church marriage. It was here that mothers gave birth to their children and hid from the others’ eyes while breastfeeding their babies.
The governing principle of living space allocation in a Belarusian hut was functionality. For instance, the cradle with the baby hung close to the mother’s bed so that she could lull her baby without having to rise up.
Due to the fact that the use of glass had been widespread in Belarus since the 16th century, people normally had glass windows. Depending on the season, windows were either one-layer or two-layer: a homeowner would put a second glass window for the winter season and insulate it to keep his house warm.
There was another way to keep one’s house warm in winter: an earth mound. It was made of various materials and stuffed with turf. The door would always open inwards of the entryway, i.e., the room that separated the living quarters from the outdoor, in order to prevent cold air from entering the hata. Logs were joined with an overlap to preserve the heat in the rooms: even if the logs’ ends froze, the corner inside the house would still remain dry and warm.
It might be the case that the ordinary details of outside world reminded our ancestors of their inner world. It might have pointed at the fact that they had to keep the cold of faithlessness away from the house of their souls; that they had to make sure that the chilling wind never got to the “red corner” of their hearts where their main treasury was, according to Jesus Christ: “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21).