notes, finds & fragments of research
Traditions are a vital part of our history, they are
the absolute proof of our truly European heritage.
Always remember that,
– just don’t always practise them.
Those were the wise words of an old aunt who understood that despite of our history we should not always feel the need to bring the stacks of traditions we inherited back into use. As a child I wasn’t too fond of the endless rituals and the time they took, as I grow older I’m beginning to understand the value and also how they have found their place in our history. By itself this appears to be the normal way of things, at some point it happens to us all. However, I agree that some are just too outdated for words; several are even literally covered in 500 year old dust. I keep the ones that I appreciate along with the ones that actually make sense. When two dear friends married, earlier this year, I gave them the Hungarian wedding blessing: A tradition brought in by a great-great-grandmother. I didn’t warn them in advance, but they did appreciate it; the bride even broke to tears. Then again, it could have also been my appalling pronunciation of the Hungarian language, I chose not to ask which was the case.
I have never been particularly interested in continuing the bloodline, and I don’t expect that to change at any time soon. But when the daughter of said friends was born and I held this little bundle of warmth and beauty in my arms, I suddenly caught myself subconsciously using a tradition. Lullabies. Far from special of course, as they are used for every baby, but still… It happened one morning when the little one started crying in my presence. I picked her up and walked around with her, while humming the first lullaby that sprang to mind. Slowly the lyrics came back to me. As the little darling dozed to sleep, it hit me: I was singing Russian and can’t even speak Russian.
To indicate how old a tradition can be: my great-great-great-grandmother was Russian. That song I had heard often during my childhood. And apparently the words were still there. What was I singing? I didn’t have a bloody clue as, once again, I don’t speak Russian. After spending an evening on the internet, I finally found it: Kazach’ja kolybel’naja pesnja (Cradle song of a Cossack mother), better known as the Cossack Lullaby. Much surprised I was, when I found out the lyrics were actually from a poem, written by one of my Russian literary heroes: the writer and poet Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814-1841). I could only remember the first part of the song, so I’ll stick to that. The poem slightly differs from the song it has become:
Тихо смотрит месяц ясный
В колыбель твою.
Спи, младенец мой прекрасный
Стану сказывать я сказки,
Ты ж дремли, закрывши глазки,
Apart from the beauty and mysteriousness of the Cyrillic script, it wasn’t very helpful for me in deciphering what I was singing. Luckily a conversion to the Latin script was present:
Tikho smotrit mesjac jasnyj
V kolybel’ tvoju.
Spi, mladenec moj prekrasnyj.
Stanu skazyvat’ ja skazki,
Ty zh dremli, zakryvshi glazki,
I have found various English translations, the eldest dating from 1919 which is probably the most correct one, but it didn’t sound so nice. Other translations all differ on details. So hoping that most of them are just about right, I came to this: Quietly the moon is looking / In your cradle. / Sleep, my darling, my beautiful. / Lullaby, a-bye. / I will tell you fairy tales / And sing you little songs / You must sleep now, close your little eyes. / Lullaby, a-bye.
So there it is: A mysterious tradition solved. Oddly enough; when I did try to sing it in English, it just wasn’t right. And I wasn’t alone in this; the little one kept glaring at me, rather annoyed even, as if she were thinking: I liked the other version better. So I came to the conclusion that, as this was written in Russian, it should stay Russian. In honour of my ancestress Alexandra Kurakina, I will keep doing so , and with that the tradition lives on.
I’m also singing an old Indonesian lullaby (other side of the family), she likes that one too. The parents are warned: When the little one starts talking and uses words they can’t understand, they are at liberty to blame me. And trust me: They will.
PS: For those who wish to listen to the song, sung by a native speaker. I like this version by Oleg Pogudin.