So much negative news has come from Ukraine lately – but the wonders of Christmas still bring joy into dark places. The population of Ukraine includes 49% Christian – so the light that shines within offers hope during difficult times. We were fascinated with the traditions of this small country and impressed with the resourcefulness (and resilience) that the people demonstrate.
OUT WITH THE OLD CALENDAR
Traditionally, Christmas in Ukraine has been celebrated according to the orthodox Julian calendar on Jan 7th. However, in 2023, after years of debates, the Ukrainian government and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine both set Dec. 25th to be the official date to celebrate Christmas. The decision to reset the dates for Christmas was an additional way to assert Ukraine’s political and cultural independence from Russia. Consequently, no matter what the calendar says, many Ukrainian traditions will continue as best as possible amidst the fighting. Christmas brings hope and joy into a dark world and Ukrainians need that more than ever.
OLD AND NEW, BEFORE AND AFTER
In Ukraine, Christmas is marked by a mix of long standing traditions and local customs. Winter sets in with its snowy backdrop, creating a quiet ambiance. Streets come alive with carolers, and the smell of traditional dishes wafts through the air. Ukrainian Christmas is a blend of folk practices and religious observances. As we explore the frosty landscapes, we can experience how Ukraine uniquely combines spirituality, family closeness, and festive joy during the holiday season.
Fortunately, some families are celebrating two days of Christmas, both December 25 as well as January 7. It’s been the latter throughout their lives, so it is familiar and comfortable. Of course, it is a definite plus to finally celebrate the Savior’s birth along with the rest of the world. However, any celebration will of course be dramatically toned down out of respect to those on the front lines and those whose cities have been destroyed.
To usher in the holiday season, many Ukrainians follow the old tradition of fasting for 40 days prior to Christmas. During Christmas in Ukraine, fasting is seen as spiritual and bodily cleansing, and they refrain from sinful indulgences and practice repentance. While there are a few things which are permitted to eat during this time, meat and dairy are prohibited.
HEALTH, WEALTH, AND HAPPINESS
Formerly observed on November 21, Day of Presentation of Mary is now December 4th. On this occasion, Ukrainians will try to predict the future of the upcoming new year. Many believe that this can be determined by someone entering their home. The first person to visit your home on this day will either bring good luck or misfortune. Different regions have their own version of this, but they all want to manifest a great harvest, wealth, and prosperity in the new year.
ST. CATHERINE AND ST. ANDREWS’ DAYS
During Christmas in Ukrainian culture, fortune telling is an interesting phenomenon. For example, Saint Catherine’s Day on December 7 is an occasion for girls and women to bargain with their destinies in hopes of a happy future, usually including a husband.
St. Andrew’s Day, December 13, is a similar event with divinations performed with some harmless spell-working to influence their future.
JOLLY OLD ST. NICK
Additionally, St. Nick’s Day on December 19 is another important holiday date. In the ancient customs, Ukrainians brewed beer, opened their homes to visitors and drank together in fun and friendship. There’s even a carol with lyrics stating that a “Brewery is one of the sacred customs by which the world holds on in peace.”
In more recent times, younger kids write letters to St. Nick to plead their case of being good. These letters are placed in their windows or actually mailed. Polite children will receive a small gift under their pillow. And the naughty kids will receive twigs.
According to folklore, December 19th is also the day for house cleaning, stocking up on household items, and gathering things needed in winter such as firewood, wheat, and cloth.
A CALMER CHRISTMAS
In addition, Christmas trees are decorated and they begin the preparations for the Christmas Eve celebration. All decorations are handmade by the family.
Throughout the country, holiday markets appear and many areas hold their own festivals. Outdoor decorations and lights usually announce the holidays, but again, these customs are dimmed in regard to those fellow citizens in harm’s way.
LET IT SNOW
Also, making paper snowflakes to put in the windows or to hang on the trees is a popular activity. Different ornaments are made out of straw and grass, too. The many designs are symbolic of characteristics of Ukrainians, especially the strength and a determination for peace and to reestablish the security and freedom that has been taken from their land.
YIKES – A SPIDER!
Without a doubt, this is unique. In Western Ukraine, trees are often decorated with spider webs, believe it or not. Accepting spiders in their homes for good luck, like many other old traditions, originated in a legend. The story tells of a widow living in poverty with her children in a cold and bare hut.
One day, a pine cone dropped from the tree outside and took root. The children, excited by the possibility of a tree for Christmas, took great care of the seedling and thought about how they would decorate the tree. However, when Christmas approached, the mother was sad that they could still not decorate the tree. Accepting the sad situation, mother and children went to bed on Christmas Eve, leaving the tree bare.
THEY’RE NOT ALL BAD
Supposedly, the spiders living in her hut heard the children’s sobs and spun amazingly intricate webs on the tree. Early Christmas morning, the children squealed for their mother to look at the tree. The mother realized that the spiders had made a web on the bare branches during the night. Then as the sun rose, its glow turned the threads of the web into silver and gold. From that Christmas morning on, the mother and children never wanted for anything.
A SPIDER BY ANY OTHER NAME..
Furthermore, Ukrainians consider the spider to be a symbol of agriculture and prosperity. Ukrainians are still decorating their trees with artificial spider webs in hopes of fortune in the coming year. What will you do the next time you spot one in your home?
Eventually, on the long awaited Christmas Eve, cooking and preparations for the big meal start in the early hours of the morning. In some regions, a small bit of hay will be placed on the table to represent the manger. All over, the dining area will have Didukh placed on it. Made from a sheaf of wheat, Didukh symbolizes the large wheat fields of Ukraine. The word translates into “Grandfather spirit” and represents the family’s ancestors being with them in their hearts and memories.
HITCH YOUR WAGON TO THAT STAR
In comparison, the family gathering for the Sviata Vecheria or Holy Dinner is perhaps the tradition for Christmas Eve which is held most dear. Although preparations for the meal start from the very dawn, the actual festivities commence with the appearance of the first star in the sky. This star represents the journey of the wise men seeking to find the Baby Jesus. When that star appears, the Baby has been born so the Christmas celebrations can begin. You can imagine that the moment the sun begins to set, many will go outside to watch for the first star. Those who have been fasting are particularly anxious to spot it!
LET US PRAY
Now is the time for the entire family, the old and the very young, to come together at the table. A prayer will start the meal, remembering their departed relatives with the lighting of the Christmas tree. The first dish to be tasted is Kutia, a sweet porridge. It is made by boiling barley or wheat cooked with honey. This dish carries significant meaning as a symbol of the household’s prosperity and the hopes of a plentiful crop in the upcoming year. Typically there are 12 dishes on the festive table, representing the 12 disciples. None of these dishes can contain meat or eggs.
After the Kutia, the sequence of the remaining dishes varies by region. Other dishes include:
Cabbage Rolls – Because the food must be lean, these are prepared with rice and mushrooms.
Lean Borsch is another important table dish and is a soup made of beets or prunes with mushrooms.
There may also be peas, potatoes, fish, or dumplings with a variety of fillings.
OUR DAILY BREAD
And much like many other countries, bread, or Kalachi / Kolach, is a special part of the meal. Ukrainian Christmas Bread is pictured above.
Uzvar is a drink that represents the birth of Jesus, because water is related to the cleansing of one’s soul and body. Sound Intriguing? Here’s the recipe:
UKRAINIAN UZVAR RECIPE
- 50 grams dried apples
- 100 grams dried raisins
- 50 grams dried apricots
- 5-6 prunes
- 1 cinnamon stick (optional)
- 3 whole cloves (optional)
- 1 Tablespoon honey (or more by taste)
- 6-7 cups filtered water
First, in a medium bowl, add dried fruits and add enough water to cover. Soak for at least 15 minutes. Drain and rinse under running water in a colander.
Next, add drained fruits, water, cinnamon stick and cloves in a large pot.
Finally, turn off the heat and let it rest covered for at least 30 minutes before serving. Add honey to taste. Enjoy warm or chilled.
THEY NEED A BIG TABLE
Whereas the food will be served by shared bowls, 2 bowls are left empty – for the dead or absent family members. It is also customary to provide meals for the destitute and lonely on Christmas Eve.
More recently, dishes have been set aside for family members killed during the Russo-Ukrainian War, especially those who were killed in action in the Armed Forces.
Overall, one of the most followed traditions is called Koliadky. Coming from the word calendar, it honors the true purpose of this time of year – the birth of Christ. Koliadky begins after the meal with celebratory songs wishing the hosts good luck and announcing the birth of Christ. Originally, it was boys and men only singing, but modern customs now include women and girls, too. It is believed that the more carolers that come to each house, the more fortune and wealth will be brought to that home in the new year.
A FAMILIAR TUNE
While you may not think you’ll know any of their traditional songs, you would most likely recognize Ukraine’s Shchedrivky. This original song is our “Carol of the Bells,” one of the more familiar songs we hear throughout the holidays. Composed at the start of the XX century by Mykola Leontovych, it is based on ancient Ukrainian folk songs.
Also, caroling in the Ukraine is quite festive. Some wear elaborate costumes including the leader, who has a pole with a big star above it, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem announcing the arrival of the Messiah. Other duties include a shepherd with a scarecrow, a deacon, a goat, and various others. And in an effort to please and entertain the residents, the carolers will also put on comedy skits or perform pieces of poetry. The singers are rewarded with money or treats and before leaving, the carolers will all bow three times to their hosts.
Equally important is for family members to attend the midnight church service. The specific greeting reserved for this occasion is “Christ is Born” and the response is “Let us glorify Him.” After the Christmas prayer, families visit with relatives to acknowledge the true meaning of the day.
Then, on Christmas Day, villagers, schoolchildren, and singers from the church gather to perform. They bring along a puppet theater with a nativity scene called Vertep to the homes. This play is well-known and widespread throughout Ukraine.
In fact, this show has evolved over time into a full-fledged street theater with actors adding to the puppetry – and often taking over the center stage. Now, this theater group can offer both religious and secular performances. The first part is from the Bible telling of Jesus’ birth and the second part includes everyday stories about good and evil. Once again, the most important element is the Christmas Star, representing the star that told the wise men of Israel about the birth of the Baby Jesus.
IT’S BETTER TO GIVE…
Understandably, with the changing to Christmas being celebrated on December 25, gift-giving has moved as well. Some Ukrainians, however, will still exchange on St. Nick’s Day – and some will observe both!
BACK TO THE TABLE
There will likely be a repeat of Christmas Eve’s meal on January 7th – except now meat and dairy can be added to the dishes.
DON’T MISS THE MALANKA
Obviously, no holiday season would be complete without a festive carnival. Malanka is a traditional celebration of the “Old New Year” in Ukraine. There will be outrageous costumes, lavish parades, and lots of food and drink. Playfulness and even some good-humored pranks ensue as the whole community comes together.
On January 6, Vodokhreshche (or Jordan) is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus. On this day, people all over the country will honor the occasion by going swimming or taking baths – often in ice holes or rivers – for water consecration. This activity remains popular, despite the frosty cold seasonal weather.
Without a doubt, first and foremost in the minds of Ukrainians is protecting and maintaining their own culture as an independent country. However, they firmly believe that they cannot abandon the traditions and customs that have been passed down from generation to generation. They firmly believe that these are part of the folklore that make Christmas in Ukraine so very warm and special.
From the meaningful tunes of Koliadky to the handcrafted decorations known as Didukh, the celebrations reflect a cultural heritage which has stood the test of time. Like many of the other countries we’ve covered, Christmas in Ukraine celebrations are all about family, traditions, and sharing meals as they rejoice…just like ours.
Please follow along on our 12 Days of Christmas:
Ukraine – Day 11 – This Pos