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Christmas traditions in Ukraine

Ukrainian Christmas festive days according to the Julian calendar, start on 6 January, Christmas Eve, (Christmas Day is the 7th of January) and end on 19 January, “Jordan” or Epiphany.

During the Soviet time it was not officially celebrated in Ukraine. Instead communist government tried to substitute Christmas with the holiday of New Year. In some parts of Ukraine they managed to do it more and in some less. After gaining independence in 1991 Ukraine started to celebrate Christmas officially as well.

Ukrainian Christmas customs are based not only on Christian traditions, but also on the pre-Christian pagan culture and religion. Ukrainian Christmas customs are quite unique and deeply symbolic. They vary significantly at the different parts of Ukraine.

In most parts of Ukraine on the Christmas Eve people create so-called ‘Vertep’ (means cave in ancient Greek). These are scenes from Bible of Jesus birth. They show little Jesus in manger, Mary, strangers offering their gifts and Bethlehem star in the sky. Those verteps are exhibited at public places, usually near or inside churches. At night candles are installed inside verteps for people who come to church for the night service.

Ukrainian Christmas Vertep

Christmas Eve is called in Ukraine ‘Sviaty Vechir’ (Holy Evening) or sometimes it is also called ‘Sviata Vecheria’ (Holy Dinner). People cook delicious meals for this evening. And there should be at least 12-meatless dishes, representing the 12 apostles. According to the ancient pagan
belief, each course stood was for every full moon during the course of the year. Those should mandatory include ‘Kutia’ – the ritual food which is prepared from cooked wheat and special syrup containing diluted honey, grated poppy seeds, raisins and sometimes walnuts.

So, the meal includes: Kutia, which is cooked whole wheat with honey and poppy seeds; Kolach, braided bread surrounding a candle; meatless Borscht; fish; pickled herring; meatless cabbage rolls; perogies; sauerkraut and peas; mashed beans with garlic; Pidpenky, which are mushrooms with gravy. And for dessert there is Uzvar, dried fruit Compote; and Pampushky or Makiwnyk, which is a sweet raised dough with poppy seed, honey and cinnamon filling.

Kolach (Christmas bread) is placed in the center of the table. This bread is braided into a ring, and three such rings are placed one on top of the other, with a candle in the center of the top one. The three rings symbolize the Trinity and the circular form represents Eternity.

The Christmas Eve Dinner is usually held under candlelight and starts in the evening after the first star appears in the sky. The star symbolizes the birth of Jesus in Christian tradition and a soul of deceased ancestors in pre-Christian beliefs. Quiet, dim-lighting, and a somewhat mystical atmosphere is characteristic for Christmas Eve Dinner.

Ukrainian Christmas

In western Ukraine, and Bukovyna, an extra plate and seat are always left for anyone, such as a drifter, or for deceased loved one to be accepted as a guests.

For this evening people decorate Christmas trees. (called ‘Novorichna Jalynka’). Another tradition exists in some regions of Western Ukraine to decorate the table with ‘Didukh’ – a sheaf of oats or wheat of special shape: with four legs and numerous little bundles. It symbolizes prosperity for the next year.

St. Nicolas (Santa Claus) also called here ‘Did Moroz’ who supposed to bring some gifts under the Christmas tree this night.

Also in some regions people make decorated Christmas eggs very similar to Easter eggs – ‘Pysanky’.

Halloween is not celebrated in Ukraine but some similar traditions are performed here for Christmas. Children this evening come around their neighbors with torches and sparklers, spreading grains and colored seeds. They wish people good health and abundant harvest for the next year and ask for some gifts. Also they perform Christmas songs called in different parts of Ukraine ‘Koliadky’ or ‘Shchedrivky’ like these:

“Radujsia zemle, radujsia. Syn Bozhyj narodyvsia.” — Joy, Earth, Joy. The Son of God was born.
“Dobryj vechir, Sviaty vechir. Dobrym liudiam na zdorovja.” — Good evening, Holy evening. To good people for good health.

Next day in some villages in Western Ukraine people organize folk performances, which obviously were inspired by ancient pagan habits. They dress up as monsters with pelts and horns and run through the village trying to scare people. After that they run to the special place on the outskirts of the village and there happens the main act: they fight with all people of the village and finally are defeated. The scarecrows are burned in the big fire. And all people are dancing around this fire. This symbolizes the fight of Good and Evil and that Good defeated Evil for the whole next year.

Z Rizdvom! Merry Christmas!