New Year and especially Christmas are most popular and most beloved holidays in Ukraine. Both have a long history and a special set of traditions and rituals, all of which allow to explore a unique Ukrainian cultural identity that miraculously survived on the outskirts of modern Europe.
New Year’s Day, January the 1st, is a national public holiday in Ukraine. It marks the start of the year in the Gregorian calendar. In the end of December many Ukrainians decorate their Christmas tree and buy presents to give to one another. In Western Ukraine St. Nicholas day (December 19th) is the time when children get their presents from St. Nicholas (or so their parents let them believe). However, in the rest of the country New Year is the day for giving presents to kids, family and friends.
Ukrainians like to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends and family. And in spite of freezing temperatures, they often toast the New Year outdoors. Midnight, New Year’s Eve in the center of the biggest Ukrainian cities is quite an endearing sight: people standing outside, shivering, teeth clattering – just to wish each other a happy new year, accompanied by the bang and sparkle of fireworks.
Just a decade or so ago, many Ukrainians still celebrated New Year including many Soviet era traditions. Olivier salad, a bottle of «Soviet» champagne and figurines of Grandpa Moroz and his granddaughter Snegurochka (Russian version of Santa Claus and Mrs Claus) under the New Year tree were must-have attributes of New Year celebrations. Luckily, city dwellers have begun to absorb the outdoorsy continental lifestyle of celebrating New Year with holiday fairs and street vendors selling hot mulled wine or cider.
Those who stay at home, often listen to presidential speech broadcasted on all national TV channels just before midnight. People gather together by the festive table with gourmet dishes and champagne. At midnight they raise a toast to drink to the New Year and congratulate each other.
Photo above: a bowl of quintessential Olivier salad, one of the must-have attributes of New Year celebration in central and eastern Ukraine.
New Year’s Day is a national holiday in Ukraine. Schools, banks and public offices are closed. If a holiday falls on a weekend, the Monday after the weekend is a day off for many people. Taxis and public transport options are generally available but it is best to check with the relevant transport authorities on schedules and ticket availability.
For Ukrainians Christmas is the most important family holiday of the whole year. It is celebrated solemnly, as well as merrily, according to ancient customs that have come down through the ages and are still observed today. Ukrainian Christmas customs are based not only on Christian traditions, but, to a great degree, on those of the pre-Christian, pagan culture and religion. The Ukrainian society was basically agrarian at that time and had developed an appropriate pagan culture, elements of which have survived to this day.
Just a short time after New Year,Ukrainians are celebrating Orthodox Christmas, which is the most important family holiday of the whole year. It is celebrated solemnly, as well as merrily, according to ancient customs that have come down through the ages and are still observed today. Ukrainian Christmas customs are based not only on Christian traditions, but, to a great degree, on those of the pre-Christian, pagan culture and religion. The Ukrainian society was basically agrarian at that time and had developed an appropriate pagan culture, elements of which have survived to this day.
Some Ukrainians (mostly in Western Ukraine) celebrate Christmas on December 25 in accordance with the Roman Catholic tradition (Gregorian Calendar). Most of Ukrainians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church and follow the Julian calendar. This means that all holidays in Ukraine lag exactly 13 days behind. Ukrainian Christmas will be in the house on January 7th each year officially. The period from January 7 to January 14 is a festive week in Ukraine. During this week people often dress up in traditional clothes (Vyshyvanka), visit their relatives, sing Christmas carols (e.g. Kolyadka), and have festive dinners with the family.
The Christmas Eve Supper or Sviata Vecheria (Holy Supper) brings the family together to partake in special foods and begins the holiday with many customs and traditions, which reach back to antiquity. The rituals of the Christmas Eve are dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family, and to the remembrance of the ancestors.
Photo above: Christmas Stars are the most important props of "Vertep", traditional Christmas puppet theater.
Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in Ukraine traditionally have 2 Christmas dinners. The first one is a Lent Dinner, it is held on the January 6 and should consist of meatless dishes. Traditionally people fast (don't eat anything) all day but you might start the day drinking some holy water that has been blessed at church. You can't start eating the meal until the first star is seen in the sky. The second one is a Christmas Festive dinner held on January 7, when the meat dishes and alcohol are already allowed on the table.
The dinner normally has 12 dishes which represent Jesus's 12 disciples. However, even for Christmas, Ukrainians manage to bring in so many ancient rituals, that at times the line between the religious and the pagan becomes quite blurry. Both Christmas dinners traditionally include a number of authentic Ukrainian dishes, which have over thousand year history and date back to pagan times.
Read: Traditional Ukrainian Christmas Dishes
Kutya, being single most important Christmas dish in Ukraine, was known as a popular ritualistic food even before the arrival of Christianity. This is cooked wheat porridge, mixed with poppy seeds, honey, and raisins. It symbolizes wealth and appreciates for successful harvest season.
Another pre-Christian detail of traditional Ukrainian Christmas dinner is Didukh. The room where Christmas dinner is eaten normally has a Didukh decoration placed in it. The Didukh is made from a sheaf of wheat and it symbolizes the large wheat field in Ukraine. It literally means 'grandfather spirit' and can represent people's ancestors being with them in their memories. These days modern Ukrainian families just put some heads of wheat in a vase rather than a whole sheaf of wheat. Those who are familiar with Ukrainian culture will understand the importance of grain for Ukraine – even the Ukrainian flag, with its blue and yellow colors, represents golden grain under a blue sky.
Varenyky is the other traditional Christmas dish. These are Ukrainian dumplings also known as «pierogi». Conveniently varenyky can be made out of the cheapest ingredients available. Dough is a simple mix of flour, water and salt. And stuffing can be anything: from mashed potatoes with mushrooms and fried onions, pickled cabbage, minced meat and even cherries! The sweet version of varenyky is usually served with sour cream and honey.
Deruny are also often included into traditional Christmas menu in Ukraine. These are potato pancakes. Grated or ground potatoes with flour and eggs are shaped into pancake-like form and deep fried on sunflower oil. Deruny are served with a sour cream or mushroom and onion stew.
Other dishes can include mushrooms, sauerkraut, different kinds of home-baked breads and pickled herring.
On January 6, at the meatless Christmas Dinner, alcohol is also forbidden, so most often Ukrainians drink uzvar. Uzvar is traditional Ukrainian drink. It’s typically served during Christmas and Easter Dinners, and is regularly cooked in the local households. This refreshing beverage is actually a compote, made out of dried fruits. Most popular ingredients are dried apples, pears and apricots, prunes, raisins and honey. For dessert, Ukrainians have "pampukhy", sweet dough donuts with jam or poppy filling.
Photo below: a pile of "pampukhy" on the stall of Lviv Christmas Fair.
After Christmas Dinner many children as well as grown-ups go visit their neighbors and family members and friends who live nearby to wish them Merry Christmas and sing some Christmas carols. While many of the Ukrainian Christmas Eve customs are of a solemn nature, the custom of caroling is joyful and merry. Ukrainian Christmas songs or carols have their origins in antiquity, as do many other traditions practiced at Christmas time.
There are two main groups of Christmas songs in Ukraine: the koliadky, which are sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; the second group of Christmas songs is called shchedrivky, which are sung during the Feast of the Epiphany. Teams of carolers start roaming their hometowns on January 7. They are often dressed as characters present during Christ’s birth in Bethlehem (the three Kings, Angels, Shepherds, Herod), but also as the ritual goat, and such characters as the Gypsy and Jew, which had a special place in the life of Ukraine’s village agricultural society, as well as Death that comes to take Herod.
Photo: Participants of "Vertep" (traditional Christmas puppet theater) from the village in Transcarpathian region, Ukraine during "Malanka" celebration.
Koliadky and shchedrivky are the oldest groups of Ukrainian folk songs. They are sung by Ukrainians at Christmas time throughout the world. Carol of the Bells is the iconic Christmas music that everyone knows. But not many know that it's a Ukrainian folksong. The Ukrainian song "Shchedryk" became the basis for the world famous Christmas carol, "Carol of the Bells". The world-known lyrics of Wilhousky speak about the ringing of bells that call to throw cares away. The original lyrics based on the Ukrainian folk song “Schedryk” are much less known. Though they are based on the same melody, the lyrics of the two songs share nothing in common. The original lyrics of Ukrainian version speaks about a swallow that flew into a master’s household and started twittering to him about the increase of his livestock.
Read: The Tradition of Singing Christmas Carols in Ukraine
One more fun Christmas tradition in Ukraine is Vertep. Vertep, the Ukrainian Christmas puppet theater, is a group of people going from house to house with short Biblical themed scenes and carol singing. After seeing the performance, the host traditionally gives money or food to Vertep.
To get a glimpse of unique Ukrainian Christmas traditions and rituals that have survived till our days visit Pyrohovo open-air museum for vernacular architecture or Park «Mamayeva Sloboda» in Kyiv. If you happen to be in Lviv during Christmas holidays go to the Shevchenkivsky Gai on January 7th, 8th or 9th. «Ukrainian Christmas in Shevchenkivsky Gai» folk festival happens annually for these 3 days. Here you will discover authentic Ukrainian Christmas traditions, listen to the oldest Ukrainian Christmas carols and taste traditional Ukrainian Christmas food and drinks. However to get a real feel of Ukrainian Christmas with 0 % of buffoonery and touristy traps, go to the rural areas of the western Ukraine. Book a B&B or a hotel room in Lviv or Ivano Frankivsk region or in one of the Carpathian villages to witness the true Ukrainian Christmas mystery.
New Year and especially Christmas celebration in Ukraine has a long history and a vivid set of traditions and rituals, all of which allow foreigners get a glimpse of unique cultural identity that miraculously survived on the outskirts of modern Europe.
Photo soutce: shutterstock.com, pinterest.com.