Christmas is one of the most beloved and popular holidays in Ukraine. The traditions of celebrating Christmas in Ukraine reach back hundreds of years and boast unique authenticity and interesting rituals.
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. 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.
Read: Ukrainian Cuisine, Most Popular Dishes
Sviaty Vechir, or Holy Evening, is the Ukrainian Christmas Eve. 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.
Kutya, being single most important Christmas dish in Ukraine, was known as a popular ritualistic food even before the arrival of Christianity. This is a 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 a made from a sheaf of wheat and it symbolises 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 Chrismas 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.
Vegetable-broth (as the first Christmas dinner has to be meatless) borshch is also a must dish on the Christmas table. This traditional soup, made out of beet root and up to 20 other ingredients, is a staple dish in every Ukrainian family. Traditionally borshch recipe is a basic stir-fry of grated beet root with tomatoes, added to a generous soup of vegetables – onions, carrots, fresh or pickled cabbage, peppers, and whatever else is available from the house garden.
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. For dessert, Ukrainians have "pampykhy", sweet dough donuts with jam or poppy filling.
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.
Read: Places to Go for the Winter Holidays in Ukraine
Christmas Day is a public holiday across Ukraine, so many businesses, schools, universities and public offices are closed. Christmas for many Ukrainians is an important holiday. This is a time to spend with family and closest friends, enjoy authentic Ukrainian traditions and have some family fun.
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