Celebrating Christmas: Ukraine

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Tradition makes any Christmas celebration unique and memorable.  In Ukraine is very much different than the rest because they do not celebrate them on the “usual” birth of Christ.  Instead, the Ukrainians follow the Julian calendar which marks Christmas Eve on January 6 and the last day of Christmas or the Epiphany.  These dates follow the according to the Orthodox or Eastern Rites as opposed to the more universally celebrated Papal or Gregorian Calendar as per Roman Catholic Tradition.

As the rest of the world winds down the holidays by January, Ukraine (and other Eastern/Orthodox nations) cranks up its celebrations.  There are the similar western traditions that are also acknowledged in Ukraine such as Svyatyi Mykolai or Saint Nicholas who, interestingly, bring gifts to the children on December 19.  During the entire holidays, many Ukrainians also anticipate their Santa Clause called Didukh (grandfather), the Father Frost figure who rides on a sleigh driven by three reindeers.  This time, the didukh is assisted by the Snowflake Girl.

Another interesting note on the Ukrainian Christmas tradition is that instead of using pine trees and other similar plants for décor, hay is widely used especially among the farming communities.  Hay is used to decorate the Christmas table and to form “Christmas trees” or sculptures of the didukh.  The importance of the hay, especially as a decoration on the Christmas table, is to pay tribute to Christ’s manger in Bethlehem,

A Ukrainian Christmas is also marked with the tradition called the Sviaty Vechir or the Holy Evening where the twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper is served.  This is a tradition also common among many Eastern European countries.  Basically, this meal represents the Twelve Apostles or the twelve months of the year, and as per observation, these dishes are typically meatless except for the fish.

In Ukraine, the first dish is called the kutia, a sweet grain pudding with nuts, poppy seeds, wheatberries, honey and milk or cream.  The next meals are a combination of fish dishes, vegetables and pastries.  Many families prepare a pickled herring called zakusky or other fish fillets, salata (salad) and then followed by borscht, a beetroot soup. Cabbage is also a favorite staple with holubtsi (cabbage rolls) and kapusta (pickled into sauerkraut).  Ukrainians also make up the meat with white beans and pipdenky (mushrooms with gravy).  Other options are Kallach bread and potato onion dumplings called pyrohys.  Last but not the least, dessert is always served either with a sweeter or dessert version of the kutia or a makiwnyk, a poppyseed cake.

Every Christmas meal in Ukraine is typically finished with Christmas carols or Kolyadky.  Evidently, Christmas in Ukraine has long stood by its traditions as marked by its own religious and cultural practices.  Although foreign visitors may get disoriented with the dates and the ways Ukrainians celebrate Christmas, each guest is guaranteed with one thing: you will never go hungry over the holidays in Ukraine.

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Yasmin Coles

Yasmin Coles

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