Traditional Christmas celebrations in Ukraine start on January 6th (Christmas Eve in the Julian calendar) and last until the Feast of Epiphany on January 19th.

Christmas Eve (Holy Eve) is marked by traditional family gatherings which take place in the evening in Ukraine – the so called Sviata Vecherya (“Holy Dinner”). The festivities start with the appearance of the first star. The principal and the most important dish of the evening is Kutia (boiled wheat mixed with poppy seeds and honey). The main house decoration that you’ll see is the didukh (a sheaf of wheat stalks) that symbolizes our ancestors’ spirits. It is believed that during these holy days – our ancestors return to spend time with their family. 

So it all starts calmly and at home. However, big street celebrations soon follow. Boys and girls prepare special songs and verses which they take from house to house, entertaining their community in exchange for sweet gifts and tips.

Traditionally, children also prepare and perform so-called vertep performances. Vertep is a portable puppet theatre and drama which presents the nativity scene and other mystery plays. 

Carolers have gathered near the church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Hutsul village of Kryvorivnia
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko, Ukraїner

Christmas songs are an integral part of the whole holiday season, too. In Ukraine we have different types of Christmas songs – koliadky (comes from the word ‘calendar’ which starts with the birth of Christ) for Christmas and shchedrivky (comes from the Ukrainian word for generosity) for so-called Generous Evening a.k.a. “Old New Year” meaning New Year’s Eve in accordance with the old-fashioned Julian calendar and falling on January 13th. In some parts of Ukraine shchedrivky are sung only on the Feast of Epiphany, the last holiday of the season.

Celebration of Orthodox Christmas in Lviv
Photo: Ruslan Lytvyn, Shutterstock

You may think you don’t know any Ukrainian Christmas songs. This could be true if you somehow aren’t familiar with the world’s most famous Christmas melody – ‘Carol of the Bells’. Yes – it is in fact originally a Ukrainian carol called Shchedryk (composed by Mykola Leontovych at the beginning of the XX century, based on the ancient Ukrainian folk songs). Just listen! 

No holiday season would be complete without an appropriate carnival. And here comes Malanka, a traditional Ukrainian celebration of the ‘Old New Year’. 

A group of Malanka participants in masks takes a photo next to the Christmas tree
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko, Ukraїner

Extravagant parades. Crazy costumes. Abundant food and drink. Costumes galore and good-natured pranks. Celebrations that bring together the whole community. 

Man in furry costume of Kurent from Ptuj, Slovenia, dance on festival of Malanka, ancient ukrainian pagan ritual
Photo: kamienczanka, Shutterstock

Some describe Malanka as ‘Ukrainian Mardi Gras’. However, it’s not. Malanka is a uniquely Ukrainian form of festivity with ancient roots.

The holiday season ends on January 19 which marks the day when Jesus Christ was baptised. On this day people throughout the country will go swimming or, rather, take baths. They use the ice holes on the rivers for water consecration. This extreme activity is of course accompanied by the seasonal frosty weather. 

People swimming in the river holes in winter. Orthodox holiday of Epiphany, Dnipro city
Photo: rospoint, Shutterstock

Isn’t this the sort of thing you need after two weeks of indulgence and celebration? Or even after the month – if you start in accordance with the Gregorian calendar and end in accordance with the Julian calendar.

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