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Christmas dinner and meals

One of the oldest Christmas traditions of the Ukrainian people is the Christmas dinner on January 6. As usual, there should be 12 fasting meals on the table on this day, prepared without butter, milk, eggs, sour cream and meat.

Why exactly 12 and not 5, 10 or 13? According to one of the versions, the number 12 is the number of the sun worshiped by our ancestors. Still, according to ancient Christian tradition, this is a symbol of the 12 apostles of Christ. So we purposely figure out why each of the 12 dishes is so important and meaningful.

Traditional Ukrainian kutia
Photo: Oksana Sybydlo Food Photographer, Ukrainian Institute

1.     Kutia is the most important dish at the Christmas dinner. It is usually prepared from boiled wheat and generously seasoned with honey, poppy seeds, nuts and dried fruits. Eating this dish on Christmas Eve programmed the following year for a good harvest, livestock and procreation. In addition, Kutia is a symbol of the unity of mankind with God and the world of the dead. Ukrainians believe that this evening the spirits of ancestors come from their world to the holiday dinner.

2. Holubtsi (cabbage rolls) with rice and mushrooms is an integral element of the Ukrainian Christmas food. Prepare them in the form of wrapped cabbage leaves. The name of this dish already indicates the symbolism. It is identified with the dove symbol, or ‘holub’, which for Christians is the personification of God’s love, a symbol of beauty, strength and the Holy Spirit.

3. Dumplings (varenyky) on the Christmas table symbolise prosperity and well-being. One of the interesting customs of Ukrainians is to stick a coin in one of the dumplings. Those who find it are believed to be rich for a year.

Varenyky (dumplings) with berries
Photo: Yevhen Kudriavtsev

4. The traditional first course, of course, was lean borshch. This dish was obligatory and symbolised peace and harmony. As a rule, borshch with prunes and mushrooms was prepared and fermented with beet kvass.

Borshch with dried pears
Photo: klopotenko.com

5. Sichenyky (patties) with peas also have their place in the list of Ukrainian Christmas foods. They symbolised the tears of the Mother of God.

6. Fish dishes (fried, baked or jellied) are also widespread on the holiday table, and this is because fish is a symbol of Christ.

Carps in sour cream
Photo: klopotenko.com

7. Deruny (potato pancakes) prepared with onions were also made by families and presented at the table that evening.

Deruny with garlic and herbs
Photo: Depositphotos

8. The eighth dish was usually boiled potatoes smeared with crushed garlic and oil.

9. The next one is stewed cabbage with mushrooms, symbolising strength, unity and fruitful work together.

10. Ukrainian Christmas food often include pancakes. Since paganism, they embodied the sun’s symbol because they were just as yellow, round and warm as the sun. With the adoption of Christianity, the Son of God became the new ‘sun’, which is why pancakes occupy a prominent place on the holiday table.

11. The next important attribute of the Christmas dinner is uzvar (compote), a rich and fragrant decoction of dried pears, apples, plums and apricots. This drink represents human life, which Christ gave to everyone when he became a man. Water, especially consecrated in the church from which the uzvar is prepared, symbolises health, spiritual rebirth and resurrection, and a strong amulet against evil spirits.

Christmas uzvar
Photo: yulianny, Depositphotos

12. The last 12th dish is bread. Bread is an indispensable dish on every holiday table of Ukrainians. It has always been a symbol of life, death and resurrection, symbolising nourishment for the physical body and the human soul. Based on such an essential value of bread and the appropriate attitude to it, it shouldn’t be thrown away or trampled. When it falls, it must be picked up, kissed and consumed.

There is usually a particular sequence of meals on Christmas Eve. First, Ukrainians eat Kutia, then borshch, holubtsi, dumplings, fried fish, cabbage, etc., and drink uzvar. As a rule, children bring dinner, for example, to godparents and grandparents.

Today, the rules of celebrating Christmas dinner have changed a bit. Still, we preserve ancient traditions for every holiday, many of which we have carried through the years!

Text by Podolinna Daria

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