Ukrainian Christmas traditions
When is Christmas in Ukraine
Traditionally, Christmas in Ukraine starts on January 6 (Christmas Eve in the Julian calendar). It lasts until the Feast of Epiphany on January 19. At the same time, more and more Ukrainians celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar on December 25: in 2022, 44% supported the change. Since 2017, both December 25 and January 7 are the official state holidays.
Mid-December is when the Christmas atmosphere begins to fill Ukrainian cities, with all Christmas markets and festivals, decorations and magic lights.
Christmas Eve (Holy Eve) is marked by traditional family gatherings in the evening in Ukraine – the so-called Sviata Vecheria (‘Holy Dinner’). The festivities start with the appearance of the first star, though all preparations traditionally start from the very dawn.
The table should be served with 12 dishes, which symbolize the twelve apostles. The main 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 families. That is also why some Kutia and other dishes should be left on the table – as a treat for deceased relatives.
So it all starts calmly and at home. However, big street celebrations soon follow. Boys and girls prepare special songs and verses they take from house to house, entertaining their community in exchange for sweet gifts and tips. It is believed, the more carolers come to the home, the more fortune and wealth will be brought to the family during the following year.
The morning of January 7 starts with people greeting each other with the phrase “Christ is Born!” and the response “Let us Praise Him!” This day people go to the church for Christmas prayer and then come together within the family circle to visit relatives. Unlike Christmas Eve, Christmas guests are no longer restricted to fasting food.
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. The essential attribute of the vertep is the Christmas star, which is considered a symbol of joy (as it bears the news of the birth of Jesus).
Ukrainian Christmas greeting
As mention above, “Christ is Born!” and “Let us Praise Him!” are the traditional Christmas greeting. To wish each other nice winter holidays, Ukrainians also say “Happy New Year and Christmas!”, “Happy upcoming holidays!” or simply “Happy holidays!”.
Ukrainian Christmas songs
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 13. In some parts of Ukraine, shchedrivky are sung only on the Feast of Epiphany, the last holiday of the season.
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’.
Extravagant parades. Crazy costumes. Abundant food and drink. Costumes galore and good-natured pranks. Celebrations that bring together the whole community.
Some describe Malanka as ‘Ukrainian Mardi Gras’. However, it’s not. Malanka is a uniquely Ukrainian form of festivity with ancient roots.
Baptism of Jesus Day
The holiday season ends on January 19, which marks when Jesus Christ was baptized. On this day, people throughout the country will go swimming or take baths. They use the ice holes on the rivers for water consecration. This extreme activity is, of course, accompanied by the frosty seasonal weather.
Isn’t this the sort of thing you need after two weeks of indulgence and celebration? Or even after the month of Christmas in Ukraine – if you start by the Gregorian calendar and end by the Julian calendar.