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Ukrainian Christmas traditions

Christmas lights in Lviv
Photo: Sonyachny, Depositphotos

When is Christmas in Ukraine

Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on December 25. Since 2017, the date has been one of the official state holidays. Before that, Christmas was celebrated by many on January 7 by the Julian calendar.

With the start of December, the spirit of winter holidays usually fills Ukrainian cities, along with Christmas markets, festivals, decorations, and magic lights. Considering the ongoing Russia’s war against Ukraine, though, many cities now opt out of the festive activities or tone them down.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve (Holy Eve) is marked by traditional family gatherings in the evening of December 24 – 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).

Traditional Christmas table in Ukraine, twelve meatless dishes
Photo: kovalnadiya.ukr.net, Depositphotos

Christmas symbols

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. 

Didukh – a symbol of Ukrainian Christmas
Photo: orestligetka.ukr.net, Depositphotos

Celebrations

It all starts calmly and at home. However, 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. The more carolers come to the house, the more fortune and wealth will be brought to the family the following year, it is believed.

Carolers in the Hutsul village of Kryvorivnia
Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko, Ukraїner

The morning of December 25 starts with people greeting each other with the phrase “Christ is Born!” and the response “Let us Praise Him!” On this day, people go to the church for Christmas prayer and come together within the family circle to visit relatives. Unlike Christmas Eve, Christmas guests are no longer restricted to fasting.

Vertep

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 mentioned above, “Christ is Born!” and “Let us Praise Him!” are the traditional Christmas greetings. 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 on December 31. In some parts of Ukraine, shchedrivky are sung only on the Feast of Epiphany, the last holiday of the season.

Celebration of Christmas in Ukraine
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 ancient Ukrainian folk songs). Just listen! 

Malanka

No holiday season would be complete without an appropriate carnival. And here comes Malanka, a traditional Ukrainian celebration on December 31.

Ukrainian Malanka
Video: Ukraïner

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

Festival of Malanka
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.

Baptism of Jesus Day

The holiday season ends on January 6, when Jesus Christ was baptized. On that day, people throughout the country will go swimming or take baths. They use the ice holes in 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?

Taking a bath in cold water on January 6.
Photo: mamziolzi, Depositphotos

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