Christmas in the Ukraine is the most important family holiday of the whole year. It is celebrated solemnly, as well as merrily, according to ancient customs that have come down through the ages and are still observed today.
Christmas customs in the Ukraine are based not only on Christian traditions, but to a great degree on those of the pre-Christian, pagan culture and religion. The ancient pagan Feasts of Winter Solstice, Feasts of Fertility became part of Ukrainian Christmas customs. This is perhaps why Ukrainian Christmas customs are quite unique and deeply symbolic.
Ukrainian Christmas festivities begin on Christmas Eve (Gregorian calendar - Dec.24; Julian calensar - Jan.6.) and end on the Feast of the Epiphany. The Ukrainian Christmas Eve Supper or Sviata Vecheria (Holy Supper) brings the family together to partake in special foods and begin the holiday with many traditions, which reach back to antiquity. The rituals of the Ukrainian Christmas Eve are dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family, and to the remembrance of the ancestors.
With the appearance of the first star which is believed to be the Star of Bethlehem, which symbolizes the trek of the Three Wise Men, the family gathers to begin supper.
A kolach (Christmas bread) is placed in the center of the table. This bread is braided into a ring, and three such rings are placed one on top of the other, with a candle in the center of the top one. The three rings symbolize the Trinity and the circular form represents Eternity.
A didukh (meaning grandfather) is a sheaf of wheat stalks or made of mixed grain stalks. It is placed under the icons in the house. This is a very important Christmas tradition in Ukraine, because the stalks of grain symbolize all the ancestors of the family, and it is believed that their spirits reside in it during the holidays.
After the didukh is positioned in the place of honor, the father or head of the household places a bowl of kutia (boiled wheat mixed with poppy seeds and honey) next to it. Kutia is the most important food of the entire Christmas Eve Supper, and is also called God's Food. A jug of uzvar (stewed fruits, which should contain twelve different fruits) and is called God's Drink, is also served.
After all the preparations have been completed, the father offers each member of the family a piece of bread dipped in honey, which had been previously blessed in church. He then leads the family in prayer. A prayer is said and the father says the traditional Ukrainian Christmas greeting, "Khristos rodyvsya!" (Christ is born!), which is answered by the family with "Slavite Yoho!" (Let Us Glorify Him!) In some families the Old Slavic form "Khristos razhdayetsya" is used. The family sits down to a twelve-course meatless Christmas Eve Supper.
There are twelve courses in the Supper, because according to the Christian tradition each course is dedicated to one of Christ's Apostles. According to the ancient pagan belief, each course stood was for every full moon during the course of the year. The courses are meatless because there is a period of fasting required by the Church until Christmas Day. However, for the pagans the meatless dishes were a form of bloodless sacrifice to the gods.
The first course is always kutia. It is the main dish of the whole supper. Then comes borshch (beet soup) with vushka (boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and onions). This is followed by a variety of fish. Then come varenyky (boiled dumplings filled with cabbage, potatoes, buckwheat grains, or prunes. There are also holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), and the supper ends with uzvar.
At the end of Sviata Vechera the family often sings Kolyadky, Ukrainian Christmas Carols. The favorite Ukrainian Christmas carol is Boh predvichny (God Eternal) which has a very beautiful melody and Iyrics. Some Ukrainian Christmas carols are unusual because they mention Ukraine while others are ancient pagan songs of a thousand years ago which have been converted into Christian carols.
Christmas in Ukraine is a joyous day which opens for Ukrainian families with attendance at Church. Ukrainian Churches offer services starting before midnight on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning. Christmas supper, without Lenten restrictions, does not have as many traditions connected with it as Sviata Vechera. The old tradition in Ukraine of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas Day, December 19th, has generally been replaced by the Christmas date.
Malanka or Shchedryj vechir on January 13th according to the Julian calendar is celebrated as Ukrainian New Year's Eve in many cities. On this, the last night of the year, New Year's carols called Shchedrivky are sung. One of the most famous of these is the popular"Shchedryk" by Leontovich which is known in English as "The Carol of the Bells."
While Christmas is a religious event, Malanka is a secular, merry-making celebration. In some communities Ukrainian professional and businessmens' clubs or youth organizations sponsor a dress up Malanka Banquet and Ball.
The traditional Ukrainian Christmas customs add color and significance to the winter festival of Christmas, and Christmas in Ukraine on January 7th is usually a peaceful and quiet event. This celebration reminds us of the baby in a Bethlehem manger whose 1,975th birthday we celebrate. But whether Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on December 25th or on January 7th the message is the same: "Peace on Earth! Good will towards men!".
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