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Exploring Ukrainian Christmas Traditions

Ukrainian Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in the country’s culture and are celebrated with great enthusiasm and fervor. The holiday season in Ukraine officially begins on January 6, which is Christmas Eve in the Julian calendar, and ends on January 19, the Feast of Epiphany. While the Gregorian calendar is gaining popularity, with 44% of Ukrainians supporting it in 2022, both December 25 and January 7 are official state holidays since 2017.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve, also known as Holy Eve, is marked by traditional family gatherings in the evening, called Sviata Vecheria or “Holy Dinner.” The festivities start with the appearance of the first star, though all preparations traditionally start from 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.

Christmas Symbols

The main house decoration during the Christmas season is the didukh, a sheaf of wheat stalks that symbolizes our ancestors’ spirits.

didukh ukrainian christmas
The Didukh – a Ukrainian Christmas Decoration

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.

Celebrations

The celebration of Christmas in Ukraine 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 that the more carolers come to the home, the more fortune and wealth will be brought to the family during the following year. On the morning of January 7, people greet each other with the phrase “Christ is Born!” and the response “Let us Praise Him!” This day people go to 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.

Celebration of Orthodox Christmas in Lviv
Celebration of Orthodox Christmas in Lviv

Vertep

Traditionally, children also prepare and perform so-called vertep performances. Vertep is a portable puppet theatre and drama that 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 in Ukraine. 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 in Ukraine. In Ukraine, there are 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 the so-called Generous Evening, aka “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. One of the most famous Christmas songs worldwide is “Carol of the Bells,” which is originally a Ukrainian carol called Shchedryk, composed by Mykola Leontovych at the beginning of the XX century, based on the ancient Ukrainian folk songs.

Malanka

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.

The holiday of Malanka is celebrated on January 13, the so-called Old New Year, according to the Julian calendar. Malanka, which means “Little Melania,” is a personification of the new year and symbolizes the renewal of life. The holiday is usually celebrated for two days, during which the community organizes a parade of colorful and creative costumes, with people of all ages dressing up as different characters such as bears, goats, gypsies, and witches.

The Malanka festivities are accompanied by traditional music, dances, and games, and of course, a lot of delicious food and drinks. Some of the most popular Malanka dishes include varenyky (boiled dumplings stuffed with potatoes, cabbage, or meat), holubtsi (cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and meat), and various kinds of sausages and smoked meats. People also drink homemade liquor and beer, and children go from house to house, singing Malanka songs and asking for treats.

Baptism of Jesus Day

The holiday season ends on January 19, which marks the Baptism of Jesus Christ. The day is also known as Theophany or Epiphany and is considered one of the most important Christian holidays in Ukraine. On this day, people throughout the country will go swimming or take baths, even in the icy cold winter weather. This tradition is called the “Icy Plunge” or “Jordan Dive” and involves the use of the ice holes on the rivers for water consecration.

The Icy Plunge is an ancient Ukrainian custom that symbolizes the purification of the body and the soul. It is believed that the holy water from the rivers is blessed and cleansed of all impurities on this day. Many Ukrainians believe that by taking part in the icy plunge, they receive a spiritual boost and strengthen their faith.

Ukrainian Christmas traditions are rich and colorful, full of symbolism and customs that reflect the country’s history and culture. From the traditional family gatherings on Christmas Eve to the lively celebrations of Malanka and the Icy Plunge on the Feast of Epiphany, Ukrainians cherish and celebrate the holiday season in their unique way.

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