Ukrainian Christmas Traditions

Date and Time Peculiarities

Majority of the Ukrainian population belongs to the Orthodox Christian Church, which adheres to the Julian Calendar. That is why most of Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, that corresponds to the

25th of December in the Julian Calendar. Another peculiarity of the Ukrainian Christmas holidays consists in the fact that holiday time continues for almost two weeks: from the 6th of January till the 19th of January. During all this period people celebrate adhering to certain folk traditions and rituals.

Christmas Legend

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Christmas belongs to the greatest Christian holidays, as it is connected with an important for all the Christians event - the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. This very day begins the countdown of the new era. It is believed that Jesus is a Son of God and was sent to Earth for redemption and salvation of mankind.

According to the Gospel narrations, a mother of Jesus Christ Mary and her husband Joseph lived in Nazareth. One day an Angel came to Mary and told her that she will give birth to the Son of God. She got pregnant by Immaculate Conception. When it was nearly time to give birth, Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem by following the order of the ruler Augustus to come to the population census. Since the census of the Roman empire gathered a lot of people, Mary and Joseph could not find a place to spend the night. At last they had to seek refuge in a small carve, where usually shepherds hid from bad weather. This carve occurred to be a place where Mary gave birth to the Son of God. That night an angel came down from heaven and told the shepherds that God was born. Shepherds were the first people who came and worshiped the baby.

An unusually big and bright Bethlehem star appeared in the sky over a place where Jesus Christ was born. The star was proclaiming the appearance of a Savior and pointed the way to the King of all people. Looking at the star, three wise men came to the carve to see the newborn God and to give him the gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold symbolized royal power, incense - God's will, quietly - the fate of the prophet. By the way, the tradition to produce a Bethlehem star and to decorate homes and Christmas trees with it dates back to those ancient times. Christians all over the world believe that God sent his Son to earth in order to save the mankind from sinful life and to give people the possibility to gain the eternal life. Father God was trying to show the mankind the importance of love, kindness and compassion. Birthday of Jesus Christ is the most widely revered birthday in the world. People from different social strata, financial position, beliefs and attitudes pay much attention to this holiday.

Preparation for the Holidays

In Ukraine preparation for Christmas holidays begins already in summer. During the harvest the last sheaf of grain (rye or wheat) is left not threshed. Peasants also add a few stems of other cereals and grass and form a nice tripodal sheaf, which is named “didukh” (that means ancient grandfather). This ritual sheaf is one of the main symbols of Ukrainian Christmas. Up to the twentieth century it was the main Christmas decoration at Ukrainian homes instead of a fir-tree. Didukh symbolizes the spirit of ancestors that connects all generations of a family.

Next period of Christmas preparations begins in Ukraine on the 27th of November. Starting from this day and finishing with the 6th of January Orthodox Christians keep fast. It is believed that people need to clean their souls before big religious holidays with the help of abstinence in order to be worthy during the holy days. During fast people do not eat animal food, do not visit parties and places of amusement, frequently go to church and worship. What is more, it is important to forgive and to make peace with everyone around.

Apart from spiritual purity, Ukrainian people pay much attention to cleanness and neatness of their homes before Christmas. Houses, gardens, and even cattle sheds must be ideally clean. Women lay the most beautiful cloths over the tables and brightly decorate their houses. People often buy or sew new clothes for the whole family before this festive season. What is more, everyone prepares presents for friends and relatives. During this period children gather with their peers to learn carols and to rehearse Christmas performances.

Home Decorations

Traditional Ukrainian Christmas decorations differ a lot from the way Ukrainian homes look nowadays. At present times most of people have adopted European Christmas traditions. The homes are decorated with sparkling lights, paper snowflakes, varicolored glass balls, garlands and coniferous wreathes. An inalienable ensign of modern Christmas is a decorated fir-tree with piles of gifts underneath. One more indispensable symbol of Christmas is St. Nicolas, who is often named by Ukrainians “Father Frost”. Interestingly, Father Frost character was created not very long ago - at times of Soviet Union by the communist powers in order to distract attention from religious sense of the holidays.

However, in some regions ancient traditions have been preserved. Some families even manage to mix up old and new elements of Christmas decorations. Traditionally, The main symbol of Christmas holidays in Ukraine is a tripodal sheaf of wheat, sometimes with other crops. It is decorated with colorful stripes, candies and nuts, and then placed in the most prominent place in the house - near sacred images. This holy corner is supplemented with a lighted candle and a bowl of a traditional Christmas dish named “kutia”.

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Decoration of Christmas table needs special attention because people spend much time at this place during the holidays. What is more, such a festal table symbolizes the union of a family, because all Ukrainian people strive to spend Christmas at home with their relatives. A table is usually covered with white, sometimes embroidered cloth, under which every hostess puts a few symbolic objects: a denticle of garlic at every corner of a table and a handful of hay. Garlic is believed to scare evil spirits, and hay is thought to welcome God to the supper, as it symbolizes a manger where Jesus Christ was born. When laying out the table, Ukrainian mistresses use the best crockery they have and always put one spare dish and a fork for the dead relatives.

Christmas Eve

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The 6th of January is a very special day in Ukraine. There is a very big amount of specific rituals connected with the eve of such a great holiday. First of all, it needs to be said that it is the strictest day of the fast, so many people eat nothing till the holy evening. Everyone must be quiet, peaceful and friendly during this day. It is forbidden to quarrel, shout, and even to be angry with somebody. Usually, all the family gathers together and people make peace with each other if there were some misunderstandings.

This day is usually devoted to the last preparations for Christmas, so everyone is busy with the housework. Ukrainian women wake up very early, sometimes even at night, because they have to do a lot of cooking. Men in the villages are engaged with the cattle. These creatures are in big honor during Christmas, as it is known that animals in the carve heated little Jesus with their breath. That is why it is very important to make the studs ideally clean and to feed the cattle with delicious forage. There is even a tradition to let the animals taste all Christmas dishes. It is believed that only ones a year after such a supper domestic animals can speak with human voices.

When the evening comes, all families gather at their homes and look at the sky awaiting the first star to appear. It is believed that every year a Bethlehem star comes to the sky announcing people that Jesus has already been born and Christmas holiday has come. During this time people worship, thank God for the passing year and ask for health, happiness and prosperity in the next year. When the first sparkle lights up in the sky, then a master opens a door, stands on a threshold and loudly invites all good and bad spirits and forces to come in. He repeats the invitation for three times, and when nobody replies, a master says: “If you do not come now, do not come for the whole year!”. After this ritual, a father of a family shuts the door and no adult is allowed to go out till the morning. People sit at their tables and begin supper. It is important to light up a candle and to ensure it burns incessantly during the whole evening. People believe that if a candle goes out, it means that one member of a family will die next year. After the supper children take some bread, buns and other dishes and go to their godparents to share the meals. Traditionally, children receive some gifts instead. In some regions of Ukraine people start to sing carols after the holy supper, however most of the population wait till the Christmas morning. At night many people go to the church where the All-Night Vigil is served. Others worship at home till the morning, as it is not used to sleep during the holy night.

Traditional Meals

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Ukraine is famous for rich tablefuls during the holidays. Christmas festive season involves a big amount of delicious traditional meals. Each of the three winter holidays has its own set of dishes. Consequently, Ukrainian women have a lot to do before the holidays.

A supper on the 6th of January is named “Holy supper”, because it is devoted to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. There is a tradition to prepare twelve lenten dishes for this evening in honor of twelve apostles. Some dishes are obligatory, others may vary depending on the region and wealth of a family. As a rule, 12 lenten dishes include traditional cereal named “kutia”, bread, stewed fruit compote, red borsch, cabbage rolls, pancakes, braised vegetables with mushrooms, thick gruel, fried fish, pickled herring, smashed potato, beetroot salad or some other. The next day is already not fasting, so people eat meat, sausages, lard, eggs, fancy buns and sweets.

Kutia is a central ritual dish on Christmas eve, so it is prepared in every family. There are numerous recipes for it, however every mistress creates her own one. Generally, the cereal is made of crushed wheat grain, which is boiled and then mixed with honey, spices, poppy seeds, nuts, raisins and other dried fruits. Kutia can be made either thick or watery, very sweet or sourish depending on the traditions and tastes of a concrete family. This dish is prepared three times a year: for each of the Christmas holidays.

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Christmas bread deserves special attention, as it is used in many rituals. Traditionally, people bake a few sorts of bread for different purposes. Dark wholemeal loaf is placed on the table as a symbol of harsh conditions, in which Jesus Christ was born. Soft white wheat bread is placed over a dark one as a feather bed for the holy Baby. At the top, a small sweet bun is placed, which symbolizes a happy event of Jesus' birth. People say that this bun is so sweet as a newborn God. Besides, women bake fancy dough rolls and buns to present to the godparents, grandparents and other relatives.

Carols

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The tradition of singing carols dates back to the ancient pre-Christian times. Pagans sang carols on the midwinter day to greet the new sun. It was believed that the midwinter day started a new year, because the light day began to grow. This pagan tradition was persecuted by the Christian church for the long time. However, people did not want to leave the ritual. Then the church bishops decided to put a new religious sense in that tradition. Starting from that time, people have been singing carols in honor of a birth of Jesus Christ, a son of a God.

Nowadays the tradition of singing carols on the Christmas day is very popular among Ukrainian people, especially children and youth. On the 7th of January groups of boys and girls go from house to house and sing carols. A lot of them are wearing traditional symbolic costumes: an angel, a goat, a sheep, a wolf, a gypsy, a devil, a death etc. Every group traditionally carries a big star that symbolizes a Bethlehem star. When coming to the yard, singers have to ask permission, and only then start their performance. Very often carols are transformed into theatrical scenes, named “Nativity Plays”. After the performances singers and actors usually get money, fruits and sweets.

Old New Year

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Old New Year is the second big holiday in the Christmas cycle. It is named “old” because it is celebrated on the 14th of January, according to the old Julian calendar. New Year coincides with two religious holidays: St. Melanie's day on the 13th of January, and St. Basil's day on the 14th of January. These holidays are very rich on folk traditions.

New Year's eve is celebrated very merrily and brightly. Mistresses prepare the “Rich Supper”, which obligatory includes kutia and other eleven dishes, in honor of twelve months of the year. Families gather at their tables, eat, sing and have fun. Youth is allowed to play pranks. They dress up in ritual costumes, often boys wear woman dresses and kerchiefs, and go from door to door singing traditional New Year songs. Often they steal some instruments, sledges, or even gates from one master and leave these things in the yard of other people. The next few days all villagers are trying to receive their property back.

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On the 14th of January people are not able to sleep long, because very early in the morning boys come to the houses to with a happy new year and to sow grain and seeds in the corridors. This tradition is connected with the fact that long time ago new year in Ukraine was celebrated in spring and was closely bounded with the beginning of sowing season. One more interesting thing is that girls are not allowed to visit people in the morning of this holiday. It is believed that the first person to come to the house on the New Year's day must be masculine, otherwise misfortune may happen.

Epiphany

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Epiphany is celebrated on the 19th of January and it is the third big holiday of a Christmas cycle. The traditions of this holiday are connected with the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan. When Jesus was thirty years old, he was christened by John Baptist. This day a dove, the embodiment of Holy Spirit, came down from Heaven to attest the presence of God.

Ukrainians honor this holiday much. On the day before men go to a river in their settlement and cut a big cross in the ice. Then they form an altar from pieces of ice and decorate it with branches of fir tree. Early in the morning on the 19th of January public worship is held near the river, after which a priest sanctifies water in the ice cross. It is believed that after this procedure water in the whole river, and consequently in the whole town or village restores its initial purity. People usually pour some water in their bottles and keep it at home for the whole year. Interestingly, this water does not acquire any bad smell or muddy sediment. The water that was sanctified on the day of Epiphany is named Holy Water and is believed to cure from physical and spiritual illnesses.

Believing in miraculous power of the Holy Water, many people bathe in the river that was sanctified in spite of bitter frost. People say that no one catches cold after such a procedure. Besides, there is a tradition to sanctify people's homes on this day, so priests go from house to house with a bucket of Holy Water and bless the dwellings. Epiphany is the last holiday in the Christmas cycle. After this day people do not sing carols any more, stop festivals and remove all Christmas decorations from their homes. Those families who had a “didukh” sheaf at their dwelling, have to take it to the yard and burn it down.

A Few More Interesting Traditions and Rituals

During the Christmas season people in Ukraine stop greeting each other with usual words like “Good morning!”. Instead, they say: “Jesus Christ war born!”. The right answer is: “Let us honor Him!”.

In some regions there is a tradition to throw up a spoonful of traditional cereal “kutia” before starting the Holy Supper. If the food sticks to a ceiling, it means that the next year will be successful. Otherwise some troubles may appear.

In some villages a fir-tree is placed not on the floor, but is fastened topsy-turvy to the ceiling (in the old houses with wooden ceiling).

Ukraine | Holidays


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