So, as we all know, Christmas is celebrated in the States on the 24th and 25th of December. I would say that while the commercialization of the holiday has expanded, it is still, at its heart, a religious holiday. And we treat it as sacred in many ways. Businesses, are closed on Christmas and we feel bad for the poor people who have to work on this holiday. Many people still go to church but at the very least we are exposed to the religious aspect of Christmas through movies, through songs, and through countless Nativity scenes dotting people’s front yards (including my own at home).
My experience of Christmas in Ukraine was different for a variety of reasons and it was great to be apart of...mostly because I got to celebrate so many times! But before I start, it is important to know that Christmas celebrations and traditions vary depending on the region, a family’s religion, and of course their individual traditions. I am reporting on the experiences I had, but this isn’t necessarily how all families celebrate Christmas.
The holiday season in Ukraine is quite long, even compared to the long holiday season in the States. It officially starts on St. Nicolas day (December 16th). This was when the city Christmas tree in Kropyvyntski was lit, the holiday market went up and Christmas music could be heard in the grocery stores. St. Nicolas day is interesting because it is celebrated in so many different ways across the world. When I was younger we would beg my mom to let us put our shoes outside the door, so St. Nick could put candy and maybe a few coins in them. Here, children wake to find sweets, under their pillow. But if they had been naughty that year they would find a stick!
The holiday season officially ended on January 16th with the celebration of Old New Year (the first day of the new year according to the Julian calendar.) This long period of time was filled with a lot of celebrating. My mom and I talked about the holiday blues, that feeling of sadness and almost depression that one can feel after the holidays. It is cold and snowy but there isn’t any other fun things to look forward to and Spring is still far off. But one benefit of the extra-long holiday season here is that I didn’t have to deal with that exhaustion! I came back after a great Christmas at home and had even more celebrating here!
Here in Ukraine, the New Year is the more widely celebrated holiday due to the fact that Christmas was banned as a religious holiday in 1929 (according to one of my friends, Christmas Day was the only time the Soviets showed American TV shows in hopes of keeping people home instead of going to church!). The holiday greeting is С новым годом и с Рождеством or Happy New Year and Merry Christmas. And many people just choose to say Happy New Year. New Year (celebrated on the 31st of December) is when many families come together and share gifts. This is also the night when Дед Мороз (Father Frost) or Santa Claus visits children.
Additionally, many Ukrainians, especially in the East and around where I live, are Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox or Julian calendar is later than the Georgian calendar we use in the United States. So, Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January, instead of the 25th of December.
The 25th of December is still celebrated as holidays and was officially recognized as a State holiday by the Ukrainian government this year (thus a day off of school and work.) From what I observed, many of my students celebrated the 24th/25th as a friend’s Christmas and the 7th of January as their family Christmas.
Personally, my Ukrainian Christmas was spent in Oleksandriia with my adopted Ukrainian family. While there was no snow, which was a huge bummer, we enjoyed time together, eating lots of food,
taking walks around the forest and laughing. As usual, I love my visits to Oleksandriia because I get to practice my Russian (and listen to a lot of Ukrainian). I will never forget how to say “I
am building a tunnel” in Russian after many rounds of the game Ticket to Ride. We also did as many families do on the holidays: watched a few movies (including Home Alone because Ukrainians LOVE
this movie), listened to music, and did I mention eat?
It is traditional on Christmas Eve in Ukraine to eat 12 meatless traditional dishes. The Kyryliuks have their own traditions, but I can say that they tasted just as good. We ate Kutia, which is a porridge made from grains and sweetened with poppy seeds and dried fruit. We also put in chopped walnuts. I read somewhere on the internet that poppy seeds are prominent in Ukrainian Christmas because they symbolize prosperity for the coming year.
Another special feature of Ukrainian meals, especially around the holidays is homemade Vodka called, Horilka. Horilka or moonshine as we call it in the States, is incredibly strong. Just a few sips had me warm in the cheeks and by the time I finished the whole shot, I was speaking Russian with great confidence. But, I didn’t drink any more than just that one shot. One was PLENTY.
They also served Holodets (jellied meat…but hey we have lutefisk so we can’t judge). Olivier salad…which was one of my favorite parts of our meal, and traditional Christmas bread called Kolachi. Nina also made stuffed peppers, which I devoured.
Let me know in the comments what other questions you have about how Ukrainians celebrate Christmas!