Сhristmas in Ukraine: A guide to the unique cultural heritage of Ukrainian Christmas celebration
Russia’s war in Ukraine has overshadowed the lives of the Ukrainian people and has made the notion of a holiday celebrated during wartime seem wrong. Some might call the celebration irrelevant during the war, others may consider the holiday to be a manifestation of faith much-needed today, and those at the frontlines and shelled cities may not even have the luxury of having a real holiday. However, every Ukrainian would agree it’s still important to honor the tradition and culture which the invaders are so eager to erase. Here we have gathered some traditions and customs which trace back to the ancient time of Ukraine’s statehood.
The Ukrainian Christmas is a mix of Christian customs and ancient pagan traditions and rituals. Ukrainians are an ancient nation with a rich spiritual culture later supplemented by the Christianity brought to Ukraine by Kyiv Prince Volodymyr the Great, who wanted to use Christianity as an instrument of developing ideological and political ties with Western countries. Since Ukraine has always been an agricultural country, people’s powerful connection to Earth and nature has become engrained in many Ukrainian traditions which frequently involve rituals of attracting more harvest and prosperity. Christmas holidays are no exception.
St. Nicholas Day
St. Nicholas’ history in Ukraine and his role as a patron saint of children goes back to the 10th and 11th centuries. Since 2022, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6 in accordance with the Gregorian calendar. The first written records of Ukrainians celebrating St. Nicholas Day by giving presents to children and the poor date back to the 15th century. In the late 1930s, Soviet authorities created a new character, Did Moroz (Grandfather Frost), who took the place of Saint Nicholas and was portrayed as an actor of the state.
In recent years, there have been active attempts to move away from the Did Moroz figure fully and instead revive the past tradition as characterised by St. Nicholas. Before the holiday, Ukrainian children write letters to St. Nicholas where they list their wishes, but the fulfillment of their wishes depends on the child’s behavior during the year. Some children get presents, while others, who misbehaved during the year, just get twigs under the pillow – much like Santa Claus’ system!
Today, there are many charity initiatives in Ukraine aimed at making sure no one is left behind without a gift from St. Nicholas. People gather presents for kids in orphan homes, low-income families, or hospitals. Volunteers also send presents to elderly people, people in need, and soldiers who are currently protecting Ukraine.
Traditions of celebrating Christmas in Ukraine are unique in their combination of religious and pagan customs dating back centuries. areUkrainian Christmas Eve is seen as a time for manifestation of wealth, happiness, and peace – this sentiment resonates stronger today against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian Christmas Eve is seen as a time for manifestation of wealth, happiness, and peace – this sentiment resonates stronger today against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Traditionally, the Christmas Eve dinner features 12 evening dishes while observing lent.
The main dish is, of course, the kutia – a dish made of pounded wheat with raisins, poppy seeds, nuts, and honey, though ingredients may vary across different regions. It is customary for the kutia to be brought to the table by the family’s youngest boy and for the Christmas Eve dinner to begin and end with kutia. After dinner, the kutia is left on the table for the whole night with spoons for the dead ancestors.
Before the tradition of bright and colourful Christmas trees was brought to our lands by Peter the First and Christmas trees became a common occurrence during the winter holidays, Ukrainian households would place a sheaf made of the first or the last wheat stalks of the year’s harvest called didukh in the corner of their house. The didukh symbolises the family’s wish for a good harvest, well-being, peace, harmony, and strength of intergenerational family connections. A didukh is typically kept in the household until after New Year’s Eve.
A Christmas “spider”
Leitmotifs of world creation and the beginning of life can be seen in different aspects of Ukrainian Christmas traditions, from the traditional dinner table set-up to the decorations one may see in a Ukrainian household over Christmas. One such decoration is the Christmas “spider”, a geometric 3D figure made of wheat straws that are strung on threads and maneuvered into pyramid and cube-like shapes, making the overall figure look like a spiderweb. This figure would be hung on horsehair and attached to the ceiling, its light weight making it prone to spinning and moving from the lightest breeze.
The idea behind the spider was such that it protected the family from negative energy by absorbing it into its web. The role of a spider as a protector of family is based in a legend about a spider that allegedly covered the entrance to the cave where Virgin Mary and baby Jesus were hiding from the soldiers of Herod with its web, saving the Holy Family from death. As such, the straw “spider” is not only a mesmerising decoration in a Christmas household, it’s also seen as a protector of the family’s well-being and safety.
Caroling is an inalienable part of Ukrainian Christmas traditions and an activity entailing many logistics! In Ukraine, there are two types of carols to be sung during different holidays: koliadky are the songs sung at Christmas time, while schedrivky are typically performed on New Year’s Eve. Both have retained traces of their ancient origin, frequently featuring themes of faith in the magical power of words, desires for good harvests, prosperity, and good health, and echoing ideas of ancestor and nature worship. Koliadky, naturally, can also be found to often feature mentions of Biblical imagery and encouraging the world to celebrate the birth of Christ.
One of the most famous carols in the world, if not the most famous, is “Carol of the Bells”, originally titled “Shchedryk” and arranged by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. Read more about how it became world-famous in our earlier material.
Much like koliadky, vertep is also a significant attribute of Ukrainian Christmas traditions and a very colourful way of performing the koliadky themselves! The vertep is considered to have emerged between the end of the 16th century and the start of the 17th century when the Ukrainian national liberation movement began to gain ground in the face of Polish-Lithuanian rule and the influence of Moscow.
Vertep previously was in the form of a puppet theater that had the form of a two-story wooden house. Over time, the vertep turned into a real street theater, occasionally still featuring dolls, portraying interactions between figures like the three kings, Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, an angel, a devil, a koza (see below), and others. Ultimately, every vertep is unique and may feature modern-day characters as well as caricatures of public figures. The vertep is not to be mistaken with a still Nativity scenes one may commonly see set up in churches around the world – vertep is a live-action activity! Although heavily repressed during the Soviet Union, the vertep tradition is once again being revived.
Koza, or “goat”, is a ritual-like traditional folk play which has been identified in numerous Slavic Christmas traditions in varying ways. In Ukraine, the play includes an actor playing the role of the koza by wearing an inverted sheepskin coat and a mask resembling a goat’s head, who will enter a house, bow to the head of the household, and perform a ritual dance to bring about an abundant harvest. The roles featured in the mini-play as well as its symbolism vary across regions of Ukraine.
The tradition of the koza, like the rest of Ukrainian Christmas traditions, features the same leitmotifs of building on a desire for a bountiful harvest, harmony, and peace.