How the Soviet Union tried to destroy Ukrainian Christmas traditions
Christmas is a holiday of joy, happiness and family coziness for all Christians around the world, including in Ukraine. Ukrainian Christmas celebrations have always been very cheerful and filled with action like vivid carols and vertep, a portable puppet theater.
From the outset of the Soviet project in Ukraine, the Soviet authorities did everything possible to turn people away from the church and all religious holidays, including Christmas. Those who visited church or sang carols were persecuted, and the use of a Christmas tree was forbidden.
Learn more about the prohibitions Ukrainians faced at Christmas during the Soviet Union era in our special story.
Soviet attempts to root out Ukrainian Christmas traditions
The fight against Christmas and other religious holidays started in Moscow before the Soviet Union creation, when Bolsheviks seized power and took to separating the church and the state.
In January 1918, Decree on Separation of Church and State was adopted. All religious organizations were deprived of any property rights and the rights of a legal entity, while atheistic propaganda began to spread instead.
In the early 1920s, Communists held massive anti-Christmas campaigns. On Christmas, people were forced to take part in political rallies glorifying the regime instead of attending church mass.
Communists found various ways of destroying Christmas. They replaced mentions of Christ in Christmas carols with communist leaders and spread misinformation about Christmas being a holiday of drunkards. When “soft” propaganda methods of rooting out Christmas traditions failed, Soviet authorities started to act more strictly.
The massive attack on Christmas began in the early 1930s. Soviet authorities made holidays workdays and started to persecute priests. For example, in Zaporizhzhia region, during the anti-Christmas campaign of 1930, about 8,000 icons and sacred books were burned, and church bells were removed in 16 surrounding villages and in the city itself, Chas News reports.
Until the mid-1930s, the Soviet authorities tried their best to root out Ukrainian Christmas traditions — but they failed to completely prohibit the celebration of religious holidays. So the Kremlin elite came up with a new idea: to make the New Year the biggest holiday of the winter season and overshadow Christmas.
Creation of a new holiday instead of Christmas
In the last days of 1935, Stalin’s henchman Pavel Postyshev released a call for everyone in the Soviet Union to organize a holiday for children on the occasion of the New Year, though this holiday wasn’t celebrated widely before. His letter was published in Pravda on December 28, 1935, and called for the installation of New Year trees in schools, children’s homes, Young Pioneer Palaces, children’s clubs, children’s theaters and cinemas. Since then, the New Year became the main winter holiday in the USSR.
The Soviet authorities did everything possible to make this holiday more Soviet. The use of Christmas trees was allowed, but only with a five-pointed communist star, not an eight-pointed one as previously used. Christmas tree decorations were also supposed to be only those portraying Soviet imagery and figures.
The main character of the Soviet New Year was Ded Moroz — a substitute for the previous Christmas-associated figure of St. Nicholas. The Ded Moroz character (which is literally translated as Grandfather Frost) wasn’t created by the Soviet authorities though.
It existed since the time of the Russian Empire and was a holiday character during the Christmas celebration, the so-called “lord of winter”. In the 1920s, it was forbidden with other Christmas attributes but was revived in a very different role at the end of 1930s. Soviet “Santa” was depicted as an active participant in state and public life of the USSR.
During the Soviet era, those who celebrated Christmas were persecuted. People were caught near churches, and carols were forbidden to sing.
Despite prohibition, Ukrainians continued to visit churches and celebrate religious holidays in secret. That’s why many Ukrainian Christmas traditions have survived to this day.