Holiday Traditions
Ukrainian Christmas
(of this American Family)
Eat good food
Enjoy family visits
Stay warm

Carol of the Bells

Rockefeller Center Skating
Christmas Tree (Rothenburg, Germany)
Christmas Tree (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Christmas Tree (Kiev, Ukraine)

Poinsettias


Did you know that...
The Carol of the Bells was written by a Ukrainian?
Ukrainians sing Christmas Carols but Russians do not?
Western Ukraine is the most densely populated area of the former USSR?
20 Million Ukrainians live outside of Ukraine?
Ukraine is the largest country located entirely in Europe?
More Ukrainians than Russians live in North America?

The Ukrainian language is well over a thousand years old. For as far back as the history of the Slavic peoples can be documented, Ukrainian language and culture has been distinct from that of Russian culture. In fact, even the ancient Greeks recognized several distinct tribes living north of the Black Sea which were thought to have given rise to the various Slavic races. Culture flourished in Kiev for hundreds of years before Moscow was ever built. It is more consistent with historical facts to consider Russian language and culture to be a derivative of Ukrainian, and not the other way around. Ukrainians are proud of culture, their heritage, and their way of life.

Ukrainian Culture Links
Ukrainian History
A Day in Kiev
The Ukrainian Page and Links
Preparing for an Orthodox Christmas

Reviving Ukrainian Christmas
By Anna Kozmina, Kyiv Post Staff Writer






Christmas carolers spreading joy, holiday spirit and Ukrainian tradition on Christmas Day last year in downtown Kyiv.
Post photo by Dima Gavrish


Ukrainian Christmas, celebrated on Jan. 7, has very little in common with its Western counterpart on Dec. 25. Banned for more than 70 years during Soviet rule, Christmas began its comeback to Ukrainian homes a little more than a decade ago.
However, during its seven-decade absence, the holiday lost some of its luster. Traditions became dusty and some rituals forgotten, while the non-denominational New Year's became the holiday of revelry.
Ever since New Year's stole the thunder, Ukrainian Christmas was no longer associated with a decked out Christmas tree, Santa Claus and gift exchanges.
It has become more of a novelty. But now people are returning to the ancient religious and folk traditions associated with Christmas.
Like most of Ukraine's religious holidays, which have retained rudiments of pagan tradition, Christmas abounds in folk rituals.
Before Christianity, ancient Slavs marked the winter solstice at the end of December as the beginning of a new year. The Ukrainian word for Christmas, Rozhdestvo or Rizdvo, meaning birth can be interpreted not only as the birth of Jesus, but also as the birth of the sun.
Until the early 20th century, Ukraine's winter holiday period lasted more than one month and included 11 religious holidays, starting with the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin on Dec. 4 and ending with the Epiphany on Jan. 19.
Each holiday had its customs, many of which are still practiced today. On St. Kateryna's Day, on Dec. 7, girls would tell fortunes about their future husbands. They would cut a cherry branch and put it in water.
If the branch blossomed before St. Melania's Day on Jan. 13, it was considered a sign that the girl would marry the next year. On St. Varvara's Day, Dec. 17, women hustled to finish housework so they could begin to embroider festive garments.
Dec. 19, St. Mykola's (Nicholas') Day, was a major holiday, as Mykola was one of the favorite saints of Ukrainians. Just like in the West, this was the day when children received gifts.
Christmas Eve on Jan. 6 was the last day of advent. People fasted until the first star appeared in the sky. Once the star was spotted, the children would rush to tell their parents. Then the father would light a candle and bring in a didukh - a sheaf of wheat or rye.
Before Peter the Great introduced the tradition of decorating Christmas trees from Western Europe in the 18th century, Ukrainians decorated their homes with didukh - the last sheaf brought from the field in the fall. The didukh was stored until winter, put up for Christmas, and threshed on the eve of the Epiphany. The grain was then planted in the spring.
After didukh was set up in the corner under religious icons, the family said a special Christmas prayer, and the dinner began.
The dinner consisted of 12 lenten dishes. The obligatory ones were the kutya - a sweet meal made out of boiled wheat grain mixed with honey, poppy seeds and raisins and the uzvar, which is a sweet beverage made of boiled dried apples, plums and pears. Other traditional dishes were borscht, sauerkraut and varenyky with mushrooms and beans.
On Christmas Day, families went to church, feasted on a large Christmas dinner and visited friends and neighbors.
Gangs of young people would then go from house to house singing Christmas carols. There are two types of Ukrainian carols - kolyadky and shchedrivky.
The kolyadky, from the name of the ancient Slavic sun god Kolyada, were sung on Christmas and through the end of the winter holiday period. They were often accompanied by a humorous dress-up show called Vertep, re-enacting the biblical legend of the birth of Jesus. The main characters were the Magi, angels, devils, King Herod and animals from the manger.

The shchedrivky (from the word shchedry, meaning generous) were sung on New Year's Eve, Jan. 13, which was called Shchedry Vechir - Generous Evening.
The Epiphany, Jan. 19, marking the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan river, was considered the day of the most severe frosts. On that day, people went to the rivers, cut holes in the ice and gathered a container of water to be blessed by the priests. Kids skated and played games on the frozen river, and the bravest ones plunged in.
Today, many of these traditions are coming back. Some of them never died, as Ukrainians - especially in western Ukraine and in small villages - observed the customs in secret despite a Soviet ban.
Now the revival of Christmas traditions is being sanctioned by the government. The Kyiv City Administration is sponsoring a celebration in the center, featuring kolyadky and a vertep show.
Some Kyivans, however, want to revive Christmas caroling, not in the form of a concert, but the way it had originally been done. A group of friends, mostly students between 17 and 30, whose hobbies are singing and researching Ukrainian folklore, want to bring back caroling. Starting on Christmas Eve and up to the Epiphany, around 15 people sing their carols around the city for friends and strangers alike.
"We are not an ensemble," said group member Yaroslava Muzychenko. "In the traditional [Ukrainian] society, the youth community gathered for Christmas caroling, and so do we. Most of our caroling is improvisation, since the tradition is alive only when it comes from the heart."
Several years ago, Christmas caroling became widespread among Kyiv children, but today it is more like trick-or-treating: They bang on the door, say a short verse and wait for a treat. Some frown when they get food instead of money.
Muzychenko and her friends do caroling the old fashioned way. First, they learn all kinds of kolyadky, some of which
A Vertep at Kyiv's St. Volodymyr Cathedral.
Post photo by Sergei Chuza

they adapt to make more contemporary.
Next they gather the carolers, with two key characters. The leader carries around the Star, cut out of plywood and decorated with multicolored strips and bells, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. He also starts songs and negotiates with the hosts. The mikhonosha, or sack carrier, is responsible for gathering and carrying around the treats. The rest of the gang wear masks, sing and play tambourines, drums and fiddles.
Before the host even opens the door, the gang begins to sing a carol asking for permission to come in. When the host agrees, the carolers enter with a lit candle and present it to the host. The leader finds out the name of each family member and sings praise songs to the people living in the house. Singers bow when calling out each name, and a person who was named needs to bow back.
Some people may not open the door to the carolers, but those who do generally let them in.
"We see dozens of households with elderly parents and a cool modern kid, hurrying to some party, who first don't want to listen to us. After we give him a candle and ask for his name, he becomes interested. And when we finish, the kid has tears in his eyes and asks us in Ukrainian to please come again. These are the moments of the greatest happiness for us," Muzychenko said.



Holidays throughout the Year

Ukrainians place gifts under fir trees and sing holiday songs for New Year's Day. The country celebrates Orthodox Christmas Day on 7 January. Paskha (Easter) is the main festival of the Orthodox Church year, beginning with midnight services and continuing with parades around village churches throughout the country. In Lviv, the National Virtuoso fills the month of May with musical and theatrical performances focussing on national themes. The capital celebrates spring during Kiev Days, held the last weekend in May. In August, Crimea fetes itself at Yalta's Crimean Stars. On 28 August, religious pilgrims flock to the monastery in Pochayiv for the Feast of the Assumption. Cities and towns honour Independence Day on 24 August with performances and special events.





Other Holidays
Easter
Decorated Ukrainian Eggs (Pysanky, Other Pysanky Sites)


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