Ukrainian Christmas Traditions
Christmas is my favorite holiday of the year. Everyone is rushing around to get shopping done, attend parties, put final touches on holiday decorations, and plan holiday meals.
Ukrainians have many rich traditions associated with the celebration of Christmas. Many of them have been modernized to accommodate everyone’s busy lifestyle, but others are still kept original, and passed on from generation to generation.
Christmas Holiday starts on Christmas Eve, and during that day there is a lot of cooking going on to prepare for a 12 course meatless dinner consisting of:
- Kutia – whole wheat dish
- Kolach (recipe) – special Christmas braided bread(resembling babka), which is served with a clove of fresh garlic and honey
- Borscht with vushka – Red Beet soup with mushrooms filled dumplings
- Kapusniak – Sour kraut soup
- Holubtsi – meatless stuffed cabbage
- Varenyky (Pierogies) filled with various fillings (potato and cheese, cabbage, fruit, cheese, etc)
- Several fish dishes
- Pickled herrings are a must
- Fresh Mushroom Sauce
- Pickled mushrooms
- Baked Beans with flax oil
- Kompot ( Compote– mixed fruit tea type hot drink
- Large assortment of cookies, sheet cakes, torts, angel wings cookies (khrusty), and home made donuts, which are the best ever
While the cooks are preparing the meal, other family members, and especially the children, are kept busy by decorating the Christmas tree.The youngest children are patiently gazing out the window for the first star to appear, since this is a sign that dinner is ready to be served. Everyone is looking forward to this elaborate meal, since throughout the day only light snacking is allowed, or a total fast is observed.The dinner table is set with best linens and china, and a small sheaf of wheat tied with a festive ribbon, along with special bread “Kolach” shares the center stage on the table.There is an extra place setting on the table, in remembrance of the departed family members.A prayer is recited by the whole family, a special Christmas greeting is exchanged, and the dinner begins.
After dinner, everyone engages in caroling of Christmas carols, children have special poems to recite, or perform a small concert prepared ahead of time.Some presents are opened at this time, but most are left to be opened on Christmas Day.At midnight everyone attends a Devine Christmas Liturgy, which lasts about 2 hours, but is very beautiful and filled with caroling and chanting.Children bring a gift to church to place by the manger, to be distributed to the less fortunate children in the community.With the old tradition, there were no gift exchanges at Christmas, only candy and sweets, but St. Nicholas was bringing gifts on December 6th, and placing them at night under the pillow, for all the “well behaved” children.
On Christmas Day the celebration continues.The children open the remainder of their gifts, and a lot of caroling, and visiting of family and friends, is taking place.There is no more fasting on this day, but rather a lot of meat dishes are being served, and delicious desserts are plentiful in every household.Carolers are going from house to house to carol for their friends and family, and are welcomed with snacks and sweets.
The Polish Christmas traditions are very similar to the Ukrainian ones, with the meatless Christmas Eve dinner, the midnight Liturgy “Pasterka”, and the caroling for friends and family.One of the differences is the use of an unleavened wafer with honey, to share at the dinner table, rather than the “kolach” bread that the Ukrainians use.
The Italians also begin their Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve with a large meatless dinner, and attend midnight Mass afterwards. The German children used to leave a wooden clog outside the door, for St. Nicholas to drop in presents.