As the winter chill settles over Ukraine, the anticipation of Christmas brings warmth and joy to every household. Ukrainian Christmas, traditionally celebrated on January 7th according to the Eastern Orthodox religious calendar, is now celebrated on December 25th in accordance with a new calendar.

Ukrainian Christmas officially begins with a solemn Divine Liturgy, a heartfelt gathering on December 25th in beautifully adorned churches. The liturgy is a harmonious blend of hymns, prayers, and rituals that set the stage for the spiritual significance of Christmas.

Christmas Eve, known as Sviat Vechir or Sviata Vecheria (Holy Supper), is commemorated by a day of fasting (light snacking is permitted) to represent Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.

Families gather to join in a traditional supper, and sometimes even leave an empty place setting to represent loved ones who have passed on. Other traditions include placing a small handful of hay on the table to represent Jesus in the manger.

Children are told to look for the first star in the sky, which symbolizes the start of festivities. The dinner is commonly comprised of 12 dishes to represent the 12 apostles. Everyone present is expected to try at least a small amount of the 12 dishes, and none of the dishes can contain any meat, animal fat, milk or milk products.

The first dish served on Sviat Vechir is always kutia, which consists of cooked wheat mixed with honey, ground poppy seeds and sometimes nuts.

A key element of the Holy Supper is the traditional Christmas Eve bread, known as “kalach”. This round-shaped bread symbolizes the circle of life and eternity. Often adorned with symbolic decorations such as crosses and braids, the kalach is a centerpiece that holds a special place in the hearts of Ukrainians.

Borshch, a beetroot-based soup, and varenyky (dumplings) filled with cabbage, potatoes, or mushrooms, are staples on the Christmas table. The dishes not only satisfy the taste buds but also carry a deeper cultural significance.

The room where Sviata Vecheria is eaten normally has a Didukh decoration placed in it. The Didukh is a made from wheat and symbolizes the large wheat fields in Ukraine. It literally means ‘grandfather spirit’ and can represent people’s ancestors being with them in their memories.

Caroling, or Koliadky, is an integral part of Ukrainian Christmas celebrations. Whether in the city or countryside, groups of carolers, dressed in festive attire, visit homes and churches, spreading joy through melodic tunes. The lyrics often narrate the story of the birth of Christ, fostering a sense of community and shared celebration. The carolers are often rewarded with treats and coins.

The Ukrainian carol ‘Shchedryk’ is where the popular ‘Carol of the Bells’ came from.

In many Ukrainian communities, the tradition of Shepherds’ Plays, or “Vertep,” comes to life during the Christmas season. These theatrical performances, often held in churches or public squares, depict the Nativity story with local flair. Participants are dressed in amazing traditional costumes.