A Merry Ukrainian Christmas to all
Ultima Thule wants to wish all our readers a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Ukrainians of the Orthodox tradition and the Uniate Eastern Rite Catholic tradition will celebrate Christmas by the old style Julian calendar on January 7th. Roman rite Ukrainians will celebrate tomorrow along with most Americans.
Ukrainians still adhere to many of their ancient traditions when it comes to Christmas, many of which pre-date Christianity and have their roots back in Pagan times. Because Ukraine has a primarily agrarian culture the concepts of harvest and a closeness to nature always figure prominently.
On Christmas Eve, called "Sviat Vechir" (Holy Eve) in Ukrainian, the family gathers together to share a traditional meal and to sing carols. It is customary to wait until the evening star appears in the sky, as this is thought to represent the star of Bethlehem which guided the Wise Men to the Manger. The meal is called "Sviata Vecherya" which means "holy supper".
It is always a lenten meal as there is a fasting time which leads up to the Feast of Christmas on the 7th. The most important food which must be present and usually sits in the center of the table is called "Kutia". It is a sweet pudding made of boiled wheat, honey, nuts and poppy seeds. The other traditional food is a fruit compote of simmered dried fruits called "Uzvar". These two foods symbolize the bounty of the harvest and offer a prayer for a plentiful harvest to come in the New Year.
A chair and place setting is usually left empty to symbolize the hope that the souls of deceased relatives will visit and partake of the holy meal along with the family. Pagan Ukrainians worshipped their ancestors and believed that their spirits could be propitiated in order to benefit the family.
When Christianity came to Ukraine the people had a rich and ancient cultural tradition which was deeply ingrained. The church wisely did not attempt to eradicate these lovely traditions and instead incorporated them into the various Christian festivals and celebrations.
As the family sits down to eat, the table is set with a variety of meatless dishes which should number at least twelve. This number symbolizes the twelve apostles. A sheaf of wheat or a few sprigs of hay are laid on the table to represent the hope of a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
The father of the family will usually offer a prayer and greets the family with the words, "Chrystos Rodyvsya" (Christ is born), to which the family members respond, "Slavite Yoho" (Let us glorify him).
My mother tells me that families would often share part of the Holy Supper with the animals in the family, in recognition of the benefit which they provide to the family and also to commemorate that it was the animals in the manger who kept the Christ Child warm with their breath, according to our tradition.
On Christmas day Ukrainians attend church for a festive service featuring much caroling and usually a celebration in the parish hall after the service.
These lovely traditions are still celebrated today in most Ukrainian American households and form an ancient bond which ties us to our rich culture and heritage. We bless and thank America that it has provided us a haven where we are able to worship and to celebrate freely. We thank God this Christmas that in Ukraine at long last, after many years of Communist repression and persecution of the church and believers along with the attempt to wipe out all memory of cultural traditions, these ancient rituals and customs are once again being celebrated in the place where they were born.
Khrystos Rodyvsia! Merry Christmas!
For further information on Ukrainian traditions, the legend of St. Nicholas and some information on Ukrainian Christmas Carols visit:
Ukraine and Ukrainian Christmas at BRAMA where you can also click to hear a Ukrainian version of "Carol of the Bells", an ancient Ukrainian "Schedrivka", an Epiphany carol.