10 Ukrainian Christmas Traditions and Symbols

Christmas in Ukraine is full of traditions and has its own symbols, whether it is celebrated on December 25th (Georgian calendar) or January 7th (Julian calendar). 

Numerous customs and rituals are associated with Christmas. 

We will tell you about the most well-known ones. 

ПІСТ FAST

40 days before Christmas, religious Ukrainians fast. 

They don’t eat meat, dairy products, or eggs. As an alternative, Ukrainians have vegetables and fruits, mushrooms, beans, porridge, and occasionally fish. Through fasting, believers purify their bodies and souls. 

СВЯТЍЙ ВÉЧІР HOLY DINNER

Holy dinner is a traditional gathering in the evening before Christmas. Ukrainian families gather together around a dinner table. 

The table is covered with a white cloth to represent the swaddling clothes in which the infant Jesus was wrapped, and a large white candle stands in the center to represent Christ as the Light of the World.

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12 СТРАВ 12 DISHES

On Christmas Eve (Святий вечір – Holy Dinner), Ukrainians cook 12 lean dishes. The number 12 represents the 12 Apostles and the 12 months in the year. 

Typical dishes include varenyky with cabbage, mushrooms, or potatoes; holubtsi, beans, stewed cabbage, vinaigrette, borscht without meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. 

Check out more about the Christmas table here:

12 UKRAINIAN CHRISTMAS DISHES

КУТЯ KUTIA

Kutia is an ancient ritual meal and the main dish on the Christmas table. 

It is a porridge made from whole wheat, barley, or, less often, millet or rice with the addition of honey or sugar, often with dried fruits, raisins, nuts, and poppy seeds. 

Kutia cooking dates back to pagan times, when such a dish was prepared as part of an ancestor-honoring ritual and served to the ancestors. 

This dish is a symbol of the unity of generations: past, present, and coming. Also, it is a symbol of life’s victory over death. 

Some families keep a small plate with kutia on a window sill for deceased ancestors whose souls come for Holy Dinner on Christmas Eve.

Nowadays, it’s common for children to bring kutia to their godparents or other close relatives. 

УЗВÀР DRIED FRUIT DRINK

Uzvar is a drink made from dried fruits and berries, sometimes with honey and sugar. It is an essential component of the Christmas Eve table, which is often mentioned even in medieval chronicles and monastery manuscripts. 

The name comes from the verb “заварити” (to brew), as we prepare a drink by brewing fruits and berries. This drink is very healthy and is a part of Ukrainian traditional cuisine.

КОЛЯДКИ CAROLINGS 

On January 6th in the evening, carolers go from home to home and sing Christmas songs called koliadky (from “calendar”), where they wish hosts a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The hosts reward the guests with sweets, fruits, and sometimes cash or other goods. 

The carolers have special costumes and make-up according to their roles. And the most significant carol attribute and Christmas symbol is a star, which a young man or boy typically carries. Notably, carolling is another pagan custom that has naturally become a part of the Christian holiday.

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ВЕРТÉП NATIVITY SCENE

Vertep is a portable puppet theater and drama that presents the nativity scene. The original meaning of the word is “secret place” or “cave,” referring to the cave where Christ was born. 

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Over time, the puppet nativity scene evolved into a real street theater in which the puppet nativity play is combined with real actors, and, in some places, entirely performed by real people.

Vertep in Ukraine also became heavily intertwined with the carolling.

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ДІДÝХ DIDUKH

Didukh (from the word “дід” grandfather) is a Christmas decoration made from a sheaf of wheat.

Apparently, this symbol appeared when the beginning of the New Year was in the autumn, and people took the first or the last sheaf from the field home as a symbol of a good harvest and wealth. 

Back in pagan times, didukh represented ancestors. Therefore, it is one more manifestation of an ancestral cult.

In Ukrainian tradition, didukh was a central decoration like a Christmas tree in Western countries. Nowadays, a lot of Ukrainian families have both a didukh and a tree in their house as Christmas decorations.

ЯНГОЛИ (АНГÉЛИКИ) ANGELS

Angels, as those who bring good news, are popular symbols of Christmas all over the world. There are Christmas tree angel toys and vertep puppets; angel characters among carollers and vertep players. 

Children like to make handmade angels and play with them.

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ВІТÁННЯ “ХРИСТÓС НАРОДЍВСЯ! СЛАВÍМО ЙОГÓ!” 

GREETING “CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!”

On January 7th, people go to churches and often greet each other with these words. This greeting can also be written on Christmas cards together with the wish “Щаслѝвого Різдвá!” (Merry Christmas!).

You have learned 10 customs and symbols of Ukrainian Christmas from this post. 

Let us know in the comments which one is your favorite and what traditions are also present in your country. We will be glad to hear from you.

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