Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on January 7th, according to the Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church for the celebration of church festivals and holidays. It’s a markedly more solemn and religious holiday than in western nations. St. Nicholas’ Day, which falls on December 19th, more closely resembles the western Christmas, when St. Nicholas visits children and gives them presents.
The Christmas meal, Sviata Vecheria, or Holy Supper, is eaten on Christmas Eve, or January 6th, and is conducted in a ceremonial manner. Following a month-long Lenten fast for the celebration of Advent, the final day involves an outright fast, which is not to be broken until the first start in the sky is seen, which represents the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Magi on their journey to visit the baby Jesus. Prior to the meal, the head of the household brings a sheaf of “didukh” into the room where the Sviata Vecheria is eaten. Didukh, meaning “grandfather”, is a sheaf of wheat stalks which symbolizes not only the vast wheat fields of Ukraine, but also the presence of the ancestors of the family. Didukh represents the belief that the spirits of the ancestors partake in the celebration alongside the family. An empty place setting is also left in memoriam if a family member has passed away during the year.
Sviata Vecheria consists of 12 Lenten dishes, so they do not have any meat, eggs, or milk products in them. The main course is Kutia, a type of sweet porridge made of wheat. Honey, ground poppy seed, and chopped nuts. The head of the family raises the first spoonful, says grace, and greets the family with “Khrystos Rodyvsya”, meaning “Christ is born”, to which the family replies “Slavim Yoho!”, meaning “Let us glorify Him!” Then the feast begins. Other dishes include mushroom, sauerkraut, borsch, or beat soup, pierogi, boiled dumplings stuffed with potato, onion, and cheese, holopchi, or cabbage rolls, and pyrizhky, or cabbage buns. Kolach, a special Christmas bread, is placed in the center of the dining table. It consists of three layers of bread braided into the shape of a ring, which each layer representing a person of the Holy Trinity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
After the meal comes caroling. Christmas carols are sung around the table or in the streets. Some groups of carolers carry brightly colored stars on poles as they roam about to sing. Ukrainian Christmas carols are divided into two groups; the Koliadky, which are sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and the Shchedrivky, which are sung during the Feast of the Epiphany. While many of these songs focus on the birth of Christ and other Christian themes, many have their roots in pagan mythology; some of which have been Christianized, while others have been left alone. Other songs celebrate Ukrainian history and folklore.
Along with the traditional Christmas decorations of pine trees, brightly colored lights, green garland, and shiny baubles, paper snowflakes and even spider webs are uniquely popular decorations in Ukraine. Pavuchky, meaning little spider, is a decoration resembling a spider web made from paper and silver wire which finds its origin in the Legend of the Christmas Spider. According to the story, the mother of a poor family wished to give her children a cheerful Christmas, but could not afford to decorate their tree. A spider who made its home in the tree heard her pleas, and strew webs all about the tree while the family slept. In the morning, the sun turned the webs into strands of silver and gold.