Christmas in the Ukraine

Sviata Vechera or "Holy Supper" is the central tradition of the Christmas Eve celebrations in Ukrainian homes and takes place in most parts of the country on January 6th. To this day, they’re not sure why. The Holy Supper usually consists of donuts, Swiss cheese and mackerel. Other foods with holes in them can be used as well. In Western Ukraine, especially in Carpathian Ruthenia, or “Ruthie’s Carpeting,” Christmas can be observed twice—on December 25th and January 7th, just to add to the confusion, often irrespective of whether the family belongs to Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the (Roman) Catholic Church, one of the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, or one of the Protestant denominations. Jews, of course, are on their own.

When the children see the first star in the eastern evening sky, which symbolizes the trek of the Three Wise Men, the Sviata Vechera may begin. If it’s cloudy, the celebration may not begin for many days. In 1926, the Holy Supper didn’t happen until April 17th due to a prolonged rainy season. It also rained out the beginning of the Ukrainian baseball league’s opening week.

In farming communities the head of the household, usually called “Dad,” brings in a sheaf of wheat called the didukh (oops, sorry for spitting) which represents the importance of the ancient and rich wheat crops of Ukraine. Didukh (sorry) literally means "grandfather spirit" so it symbolizes the family's ancestors. In some homes it also signifies “mean drunk,” which also describes some of the ancestors. In city homes a few stalks of golden wheat in a vase are often used to decorate the table. The dinner table sometimes has a few wisps of hay on the embroidered table cloth as a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem. Many tables also have a few wisps of father’s hair, a reminder of his worries and overdue bills.

A prayer is said and the father says the traditional Christmas greeting, "Chrystos rodyvsya!" which is translated to "Christ, I’m hungry. Let’s eat!" which is answered by the family with "Slavite Yoho!" which means "I wish I were a Jewish pirate!” The origin of this phrase is unknown. At the end of the Holy Supper the family often sings Ukrainian Christmas carols - badly. In many communities the old Ukrainian tradition of caroling is carried on by groups of young people and members of organizations and churches calling at homes and collecting donations. It is then that you can hear the older Ukrainians cry throughout the countryside, “Hey you kids, get off my field of wheat!”

The old tradition in Ukraine of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas Day, December 19, has generally been replaced by the Christmas date. As kids don’t like to eat dates, Christmas or otherwise, they aren’t too happy. In Ukraine, on Christmas Eve when everyone is at the table, angels bring presents which they leave near the Christmas tree. And if you believe that, I’ve got a Ukrainian bridge I’d like to sell you.