Many of today’s Ukrainian customs come to us from ancient times. In fact Ukrainian customs date from pre-Christian days. When Ukraine accepted Christianity in 988 AD, it was much simpler to incorporate the ideals of Christianity into the existing way of life, a life that was based on agriculture.
After the official introduction of Christianity by Prince Volodymyr the Great, many of the folk customs and rites have been accepted by the church, and adapted to the spirit of the Christian religion. The most important and colourful part of Ukrainian Christmas traditions is the actual Christmas Eve, or “Sviatay Vechir”, which revolves around the twelve course Lenten supper, This is a family affair or reunion commemorating our ancestors, and the religious observance of Christmas, it is acknowledged on January 6th prior to Ukrainian Christmas Day by the Julian calendar, established by the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar in 45 BC.
In modern times Ukrainian tradition has been enriched by acceptance of the western European Christmas tree, called “Yalynka”, a symbol of peace and friendship. While there are regional variations on some of the traditions and customs revolving around Sviatay Vechir, Ukrainian Christmas Eve plays a significant important role during the festive season.
On Christmas Eve, a lighted candle is traditionally placed in the window as an invitation to any homeless stranger or perchance a lost soul, to join the family in celebrating the birth of Christ. The first star in the eastern sky announces the time for the commencement of the “Sviata Vechera” or “Holy Supper”.
The family begins setting the table for the “Holy Supper”, first the table is strewn with a small amount of hay or straw in memory of the Christ Child born in the manger. A kolach (braided loaf of bread) is placed as a central table decoration. The word “kolach” derives from “kolo” which means round or circular, and is a symbol of the sun. In some regions of Ukraine only one kolach is used, while in others as many as three are placed on top of one another (representing the Holy Trinity) and adorned with evergreen. A candle is stuck into the top of the kolach, this represents the light of the world, or the star that shone over the stable in Bethlehem.
With the tradition, setting the dishes on the table for the immediate family members; dishes are set for a member of the family that has died during the year. The belief that the spirit of the deceased unites with the family for this Holy Night. After the table is set, the head of the household or “Hospodar” brings in a sheaf of wheat or “Didukh” (grandfather’s spirit), a symbol of the gathering of the family. The Didukh is placed in a corner of the dining room beneath a religious icon, which remains until the New Year. In recent times, particularly in urban areas, the tradition of Didukh is replaced with a few stalks of wheat which are placed in a vase. The Hospodar greets his family and guests to the table with the traditional salutations, expressing joy that God has favoured them with good health and wellbeing.
The family begins the Holy Supper with the Lord’s Prayer. The Hospodar takes a spoon of “Kutya” (traditional wheat dish dressed with honey, poppyseed and nuts) and gives the traditional greeting “Khrystos Razhdayet’sia” (Christ is Born), everyone at the table replies “Slavite Yoho” (Let us Praise Him). In the past, it was customary for the Hospodar to throw a spoonful of Kutya to the ceiling with an invocation for a bountiful harvest; if the kutya sticked to the ceiling the Hospodar’s wishes will be answered.
Sviatay Vechir itself consists of twelve meatless dishes symbolizing the twelve Apostles who shared the Last Supper with Jesus Christ. The dishes are prepared with vegetable oil, omitting all animal fat and milk products because Ukrainian Christmas is preceded by a period of fasting. The day of Christmas Eve is a day of fasting in commemoration of the hardships endured on the road to Bethlehem.
After Sviata Vechera all family members join in singing carols and socializing for the remainder of the evening, and then attend Holy Liturgy at midnight. In Canada, church services are often celebrated before midnight and there is also a Liturgy service next day on Ukrainian Christmas (Rizdvo).
Recently Ukrainian Canadians celebrated the 125th anniversary of the first Ukrainian settlers to Canada who adopted this homeland. During that time, Ukrainian Canadians have incorporated many English Canadian traditions into their Christmas celebrations. On the other hand, rarely would you find someone with even a few drops of Ukrainian blood who does not celebrate Rizdvo – Ukrainian Christmas with at least some of the rituals and traditions mentioned. A few of the aspects of traditions have been forgotten, or are not practical for urban life but still some Ukrainian Canadians who are fifth and sixth generation carry on the traditional Ukrainian Christmas. Ukrainian traditions are Canadian traditions.
Ukrainian Christmas with Sviatay Vechir and other celebrations connected with the festive season has a strong moral and cultural binding force that unites all Ukrainians no matter where they live from coast to coast. Christmas for many Ukrainians in Canada is an important family gathering to identify and sustain their ancestral culture. Khrystos Razhdayet’sia (Christ is Born) Slavite Yoho (Let Us Praise Him), celebrating the Birth of Christ the way Ukrainians honour and remember their ancestors and their rich traditions.