12 Days of Traditions – Day 12: Lesya Kostyuk
Among Ukrainians, the most beloved of all festivities is Christmas, which covers a cycle of important feast days, all centering around the family. The main event is the evening meal called “Holy Supper” (Svyata Vechera). According to the custom, all members of the family should be present that night for a family reunion.
Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on January 7 according to the Gregorian calendar. Many people wonder why the Ukrainian date is thirteen days later and only a few people are aware that it is related to a change in the calendar, which was used two thousand years ago.
There are numerous Christmas traditions, which vary significantly through different parts of the country. With the appearance of the first star, which is believed to be a Star of Bethlehem, the family gathers to begin supper. People usually cook some tasty foods for the evening. There should be at least 12 different foods on the table. This includes the mandatory ‘Kutia’- the ritual food which is prepared from cooked wheat and special syrup containing diluted honey, grated poppy seeds, raisins and sometimes walnuts, and then comes borsch (beet soup) with vushka (boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and onions). This is followed by a variety of fish – baked, broiled, fried, marinated herring and so on. Then come varenyky (boiled dumplings filled with cabbage, potatoes, buckwheat grains, or prunes. There are also holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), and the supper ends with uzvar. Everyone must have at least a small serving of each dish.
A lighted candle is always placed in the window as an invitation to any homeless stranger, or a lost soul, to join the family in celebrating the birth of Christ.
In some regions of Western Ukraine people decorate the table with ‘Didukh’ – a sheaf of oats or wheat of special shape: with four legs and numerous little bundles. It symbolizes prosperity for the next year.
At the end of the Holy Supper, the family often sings Kolyadky, Ukrainian Christmas Carols. Carols have their origins in antiquity, as do many other traditions practiced at Christmas time.
For the past ten years living in the United States, I’ve been trying to keep up with as many traditions as I can. I spend two to three evenings on meals preparation for Christmas Eve. Because my entire family is in Ukraine, I usually invite some of my Ukrainian friends who don’t have family here either so we can celebrate together.