Ukrainian New Year’s Traditions
By Paul Miazga
Despite the record warm temperatures and complete lack of snow on the ground except in the mountains, it’s time to think of the holiday season.
Given the history of Ukraine and its ties with religion (Ukraine adopted Christianity in 988 AD during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise), it might surprise a few people that religious holidays and observances take a back seat to celebrating New Year’s Eve here. Some Ukrainians have explained it to me like this: the main reason for stressing New Year’s over Christmas (whether traditional or Orthodox) is timing. The one that comes first just happens to be the one given the greater stress.
Gifts and family figure prominently in any Ukrainian family celebration of New Year’s Eve, just the way they would for Westerners celebrating Christmas. Many Ukrainians choose to be with family at New Year’s Eve and celebrate the holiday with a gift exchange, a sumptuous meal and drinks around midnight, after which some might go out to celebrate further with friends or just stay at home and party another night. Soviet governments downplayed the religious nature of the holiday season and so only in western Ukraine do they hold fast to Christian Christmas traditions, albeit those of the old Julian calendar, meaning they celebrate it during the first week of January.
Two years ago during the height of the Orange Revolution, many western Ukrainian families opened their homes and welcomed people of all ages, but especially school-aged children, to come to western Ukraine to celebrate a true western Ukrainian Christmas, steeped in all its warmth, history and charm. At a time when politicians threatened to tear the country apart, average citizens helped to bridge the gulf and showed what the power of giving can accomplish that politicians seem unable to.
For anyone who’s ever taken part in such a traditional Ukrainian Christmas, the feast alone is rich in symbolism, incorporating 12 non-meat dishes (including two of fish) to recall the 12 disciples of Jesus. A personal favorite of my father, who is not Ukrainian but Polish (he did marry a Ukrainian woman, however), is the dish of boiled wheat sweetened with honey, poppy seed and sometimes apples or raisins called kutya. This is the traditional start of the meal and is often eaten from a single bowl to symbolize unity. Other dishes include borshch, holubtsi (cabbage rolls), two dishes of mushrooms and also varenyki (called perogies in much of the West). I personally liked that there seemed to be no end to the eating. Also of note in Ukrainian celebrations is the visit of St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, around the same time as traditional Christmas in the West. This is a religious festival during which children receive small gifts but otherwise has little in common with the Americanized holiday in which gift-giving has been associated only with a visit by the jolly old elf Santa Claus. The over-commercialized cup of giving doth runneth over.
Hanukkah in Ukraine
Not to be forgotten, Ukraine also has a growing Jewish community (though devastated by WWII), which will begin celebrating Hanukkah, the festival of lights, beginning on Dec. 15 and running through Dec. 23. Kyiv will be a big focus of these celebrations, when candles on the traditional menorah will be lit to symbolize the miracle of the oil in the temple. As legend has it, the Hebrew temple in Jerusalem was being threatened by Syrians and Egyptians during the second century BC but was spared thanks to the efforts of Judah Maccabee and a small band of rebellious soldiers. When they hoped to rededicate the temple, they found only enough oil for one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight – enough to purify new oil – and hence the length of the festival.
Like Christmas, Hanukkah also involves gift giving, and one candle on the menorah is lit for each night of the eight-day festival. The significance of oil also comes into play during Hanukkah feasts, meaning fried foods – such as potato pancakes called latkes – are common around the table at this time.
While many will travel out of Ukraine during this holiday season, those staying here and hoping to get to western Ukraine, including the Carpathian Mountains, had better book their tickets now and hope to have connections concerning a place to stay. Tickets for many trains leaving during the Christmas season (from Dec. 24 through Jan. 7) have sold out or are close to being so. Tickets for a sleeper berth (coupe) on most Kyiv-Lviv trains will go for Hr 150 return per person, while flights with Ukraine International Airlines are comparably priced ($19 one-way), depending on how early you book. Regardless, expect to pay a premium if you haven’t already sorted out your travel and accommodations for Ukraine this year!
For information on train schedules, check out the website of Ukrzalyznitsya, the state railway (www.uz.gov.ua), but it’s only in Ukrainian and it does not have any info on whether tickets are available for any of the routes it proffers – only times and destinations! For those looking to fly out west, check out the Ukraine International Airlines website (www.ukraine-international.com), which is in English and is quite helpful. UIA flies to Lviv, while rival flier Aerosvit (www.aerosvit.ua/eng) covers Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Uzhgorod and Chernivtsi.