Guide to Christmas traditions in Ukraine – Kiev Private Tours
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Christmas traditions in Ukraine
25 Dec

Guide to Christmas traditions in Ukraine

From time immemorial people celebrated different events. As time went on, there were more and more holidays; the festivities became surrounded by certain traditions and rituals that characterized a specific event. In different periods of history, they changed or vice versa – they became common for different countries and people. In Ukraine, the New Year holidays are among the most important events in the year. This includes many significant celebrations, and at this time of the year all the people of the country have many days off. New Year and Christmas unite many countries of the world, because most of them celebrate these events, although often at different times of the year.

Almost all of us know different traditions associated with the celebration of the New Year and Christmas time, but only a few can explain their origin and significance. Let’s learn in more detail where these traditions came from and what customs they have.

History of the New Year in Ukraine

Everyone knows that the New Year is an old holiday; it was established by Peter the Great on the 1st of January in 1700. In fact, the history of this celebration began much earlier. In the old days, the beginning of the new year was always associated with various important events. Initially, it was celebrated in the spring in March, as a symbol of the beginning of works in the fields and gardens. So this holiday coincided with these works. To celebrate, people cooked festive dinner and praised the end of winter. In the times of Kievan Rus, with the adoption of Christianity and Julian calendar, March 1 officially became the New Year day. Moreover, according to the Christian teachings, it was on this day that the world was created. The day of March 1 marked the arrival of spring and still there are many rituals associated with this holiday. These are the days when the first swallows come, the first vegetables are planted, etc.

In 15th century the New Year was postponed to September 1. The church explained this by the fact that at the beginning of September, the first preaching of Christ came. September 1 marked the civil and ecclesiastical beginning of the new year. In the days of the Cossacks this day was also important, because it was on September 1 that they conducted rite of passage for the Cossacks and for the first time put the recruits on a horse. When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, the countries of Europe begin celebrating the New Year on January 1. As we have stated earlier, it was Peter I who brought this tradition to Russian Empire. He also initiated celebrations with decorated Christmas trees, masquerades, congratulations and other attributes of this holiday.

One can tell a lot about the history of celebrations, rituals and much more when talking about collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol “Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka” and immense national flavor of the holiday and related traditions, but we will tell about the traditions of the New Year holidays that have survived to us.


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New Year traditions

In modern Ukraine the New Year is celebrated “old and new style”. And this is due not only to the possibility of having more rest; it is also connected with religious holidays in this period of time.

Father Frost with his granddaughter


Preparing for Christmas holidays

People have always respected the Christmas holidays. According to tradition, preparations began in the autumn. When harvesting, people selected the most beautiful ears of wheat, oats and other cereals, made Didukh of it and kept it until Christmas.

During the preparation period it was necessary to finish all the work on the farm, to put the house in order. Everyone took part in this, everyone had certain responsibilities. It was traditional to buy new things before the holidays come; for example, dishes and clothes for all members of the family. Young people learned new Christmas carols and rehearsed the setting of the nativity. It was a busy part of the year, which ended in long-awaited holidays.

Holy Evening (Christmas Eve)

It was celebrated on the eve of Christmas. Everybody woke up early in the morning and began preparing for the Holy Supper (Christmas Eve supper). The first thing was to make uzvar (similar to fruit punch) from the dried fruits harvested earlier. Then the mistress of the house cooked ingredients for kutya – a traditional meal for this special day. To prepare it, one needed clean water taken to the house before the sun rises.

Kutya – a traditional meal for Christmas Eve


People believed that at night it becomes sacred. Other necessary ingredients were welded wheat, honey, poppy seeds, nuts and raisins. Each component of kutya had its own meaning, for example, wheat was associated with eternal life. In addition to the kutya, there were 12 other meals cooked for the Holy Evening.

The master of the house went around all living creatures in the yard and in the garden and showered it with a specially prepared potion in order to ward off the evil spirits, at the same time the prayer was spoken out.

After that, Didukh was brought into the house; it was put in one of corners of the house; it symbolized wealth, good harvest and prosperity in the family. On this day, no one went to visit.

The main reason to celebrate the Holy Evening was that people believed that this is the day when the souls of deceased relatives came to them and this supper was cooked for them. With the dawn the family sat at the table, and the head was the first to try the kutya, and after all the rest did. All dressed in their best clothes, the table was covered with the best tablecloth, and all the meals were also festive. After the evening, the meals were left on the table, meaning that the souls of the deceased relatives were waiting here.


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No one snuffed out the candles. After the evening, caroling began. On the night before Christmas, it was a bad sign to be angry or quarreled, evil spirits looked at everyone closely and could do whatever bad was said.

Christmas customs

Christmas celebrations were beginning from the very morning. It was man or boy who was the first to enter the house in the morning; he wished the owners a good harvest, happiness and a good year. These men were called vinshuvalnyky in Ukrainian and were given sweets. Only boys were allowed to do it; girls were forbidden to be the first to visit the house in the morning after Christmas. In the morning the family went to the church for a festive liturgy. After the liturgy, people greeted each other with the following phrases: “Christ was born!” – “Praise him!”. Christmas was celebrated for 3 days with carols, nativity and with joy for the newborn Christ. Since everyone was fasting before the holidays, it was also typical to stick pig before Christmas and cook meals with meat for celebration.

It was not customary to go to visit on the first day of the Christmas holidays. Only the newlyweds visited their parents. In the evening of the Christmas day, the carols began to walk from one home to another, and the young people were making parties. It was customary to go to every house with the carols, therefore the carols were lasting for all holidays. On the second day of Christmas, dances for young people were arranged. Even now, this holiday is one of the biggest events of the year. All customs and traditions remain till our time. Some of them have changed a little or adapted to the modern world, but the main attributes of this holiday – carol, nativity and Holy evening remained unchanged.

Kolyada (carols)

All Christmas holidays were always accompanied by carols. In pre-Christian times, Kolyada was the night from December 24 to December 25. It was believed that this is the night when the days were starting to get bigger and the spring were coming closer. In our time, Kolyada means all Christmas holidays, and not just Christmas itself. The origin of the word “kolyada” is very old. Previously, such songs were used to glorify pagan gods. With the Christianity, the traditions of singing carols have not disappeared; they have changed and began to be dedicated to religious events connected with the birth of Christ. Many rituals and traditions are intertwined, and rites that were used in paganism began to be used in Christianity. The tradition of caroling has remained up to this day.

After the Holy Supper, the carols went to every house, chanting the birth of Christ and wishing the house and the family a happy life in the new year. Today almost nobody knows that earlier Christmas carols were sung not for Christmas, but for Easter. Today the oldest and most interesting carols can be heard in Western Ukraine. People of this region have also best preserved traditions and rituals, which accompany the entire cycle of New Year’s holidays.

Nativity (vertep)

On the territory of modern Ukraine the nativity has first appeared in the 17th century. Since then, this phenomenon has spread to all regions of the country. Vertep (in Ukrainian) is original, national heritage of our people. The word has its roots in the Old Slavonic language and denotes a cave or a gap. It was the nativity that became the basis for Ukrainian theatrical comedy in the 19th century. Those days the nativity was a large wooden box with two floors. On the top floor, there were always scenes from Christmas stories and the birth of Christ, on the lower – episodes from the life of ordinary people were shown in a humorous way. Depending on the region and customs, ordinary people had appropriate clothing and roles, and saints were always depicted in canonical clothes. The Christmas performance always took place with the carols, and the comedy part – with the songs that were associated with the life of a particular village.

Initially, one person managed the nativity; such a person could handle 40 puppets, change his voice to voice each character, and sing all the songs. Later, the puppet theater turned into a street one, where people, not dolls, performed the roles of all the heroes. It is interesting that only young men could take part in this action. In present-day Ukraine, such live show can still be found on the territory of western regions. Usually such Christmas theater always brings an open box where the scene of the birth of Christ is depicted. This is the crib, or rather its modern interpretation. This box is usually called a “shopka”, this name comes from the Polish language. Vertep with shopka should go round all the houses in the village; they tell a short story of the birth of Jesus and show bright scenes with carols.


The Feast of St. Malanya is celebrated on the eve of the Old New Year or St. Basil on January 14. On this day, people sing not only carols, but also shchedrivky. This day from the very morning the boys came to the houses, spread the wheat around, saying traditional congratulation rhymes at the same time. Many researchers of Ukrainian culture indicate that these traditions came from paganism. After all, earlier the new year began on March 1, and therefore it was decided to sow grain in the house, as a symbol of the beginning of new work on land and crops.

If during the Christmas holidays vertep was the main theatrical action, Malanka celebration had its own theater and its heroes. One of the main characters was Goat. It was a young guy who dressed the costume and played the role. Other important heroes were Baba Malanka (Granny Malanka) and Did Vasily (Grandfather Vasily). In modern performances, one can also see modern heroes, for example, a doctor. People were baking special breads for this holiday; the breads were called Malanka and Vasily. These characters go together in folklore, because in the church calendar the holiday of Malanka ends the year, and the day of St. Basil (Vasily in Ukrainian) begins a new one.

Fortunetelling during Christmas holidays

Since ancient times, people have always tried to look into the future and get to know about their destiny. The best time for fortune-telling is the holidays from the Holy Eve to the Epiphany; in Ukraine this period is also called Svyatki (Saint Days). It was believed that these days you could see your future and destiny. Traditionally these were young unmarried girls that wanted to know their destiny. For all the time of existence of these traditions of fortune-telling, there were a lot of ways to get to know the future. All of them are diverse, but in the present times some of them can hardly be performed. For example, there were divinations where it was necessary to take the horse out into the yard from the stables or bring a cock to the house.

However, there are many fortune-telling techniques that are applicable today; for example, a very simple divination is with the book. You need to take any book that you like, and ask a question. Then open on any page, choosing at random its number and line, and read a scrap of text. It was believed that it would say what the future holds. Another way to determine your fate is by walking near the windows of other people houses. If you hear laughter and fun, then next year will be happy and cheerful for you, and if there is a quarrel, expect trouble in the coming year. Even simpler is the way to learn about the future spouse. For this, you need to go outside in the evening and the first person you meet will define your future for the next year. If a young girl is lucky enough to see a handsome guy, then she can expect positive changes in her personal life, and the same with a young man when he meets a girl. If you meet old woman or a man of the same sex on road, then there can be no change. In our culture, there are many more ways of fortune-telling for Christmas holidays. Although today more and more people forget about it, there are still those who use such ancient methods of foreseeing the future.

All winter holidays have always been very important and interesting. Even the biggest skeptics always hope that the coming year will be better than the previous one.

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Kate Dobromishev

Tour Guide in Guide me UA / English language / Private Tours in Kyiv

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