Holidays across Ukraine are celebrated in different ways. I spent the week leading up to Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas in villages of the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. A family in Tulova hosted myself and a dozen other Canadians for a Christmas meal three days before the actual holiday. The celebration started with carollers singing at the window, and finished with us all singing together for hours. There was plenty of food and drink, including the host’s homebrew, on which I practiced a newly-learned Ukrainian drinking tip – to reduce the burn, blow out, take the shot, blow out again, then smell someone’s hair. It works surprisingly well!
Christmas Day was spent in Kryvorivnya, a Hutsul village. Driving to the village, I watched as people came from every direction to walk to church, as is tradition. Afterwards, hundreds of people gathered outside to watch the local men perform carols traditional to the Verhovyna region. Wearing traditional wool coats with bright embroidery and shiny embellishments, they stood in a circle holding axes, flipping them to the beat of their song, which was more like a chant, with some playing instruments, like the trembita or violin.
On the ride home, carollers rode beside us in wagons pulled by horses going door to door, with children dressed as animals, shepherds, angels, and other characters from the traditional Ukrainian Christmas story – Vertep.
Throughout the holiday, I learned of traditions I hadn’t heard of before, like putting garlic on the corners of the table to protect against evil spirits. Tricks of the trade in the kitchen, like adding halva (a dense sweet made from sunflower seeds) to kutya (a cereal dish eaten traditionally on Ukrainian Christmas), I was also made privy to.
Many Canadians still practice Ukrainian Christmas traditions, such as putting hay under the table and throwing kutya on the ceiling to see how good the next year will be (though talking with some Ukrainians, it seems this one isn’t as popular in Ukraine as it is in Canada!).
This holiday season in Ukraine included so many special and memorable celebrations, but what stands out the most is the number of young people continuing to practise the customs of their ancestors. Preserving traditions honours the local way of life and keeps alive local knowledge. Seeing people – young and old – proud of their roots is inspiring.
No matter your background and no matter what holidays you observe, may you have celebrated with pride and happiness, setting the tone for the new year.
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