Ukrainians like to celebrate. No, Ukrainians love to celebrate! I honestly don’t think that there is another nation out there able to beat us in the ‘who has the most holidays’ contest. Especially in winter. I bet our ancestors really had nothing to do in cold snowy December days and holiday-ing turned out to be a simple logical solution to staying sane.
Don’t see it the wrong way: most of the country does work in winter – banks remain open, shops still sell groceries, and schools attempt at teaching. City life rarely stops. However, if you move a bit away from the main highways and into the real – the rural – Ukraine of villages, home-made bread, Hutsuls (Carpathian mountainous people) and horsecarts, that’s where you will be introduced to the endless Saints’ and other traditional festivals.
But let us leave the challenge of curbing all the celebratory frenzy to the government. Instead, let the world get a unique glimpse into a cultural identity that miraculously survived in the outskirts of modern Europe. From diving into a freezing cold well, to celebrating two New Years – meet five strange Ukrainian holiday traditions that can still be witnessed – and participated in! – at hundreds of Ukrainian villages.
1 – Throw your boots behind on St. Catherine’s Day (December 7th)
This mostly female holiday is dedicated to the St. Catherine of Alexandria – Christian Saint, who died in the early 4th century at the hands of pagan emperor. Traditionally unmarried girls gather together for so-called ‘vechornytsi’ – special evenings devoted to good food, plenty of girls’ gossips and fun fortune telling customs. If you get lucky and get a chance to join one of those meet ups, don’t be taken aback by all the candles, key chains, and baby dolls.
Indeed, we take our fortune telling seriously. Instead, kick off your boots, and participate in the famous shoe line-up tradition: whoever’s shoe will be the first to reach the door, that girl will be the first one to get married. Or, if you want to know where your sweetheart will come from, try your luck with throwing your boot behind your back: if the heal faces west, wait for a husband from that direction.
If you are a guy, don’t be surprised if a random girl walks up to you on the street and asks for your name: she’s only trying to find out the name of her groom! And no matter whether you believe in the good or not-so-good results of your personal fortune telling, prepare for a festive evening, full of mouth-watering borshch and scrumptious dumplings, bygone customs and folk songs that connect Ukrainian women to their female ancestors from centuries ago.
2 – Misbehave on St. Andrew’s Day (December 13th)
Imagine waking up on a beautiful St. Andrew’s crisp cold morning, just to find out that your house fence has disappeared. You take a couple of days to frantically search for it, until you finally give up. Then, two months later, when the spring hits the town, you see how your dearly-missed fence has miraculously re-appeared in your neighbor’s yard, carefully tucked under the heaps of melting snow. Well, you sigh – at least this St. Andrew’s day your horse cart did not show up on the rooftop of your barn, unlike at your unlucky neighbors’ two streets down!
Well, if girls get their own holiday in winter, guys are bound to get one as well. St. Andrew’s Day is traditionally celebrated by both sexes, with girls doing the repeat version of the fortune-telling. However, it’s the men that get to have all the fun! One day in the year everyone finally cuts them some slack, as guys are officially allowed to make trouble. From playing innocent pranks, to hiding fences and paiting farm barns – they truly enjoy their St. Andrew’s right!
3 – Ditch the Santa Claus for Christmas (January 7th)
Christmas is by far Ukrainians’ most favorite holiday. But even for Christmas we manage to bring in so many ancient rituals, that at times the line between the religious and the pagan becomes quite blurry and makes it hard to differentiate what came after the 9th century country-wide baptism, and what – before. First of all, most of Ukrainians belong to the Eastern Orthodox rite of Christianity, and still follow the Julian calendar. It means that all holidays in Ukraine (as well as Serbia, Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries) lag exactly 13 days behind. Your second Ukrainian Christmas will be in house on January 7th. This leaves you with an amazing opportunity to catch the Christmas holiday twice!
However, when coming to celebrate it to Ukraine, don’t expect to see the Santa Claus, red-nose reindeers or hanging socks. Ukrainian Christmas avoided the commercialization of the holiday, and still centers the celebrations around the figure of Jesus Christ. The original purpose of the fest springs back in full. Shops are filled with mangers, carols sing about religious stories, and every bit of traditional Christmas Supper is in some way connected to the birth of Jesus and its apostles. Even the daily Ukrainian greeting changes! Instead of saying the regular ‘good byes’ and ‘hellos’, people greet with ‘Christ is born’, and respond with ‘Glorify Him’.
4 – Moo under the Christmas Dinner table
Don’t expect presents or a Christmas tree to that matter. Traditionally the centerpiece of the house is ‘didukh’, a sheaf of wheat that literally means ‘grandfather’s spirit’ and is meant to symbolize the staff of life. Christmas Dinner usually consists of 12 vegan dishes, with kutya – cooked wheat, mixed in poppy seeds, honey and raisins – being the main treat of the holiday. Traditions of house-to-house caroling also hold on, but even the most famous of them are an intricate mix of pagan and Christian. In fact, the world’s famous Carol of the Bells is originally … Ukrainian folk song, which lyrics are in no way related to Christmas.
Alongside caroling, Ukrainians love to dress up and participate in make-shift Christmas plays. Wander along the streets of Lviv on January 7th, and you are bound to meet the Devil, the Death, the three Kings and the Mary herself. Some of those characters might suspiciously remind you of famous Ukrainian politicians: well, since we take all our celebrations very seriously, we might go off the scenario a little and add in a sprinkle of sarcasm and humor to spice up all the improvisations!
And if you happen to be so lucky as to join the Christmas Dinner with a Ukrainian family, don’t be surprised if the honorable entrance of kutya is accompanied with inspired mooing, wailing and barking from under the table. The household’s kids are simply trying to bring in the good harvest and rich herds of animals. So – join in!
5 – Dress up for your second New Year celebration in one year (January 14th)
We love to celebrate so much, that we’ve even made sure we have two New Year Eves. Yes, the first one follows the Gregorian calendar and falls on January 1st, when we join in with the rest of the world in the craziness of Christmas trees, fireworks and midnight parties. The second one follows the Julian calendar and thus (if you’ve read the previous paragraph, you can easily make some fun calculations) falls on January 14th, leaving us plenty of time to rest after the all-night dancing of the first New Year Eve and… have it all over again!
This time, however, we throw in a bit more of our strange ancient customs, and hold the vibrant ‘Malanka’ celebrations on the ‘Old New Year’ (yes, that’s how we literally call it). On this night you’ll join crowds of young people walking around people’s houses, caroling, playing pranks and acting out small Christmas-related plays. One of the bachelor guys is dressed up in women’s clothes and leads the troop as the so-called ‘grandma Malanka’. If you aren’t a fan of a radical masquerade, try more masculine roles of the Goat or the Grandpa. In any way, don’t forget that Old New Year’s Eve is one of your last chances to go wild and have fun, before the 40-days long Lent comes along.
Now, those of you, attentive readers, will ask – but where is the promised jump into the ice-hole? Well, don’t expect that 1500 words will be enough to list all the fun winter holiday traditions that Ukrainians love to do. Rather, take the train east, pass the big cities and come to our cozy and tucked-away villages by yourself. Prepare your borshch with us, sit down for a Christmas Dinner, join us in the caroling spree and soak in the wonderful, surprising and authentic customs that Ukraine’s encompassing history and rich culture has left for you. And though some of those traditions might seem odd and bizarre, it’s them that help us understand our troubled history, connect to the heritage of ancestors and stay true to our identity in this fast-changing world.