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Winter holidays in Ukraine

Kateryna, 20, has been living, working and studying in Montreal since she fled Ukraine in the midst of war in May 2022 when she was 18. This is her first article for Mitsou Magazine.

As long as I remember my childhood in Ukraine, winter holidays has always been my favorite. There is something special about them, and we had so many days for celebration. These days are always associated with family, friends, warmth and great food.

The first day that opens the whole season is St Nicholas day. Celebrated on December 19 (nowadays on the  6th), it is a magical journey into the spirit of generosity and kindness that defines the Ukrainian soul. The eve of St. Nicholas Day is a time of eager anticipation for children across the country. If they were good during the whole year, they might find a small gift under their pillows. My St. Nicholas would give me something sweet. Last year was the first time I had to spend the holidays without my family – the war separated us, as I now live alone in Montreal while they remain in Ukraine. So my mom called me and asked me to buy a chocolate and put it under my pillow, as if it was the first winter miracle. Of course, I did it, with tears on my cheeks next morning.

My last Christmas tree, when everything was still peaceful. Two months later, on February 24, 2021, war broke out in Ukraine

Originally, Ukrainians used to celebrate Orthodox Christmas January 7th but only this year, our government decided to celebrate it as the rest of the world. Forty days before Christmas, practicing people start the Christmas fast – one of the longest of the year and necessary to cleanse the soul and body before Christmas. During the Christmas fast, any vegetables and fruits, cereals, mushrooms are allowed, and on most days it is allowed to eat fish. You can’t eat meat, eggs, cheese, or dairy products during fasting.

In the heart of winter, the spirit of Christmas takes center stage, weaving a tapestry of joy, warmth, and cherished traditions. Ukrainian Christmas, deeply rooted in centuries-old customs, is a celebration that transcends time, connecting generations through a rich cultural heritage. The festivities kick off on Christmas Eve, known as “Sviatyi Vechir” or Holy Evening. The air is charged with anticipation as families gather around the festive table adorned with a symbolic embroidered cloth, the “rushnyk.” A single, unlit candle stands tall, representing the Star of Bethlehem and the arrival of Christ.

A symphony of love

I remember having performances at kindergarten and elementary school, where we were doing magical plays for our parents with singing and dancing. All the kids were wearing costumes: I was a little fox, a snowflake, a queen from The Sleeping Beauty. My mother always made sure I’d had the most beautiful costume. But I really wanted to be Snihuronka, a granddaughter of Ded Moroz (Old man/grandfather Frost) – our version of Santa. And after a celebration, we were getting a gift with a lot of sweets and a toy.

My first play, me as a little orange fox, with the white blouse.

An integral part of the celebration is the singing of traditional carols, or “koliadky” and “shchedrivky.” Voices join in harmonious melodies, echoing through the frosty air, conveying messages of peace and goodwill to all.

By the way, did you know that a famous Christmas song “Carol of the bells” was actually written by a Ukrainian? The melody, known as “Shchedryk,” was composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1916. The word “Shchedryk” translates to “bountiful” or “generous,” referring to the traditional Ukrainian New Year’s well-wishing song. In 1936, Peter J. Wilhousky, an American composer and choral conductor of Ukrainian descent, adapted the melody and wrote new lyrics in English, creating what is now known as “Carol of the Bells.”Mykola Leontovych was tragically killed during the political turmoil of the Soviet Union. He was arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1921 and executed by firing squad. Leontovych’suntimely death at the age of 38 marked the loss of a talented composer whose legacy continues through his enduring contributions to Ukrainian music.

Ukrainian Christmas traditions are not just rituals; they are an emotional journey that goes through time and space with lots of love, hope, and cultural richness.

This is one of the most powerful nights of the year, and many women try to see their future. The tradition of divination on Christmas night is older than Christmas itself in Ukraine. Even today, some girls in Ukraine are fortune-telling in order to find out whether they will get married and the name of the future groom. I did it too, just for fun, I don’t really believe in magic. And neither of my predictions came true. But it was a nice and magical experience.

I know that for many Ukrainian people, especially western ones, Christmas is really important. The way they celebrate it is magical. But it’s not for me. I’m from the East, where we were more influenced by our colonizer, the USSR. And people who surround me are not that religious. So we were kinda celebrating Christmas, going to our friends’ places (usually my godfather’s) and just having a good time.

I was three years old, with my favorite pooch, Tima the cat, who followed me all the way to Montreal.

We must not cry on New Year’s Eve

Then comes the New Year. I think it’s the most important day in most Ukrainian families. The USSR, a part of which Ukraine used to be for decades, tried to get rid of religion and all religious holidays. Of course, they didn’t succeed.

Every morning, on December 31, my family starts cooking a lot. My mom and grandma do it, I try to help them, my cat controls us and my dad cleans the house and prepares the living room for our guests. We always have some meat and baked potatoes on our table. Salads are really important too, every family has their own way to make them: Olivier (with potatoes), Salad with crab sticks (my favorite one), Dressed herring. Adults love Kholodets (meat jelly), but I find it so disgusting. Bread with some red caviar is also on every family’s table. If we talk about drinks, it is important to have champagne or white wine – better more than one – because you need to drink one to say bye to the old year, and drink another one to welcome the New Year.

You should take a shower, wash your hair and dress up pretty. As it is said, you’ll spend the next year the way you “meet” it. So if you are crying at midnight, you cry the whole year. Don’t do that.

In my turquoise ball gown, at a fundraiser at our university in 2021.

When it’s almost midnight, we turn on the TV and listen to the president’s speech. And during the last 15 seconds of the year, we have to open and drink champagne. You also have to make a wish. Some people write it on a piece of paper, make it burn, put the ashes into their glass and drink it to make sure the wish comes true.

And because we really like to celebrate, Ukraine unfolds a unique traditionthe Old New Year. As the clock strikes midnight on January 13th, Ukrainians have a second chance to bid farewell to the old and welcome the new one.

believing in miracle

This year, as the conflict is still going on, people are used to this climate of war. They don’t really care about the danger. They still decorate their houses, gather together (but don’t forget about the curfew: in my hometown Kharkiv it`s 11pm) and celebrate it. The others do not have a chance to do this because they are either hiding in basements of fighting for the country. But I guess everyone has some warmth in their hearts.

As the winter holidays embrace Ukraine with their magic, the spirit of joy and tradition continues to flourish in the hearts of its people. Today, as Ukrainians have a really dangerous and unstable life, these celebrations serve as beacons, guiding them back to the warmth of tradition, the embrace of family, and the hope. The holidays in Ukraine stand as a testament to resilience, cultural richness that transcends time, creating a legacy of love and festive enchantment for generations to come.

When I was young, my parents used to ask me to help them on the kitchen every time Ded Moroz brought me presents. And I believed it for a long time. Sometimes I wish I could still believe because I want to have some miracle in my life. And I haven’t had it in a long time. Maybe I’ll have it this year because my mom is coming here to see me in Montreal. My father won’t get the chance, as all men between the ages of 18 and 60 have to stay in Ukraine in case the army needs them.

The Kharkiv shopping mall where I was going to meet Santa Claus…

Last year, I was completely alone in my little flat in Montreal, thinking of my family in Ukraine. It was cold and dark for them because Russia was trying to destroy all the power plants that gave electricity and heat. Moreover, there were explosions after midnight. Before the war, you would think those were fireworks, that year you were scared for your life. And even though I’m safe in Canada now, I am still scared of the sound of fireworks.

I miss peaceful days when I could spend holidays with my family and friends. So I believe in our victory – hopefully soon – to have this miracle and joy of being around the loved ones back. This time, I will be celebrating the arrival of the new year 2024, with my mommy all to myself for a week, introducing her to my new Canadian life and new Quebec friends I’ve made since I left my beautiful country.

My mom and I.

З Новим роком (Happy New Year)!

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Winter holidays in Ukraine