Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain
AUGB Ltd, 49 Linden Gardens, London, W2 4HG

a ukrainian cultural guide - Celebrating Christmas

Christmas is a time when many families and friends come together to celebrate, and in Ukraine the many old traditions connected with this feast day, such as carolling, sitting together on Christmas Eve for a meal of Lenten dishes and performing the nativity play from house to house, are still very much alive.

This year will be the first time that displaced Ukrainians are experiencing Christmas in the UK and many will take comfort from staying connected to the old Ukrainian Christmas traditions. We hope this exchange will enrich the experience for hosts and their families.

Ukrainian Christmas and New Year greetings

The traditional Ukrainian Christmas greeting is ‘Христос Родився‘ (Khrystos Rodyvsia - Christ is born) to which the response is ‘Славімо Його‘ (Slavimo Yoho - Let us glorify Him).

A more general seasonal greeting is ‘Веселих Свят’ (‘Veselykh Svyat’), which literally means ‘Happy Feasts”.

The greeting for the New Year can be either ‘З Новим Роком’ (‘Z Novym Rokom’) or ‘Щасливого Нового Року’ (‘Shchaslyvoho Novoho Roku’), both of which mean Happy New Year.


Everyone knows that Christmas Day is celebrated on 25 December here in the UK. However, in many regions of Ukraine, the tradition is to celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar which runs 13 days behind the calendar that we follow here.

This means that many Ukrainians will be celebrating Christmas Day on 7 January! Many will get up very early to attend the Christmas Morning Mass and for those who are religious, attending services on several dates both coming up to and after Christmas is a very important ritual.

See here for a listing of Ukrainian churches and mission points around the country.
Ukrainian Catholic Churches
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church

For several years, there has been a growing debate in Ukraine about when to celebrate Christmas. 25 December is now a public holiday along with 7 January, so there are no hard and fast rules on the date. It all depends what your guests have been used to and what makes them feel most connected to their roots. The question ‘when do you celebrate Christmas?’ isn’t as strange as it might seem!


Traditionally in Ukraine, children (but only good children!) will receive a gift, not on Christmas morning, but a few weeks earlier on St Nicholas’ Day.
St. Nicholas or Sviaty Mykolay visits on 19 December and leaves a gift under the child’s pillow. Many Ukrainian communities around the country will be organising St. Nicholas Day celebrations and concerts over the weekend of 17/18 December.
You can view festive events being organised by AUGB branches here.

Often ‘St. Nicholas’, complete with flowing robes and white beard may be present at these celebrations with his angel helpers and small gifts are provided either by the community or by parents for him to distribute to their children.

As traditions are updated, Ukrainians will also exchange gifts on 25 December, though there is also a tradition in some parts of Ukraine to exchange gifts around New Year.

The non-religious Soviet tradition involved a character called Grandfather Frost (‘Deed Moroz’); this reference may offend many Ukrainians, so please check with your guests.

One of the things that Ukrainians may be uncertain about is the etiquette around sending Christmas cards and giving presents, e.g. buying a gift for their child’s teacher, the kinds and value of gifts for children’s friends (or indeed hosts) that’s normal and acceptable. If they don’t have a great deal of money, this could be a worry, so do please provide reassurance that it really is the thought that counts and that it isn’t compulsory!


A traditional British Christmas dinner with all the trimmings will be a new experience for most Ukrainians and they are likely to be keen to experience this. But you may have to explain what some dishes are – e.g. Christmas pudding, and also any other family traditions you may have.

Ukrainian Christmas food is completely different. To begin with, the main Christmas meal is on Christmas Eve (24 December or 6 January, depending on whether or not your guest observes the old calendar).

It consists of 12 dishes – one for each apostle – and is dairy and meat-free, as Christmas Eve comes at the end of the pre-Christmas fasting period. It will be a very supportive gesture (as well as a whole new experience for you) to allow your guest to prepare at least some traditional Ukrainian dishes on 6 January.

Typical traditional dishes include:
Kolach – a braided bread, which is the centrepiece of the table and usually has a candle in the middle
Kutia – eaten at the start of the meal. A mixture of grain, honey, dried fruits and nuts symbolising plenty.
Borshch – traditional beetroot soup
A fish dish (or two) – this could include fried/baked carp, marinated herring
Varennyky – boiled dumplings filled with potato and onion or sauerkraut
Holubtsi – cabbage rolls filled with rice or buckwheat
Mushroom sauce – traditionally made with wild mushrooms
Uzvar – a compote made from dried fruits
Sweet dishes – which could include home-made yeasted doughnuts, honey cake, poppyseed roll.

Everyone will have their traditional family recipe and each dish has its own symbolism, but if you want to find out more, this website is very informative.

Do not be surprised to hear about different traditions (or recipes) from your guests when comparing notes with other sponsors. Ukrainian Christmas traditions vary not only from region to region, but also from neighbouring town/village to town/village.

The Lenten period ends on Christmas Eve so Christmas Day is no longer meat and dairy-free. Your guests will have generally been used to a table that groans with food for most of the day and will again have their own traditional recipes that you may wish to try.

Other Ukrainian Christmas traditions

There are many other traditions associated with Ukrainian Christmas and the Christmas Eve meal.

The Christmas Eve meal starts when the first night star appears in the sky. A lighted candle is placed at the window which is a sign for any traveller that they are welcome. The head of the house will bring in a ‘didukh’, which is a sheaf of wheat, symbolising the togetherness of the family with their ancestors. The didukh will be placed in a corner and stay there throughout the Christmas period. The Christmas Eve table will always have an empty extra place laid to allow ancestors to join the family spiritually.  

An important tradition is carol singing. In the UK we begin singing carols in the lead-up to Christmas. Ukrainians, on the other hand, only start to sing carols at the Christmas Eve table and then continue with carols for at least the next two weeks after Christmas. On Christmas Eve and the days after, groups of young carol singers traditionally go from house to house, in a tradition akin to wassailing, singing a carol or performing the nativity dressed in bright costumes, carrying a star and passing on good wishes for the year ahead. Many Ukrainian Christmas carols can be found on youtube, and other music streaming services.

The post-Christmas period

The ‘old’ New Year on 14 January is another important celebration in the Christmas cycle. It’s a joyous occasion – in effect preceded by a night of misrule. Traditionally, on New Year’s Day, young people visit friends and relatives and scatter wheat with greetings for a healthy and prosperous year to come. The events listing includes several Ukrainian dances and social events to celebrate the ‘old’ New Year.

The third important event in the Christmas cycle is the 12th day of Christmas, 19 January, which is the feast of the Theophany, popularly referred to as the feast of the Jordan (‘Yordan’), on which many will go to church to be blessed and bring holy water home with them to bless their homes and families for health and wellbeing in the coming year.

The evening before ‘Yordan’ is ‘Shchedriy Vechir’, which literally translates as ‘Generous Eve’, with its traditional meal being much the same as the Christmas Eve meal, but now with meat and dairy. Several of our communities will be hosting community meals and carol concerts around this time.

There is a whole genre of secular songs associated with the New Year / ‘Yordan’ period, which call for blessings, good wishes and prosperity for the coming year. As a point of interest, the carol which everyone knows as ‘Carol of the Bells’ is of Ukrainian origin and celebrates ‘Shchedriy Vechir’ – here is an original rendition with the English translation by Ukrainian artist Eileen.


Christmas can always bring out many emotions and this will be particularly the case this year. Your Ukrainian guests will have left their homes and families and in many cases they are highly likely to have loved ones and friends fighting on the front line. 25 December will therefore bring a mixture of emotions. The whole run-up to Christmas, especially with children, may well be quite exciting and even uplifting, with lights, trees, displays and events (though you may have to explain to your guests what a pantomime is!). But the day itself may at times become difficult for your guests, especially if you are having a family gathering, which could be a reminder of the family they have left behind. Please be understanding if your guest perhaps wants to spend some time alone, but also be prepared with support if emotions become overwhelming.

Ukrainian Christmas on 6/7 January is the time when your guest may well be most emotional as it will be the first time that they have celebrated outside their family home and environment. There may well be more bombardments by Russia of Ukrainian civilian targets, so it could be a very difficult time. Supporting with some elements of Ukrainian tradition may help, as may connecting your guest with other Ukrainians, but there won’t be a simple or easy answer to the trauma that some may feel.

Some Ukrainians may wish to travel to Ukraine or other European countries to visit family or friends. They may have elderly parents in Ukraine who refuse to leave, but they want to check on them; they may have a husband who has been given leave from the army that they haven’t seen in months; or there could be other reasons. This doesn’t mean they aren’t scared and, in many cases, relatives fighting in the army will want their wives, parents and children to be in a safe place so they don’t have to worry about them. Please be understanding and supportive.

Connecting with the Ukrainian community

Ukrainian communities around the country, informal Ukrainian support groups and others will be organising numerous events over the Christmas period which will provide an opportunity for your guest to be with other Ukrainians in a safe and supportive environment.

This link takes you to a listing of Christmas events in branches of the Association of Ukrainians (AUGB) around the country and will be updated as more events are added.

If more help is needed

A number of helplines are open around the Christmas period, including Barnardo’s amongst others, as listed below.
Barnardo’s Ukrainian Support Helpline

0800 148 8586
10am-8pm weekdays
24th-27th December - 10am-3pm
Except - 25th December - Closed

Red Cross

0808 196 3651
Closed on weekends and English bank holidays
Open 10am-5pm on the Wed/Thurs/Friday between Christmas and new year

Refugee Council - InfoLine

InfoLine will be closed from Tuesday 20th December and will reopen on Monday 5th January at 9.30am

Childline (for children up to age 19)

0800 1111
Open throughout Christmas, 24hrs per day

Confidential, free, anonymous text support service 24hrs per day
You can text 85258 from anywhere in the UK

116 123
Open throughout Christmas, 24hrs per day