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  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 second time that many displaced Ukrainians are experiencing Christmas in the UK and many will take comfort from staying connected to the old Ukrainian Christmas traditions. We hope that the exchange will enrich the experience for hosts, their families and Ukrainian refugees.
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. Until this year, the tradition in Ukraine was to celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar which runs 13 days behind the calendar that we follow here, so many Ukrainians celebrated Christmas Day on 7 January!

However, the Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox Churches have decided to move to the Gregorian calendar, which means that this year's Christmas will be different. It’s the first year that the majority of Ukrainians will celebrate Christmas on 25 December. Some will, however, wish to celebrate according to the old calendar, so the question ‘whe ndo you celebrate Christmas?’ may still be a reasonable one to ask!

Many will get up very early to attend the Christmas Morning Service and for those who are religious, attending services on several dates both coming up to and after Christmas is a very important ritual.

Christmas Day may be a particular challenge as no public transport will run, so those who wish to attend church services will have to rely on their own transport or the kindness of friends to help them get there.See here for a listing of Ukrainian churches and mission points around the country with contact details.

Ukrainian Catholic Churches
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church

Traditionally in Ukraine, children (but only good children!) will receive gifts, not on Christmas morning, but a few weeks earlier on St Nicholas’ Day. St. Nicholas or Sviaty Mykolay visits on 6 December (according to the new calendar) 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 nearest weekend. You can view festive events being organised by AUGB branches here.

Often St. Nicholas, complete with flowing robes and white beard will 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 GrandfatherFrost (‘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 many 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. 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.

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 along with the traditional Christmas dinner.
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 until the feast of the Presentation (2nd February).

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

New Year 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. Our events page 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, 6 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 home sand 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 sometime alone, but also be prepared with support if emotions become overwhelming.

On other key Christmas dates, your guest may well also be emotional as it will be the first or even the second 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.
Ukrainian films, music and stories

There are many online resources which provide information and entertainment about winter and Ukrainian Christmas. A short selection is below.

The Ukrainer website has a ‘winter holidays’ section with many interesting stories about Christmas and other winter holidays in Ukraine. The stories are in two languages. There are text stories and videos, and many beautiful photos.

There’s a short old documentary film made in 1941 called Ukrainian Winter Holidays about Christmas celebrations in Manitoba, Canada, which might be of interest. The link is here

Pekelna Khorugva or Kozatske Rizdvo is a light, quite funny Ukrainian film about Kozaks and Christmas celebrations, which costs £2 to watch. It is ideal for watching with children.

There is a nice Christmas edition of the podcast Music with Stories. It is hosted in Ukrainian by a well-known Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak. Yaroslav talks about musical pieces and some stories related to them, and adds various musical compositions. It's very interesting and highly recommended. There are many episodes, including about Christmas.

One other thing to look out for is that, starting from December 13, the Ukrainian-Polish film 'Shchedryk' will be available on the Netflix platform (with different release dates for different countries and no UK release date yet). You can watch a short trailer here.

If more help is needed

A number of helplines are open around the Christmas periodand you can find a listing here.