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    Carol singing is one of the most ancient Ukrainian Christmas traditions that continues today.

    Most Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, and in the past couple of decades, they have assembled an amazing potpourri of traditions to accompany the celebrations of the season. These can range from hanging up a Christmas wreath, which originates from Ireland, to honoring the symbol of the coming year – a Chinese tradition.

    “Who can blame people for trying to welcome happiness in their lives by all possible means, as all the Christmas traditions in all the countries are about attracting happiness,” says Galyna Bondarenko, an ethnographer and historian.

    But local traditions are also growing in popularity, possibly due to the revolution. Kyiv Post has picked out five that would make a Christmas Ukrainian. Each of them are living traditions that often develop modern twists.

    Singing carols, the revolutionary way

    The texts of Ukrainian Christmas carols range from witty short poems mocking relationships between family members or simply asking for money, to beautiful songs with complex motives and biblical plots, the ending of each and every carol is always the same – wishes of happiness and love to the family.

    “The first carol singers were starting visiting homes right after the night church service on Christmas Eve, mostly young people and adults, because singing carols wasn’t just an entertainment, but an important social mission,” says Bondarenko. The main message was to bring the news of God being born, unlike nowadays when “carol singing became a form of disguised begging.”

    The money and treats were originally received as reward for bringing the good news.

    This year, with anti-government, pro-European protests continuing across the nation, the revolutionary spirit added an extra twist to the carols.

    On Dec. 19 Ukrainian famous folk singers and folk bands gathered to record Ukraine’s revolutionary carol – a remake of the famous Ukrainian Christmas carol “The New Joy” from the times of Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The song depicts a sad Christmas eves in families who lost their fathers and sons in a bloody war.

    Нова радість стала

    Vertep, take a cast and add your own

    The word ‘vertep’ in the Ukrainian folklore means the cave where Jesus Christ was born. According to Bondarenko, at Christmas time, Vertep means either a sculpture composition of the moment of birth of Jesus, or a theatrical play.

    The types of play can vary hugely. They can be biblical plots as well as local characters mixed with traditional characters, but the essence is always the same: “it is always a fight good and evil that ends with the holy birth of Christ called to bring light to the world,” Bondarenko explains.

    The main cast of the traditional Vertep performances are always the same  – Mary, the mother of Jesus, his father Joseph, the magi who came to greet the newly born God and evil King Herod who ordered to kill all the newborns.

    Ukrainians have been adding any number and types of characters to their dress-up performances, which still walk around in rural Ukraine.

    “My colleague actually recorded an evil character called Viktor Yanukovych (Ukraine’s current president) in a Vertep play back in 2003 and since that time he never left the stage,” Bondarenko says.  The latest Vertep play with his participation took place on Maidan Nezalezhnosti during EuroMaidan rallies on Dec. 31.

    31.12.13 Євромайдан – Новий Рік – Зірковий вертеп 2013

    Diduh, the Ukrainian version of Christmas Tree

    While fir-trees were nominated the official symbol of the Christmas season by Russian Tsar Peter the Great in the 17th century, Ukrainians have always had their own symbol of good, grace and life – a sheaf of different grains, also symbolising wealth. It was placed in the corner of the living room, right under the icons and close to a loaf of bread, and stayed there till the end of the Christmas holidays, Bondarenko says.

    School teacher Daria Antsybor says she bought two Diduh trees this year. “Now you can again buy them in many places like Kyiv’s Andriivskyi Uzviz, because traditions are coming back,” she says But these Christmas decorations are rather expensive in Kyiv, starting at Hr 150, she said.

    A man holds diduh – a sheaf of different grains, Ukrainian national symbol of Christmas.

    Christmas dinner

    “When Ukraine just got its Independence and we were allowed to celebrate Christmas again the first question many people would ask me, knowing I am a folklore scientists was ‘So, what do we do with that turkey’,” Bondarenko recalls.

    Alas, there is no turkey cooked at Christmas time in Ukraine. Bondarenko says that when the four-week Christmas fast ends, the first protein that appears on the tables of Ukrainians is pork.

    “A pig was a symbol of wealth and good life and the main beast in every yard, so all the dishes from pork including aspic, all types of sausages, cutlets and cabbage rolls are welcome,” she said.

    On Christmas eve, however, the dinner was meat-free. This was the last day of the fast and believers would get 12 dishes for their meal, but the protein would be restricted to fish.

    Christmas eve is the last day of the fast and believers get 12 dishes for their meal,all meat-free.

    The most important Christmas tradition

    However the most ancient and probably the most important Christmas tradition is not a fun activity, says Oleksiy Voropay, a prominent Ukrainian academic who specializes in folk traditions.

    “This is a tradition of forgiving each other and helping each other to feel the joy of life,” Voropai writes in his article “The customs of our people”.

    And it was not only about relatives, but about beggars and poor people. At Christmas, people were supposed to be especially charitable, and even invite poor people for a Christmas dinner to their homes. “Ukrainians believed that the more people you help to feel the joy of Christ’s birth, the more joy would come back to you next year,” Bondarenko explains.

    A woman cooks Christmas eve dinner for Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv at maidan Nezalezhnosti. Ukrainians believe the more people you help to feel the joy of Christ’s birth, the more joy would come back to you next year.



    Christos razdajetsja! Slavite jeho!, to all of our members celebrating today.  I am really trying to remember forgiveness this year.  I have the bad habit of holding a grudge for decades at times.  Not a habit I want to pass down to my son.

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