Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated January 7 according to the Gregorian calendar as in most of other Orthodox Christian countries.
During the Soviet time it was not officially celebrated in Ukraine. Instead communist government tried to substitute Christmas with the holiday of New Year. But people did not forget their traditions. After gaining it’s independence in 1991 Ukraine started to celebrate Christmas officially as well.
There are numerous Christmas traditions here. They vary significantly at the different parts of Ukraine.
In most parts of Ukraine on the Christmas Eve people create so-called ‘Vertep’ (means cave in ancient Greek). These are scenes from Bible of Jesus birth. They show little Jesus in manger, Mary, strangers offering their gifts and Bethlehem star in the sky. Those verteps are exhibited at public places, usually near or inside churches. At night candles are installed inside verteps for people who come to church for the night service can observe them.
The Christmas Eve is called in Ukraine ‘Sviaty Vechir’ (Holy Evening) sometimes also called ‘Sviata Vecheria’ (Holy Supper). People usually cook some tasty foods for this evening. There should be at least 12 different foods on the table. Those should mandatory include ‘Kutia’ -- the ritual food which is prepared from cooked wheat and special syrup containing diluted honey, grated poppy seeds, raisins and sometimes walnuts.
Read more about Ukrainian Christmas recipes at InfoUkes or at Ukrainian Language and Culture Home Page.
For this evening people install and decorate Christmas trees in their houses. (Sometimes they are called also ‘Novorichna Jalynka’ -- New-Year’s firtree here). Another tradition exists in some regions of Western Ukraine to decorate the table with ‘Didukh’ -- a sheaf of oats or wheat of special shape: with four legs and numerous little bundles. It symbolizes prosperity for the next year.
St. Nicolas (Santa Claus) also called here ‘Did Moroz’ is an ubiquitous Christmas character and is supposed to bring some gifts under the Christmas tree this night.
Also in some regions people make decorated Christmas eggs very similar to Easter eggs -- ‘Pysanky’.
Halloween is not celebrated in Ukraine but some similar traditions are performed here for Christmas. Children this evening come around their neighbors with torches and sparclers (called here Bengal lights) spreading grains and colored seeds. They wish people good health and abundant harvest for the next year and ask for some donations. Also they perform some Christmas songs called in different parts of Ukraine ‘Koliadky’ or ‘Shchedrivky’ like these:
"Radujsia zemle, radujsia. Syn Bozhyj narodyvsia." -- Joy, Earth, Joy. The Son of God was born.
"Dobryj vechir, Sviaty vechir. Dobrym liudiam na zdorovja." -- Good evening, Holy evening. To good people for good health.
Some wonderful sound samples of Koliadky are available here.
Next day in some villages in Western Ukraine people organize some folk performances which obviously were inspired by ancient pagan habits. They dress up themselves as monsters with pelts and horns and run through the village trying to scare people. After that they run to the special place on the outskirts of the village and there happens the main act: they fight with all people of the village and finally are defeated. The scarecrows are burned in the big fire. And all people are dancing around this fire. This symbolizes the fight of Good and Evil and that Good defeated Evil for the whole next year.