Ukrainian Christmas Food Culture and Traditions

The traditions revolving around food for a Ukrainian Christmas were something I had been mulling over, pun intended, for months. In my own unique way of supporting the people of Ukraine, I thought it would be fun to learn how Christmas is celebrated and share it with a United States audience. There are quite a few things to learn from our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, and tackling this subject was very exciting and informative.

Costumes in rynok square lviv ukraine

In part of my journey to learn about Ukrainian Christmas food traditions, I took note of some of the more important things, then modified some dishes and ingredients to be a bit more modern or western friendly. I wanted to be able to provide guidance that anyone in the United States could follow to try some different takes on the holidays.

Merry Christmas in Ukrainian

Merry christmas in ukrainian rakhiv ukraine
Merry Christmas from Rakhiv, Ukraine

Різдвом (Христовим)! [z rizdvom (khrystovym)] – Merry Christmas!

Різдво means birth in old Ukrainian. Even though it would sound ridiculous in English, it’s common to say Різдвом Христовим! – Merry Christ’s Christmas! Older generations might say Рождеством (Христовим) which means exactly the same. 

Christmas is a huge religious holiday and even has its own greeting. Ukrainians say Христос народився! – Christ is born! Older generations will greet you with Христос ся рождає! another version with the same message. The appropriate reply to your greeter is Славімо його! – Glory to Him!

Ukrainians use these greetings during all three Christmas days. They celebrate from January 7-9, with the first day being the most important.

Crash Course to Ukrainian Christmas Traditions

Rynok square lviv ukraine - ukrainian christmas food culture and traditions
Christmas parade in Rynok Square, Lviv, Ukraine

Christmas is celebrated on January 7 in Ukraine.

The main Christmas meal is called Sviata Vecheria, or Holy Supper, and is eaten on Christmas Eve, January 6.

Dinner will begin when the first star becomes visible in the sky. Ukrainians will fast the entire day of, with the hungriest going outside when it becomes dark to begin looking for a star, so they may begin dinner. The star represents the journey of the Wise Men to find Jesus and that Jesus has been born.

Ukrainians traditionally serve 12 dishes, representing Jesus’s 12 disciples, for a Christmas Eve dinner. The dishes won’t have any meat, eggs, or milk in them. The main dish is often kutya, a type of sweet oatmeal made of wheat. Other dishes can include mushrooms, sauerkraut, red borsch (beet soup), dumplings known as varenyky (Pierogi), holopchi cabbage rolls, make without meat in them at Christmas, pyrizhky (cabbage buns), whitefish and kolach, a special Christmas bread.

Ukrainian christmas, kutya
It is a custom to bring Kutya to your godparents on Christmas Eve. Photo by: Iryna Yeroshko

Kutya is a must-have, no matter what your other dishes are.

The Didukh, a bundle of different grains, is the official symbol of Christmas in Ukraine. The room where Sviata Vecheria is eaten normally has a Didukh decoration placed in it. The Didukh is made from a sheaf of wheat and symbolizes the large wheat fields in Ukraine. It literally means ‘grandfather spirit’ and can represent people’s ancestors being with them in their memories. Sometimes people use some heads of wheat in a vase rather than a whole sheaf of wheat.

Ukrainian christmas, didukh
A modern Didukh. Photo by: Bo&Ko

After dinner, all uneaten food is left on the table overnight for the dead to feast upon.

Children are encouraged to crow, grunt, moo, bark, and meow under the table on Christmas Eve to encourage livestock to breed.

The original name for Ukrainian Christmas carols is Kolyadky. They can be sung around the table or you might go out caroling in the streets. People sometimes carry brightly colored stars on poles when they go caroling and singing.

For children, the most popular Christmas carol by far is Shchedryk, which is where the song Carol of the Bells comes from.

Making paper snowflakes to put on the tree or in windows are a popular decoration. In parts of western Ukraine, Christmas Trees are decorated with artificial spider’s webs because of the story of The Christmas Spider. These are called made of paper and silver wire, called pavuchky which means little spider.

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