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Winter holidays and winter food


The period from Christmas and well into the New Year, is marked in Ukraine, a predominantly Christian Orthodox land for the past millennium, by a string of holidays which are often collectively referred to as Svyatky  Holiday Season. Though thoroughly Christianized, these holidays still reveal a deeply traditional character, with some rituals and customs dating from the pre-Christian times. Theres hardly anyone who is not looking forward to Svyatky  the festive season can hardly fail to affect both the old and the young, believers and atheists.


The calendar of the traditional winter festivities in Ukraine is different from that which is used in the European countries or in America. The thing is that the Orthodox Church still sticks to the old, Julian calendar, whereas the state and all the secular institutions use the new Gregorian calendar. The difference between the old and the new calendar is thirteen days  that is why Christmas is celebrated by the Orthodox on January 6 rather than on December 25.

Svyatvechir (Holy Evening), or Christmas Eve, was a very special occasion. Didukh  a sheaf of oats or rye was carefully and neatly arranged for the occasion, and then it was brought into the house and decorated with colorful ribbons, candies, flowers cut from paper, and red berries (Christmas tree is a much more recent feature). When the first star appeared in the sky, the families sat down to the Svyatvechir dinner. It had to have twelve dishes, to correspond to the number of months in the year.

The table was strewn with fragrant dried herbs and hay and covered with a fresh table cloth and decorated with embroidered rushnyky  decorative towels. Kutya was an obligatory dish. Christmas being a family holiday, the most popular drink was nonalcoholic uzvar. All the dishes were still Lenten fare, and only one meal, Svyatvechir dinner, was allowed (only small children could have something to eat during the day).

Rizdvo, or Christmas, was quite a different thing as far as food was concerned.

But the day began with attending the Christmas service in church.

At table, tradition did not allow the use of knives, so one had to do without them.

Meat and fish were welcome on Christmas day, and all kinds of deserts made their cheerful appearance  verhuny, medivnyky (dishes made with honey), and sweet pies were thoroughly enjoyed.

Alcohol was also allowed to be had on Christmas. Traditional alcoholic drinks were all kinds of nalyvky and nastoyanky. Horilka (vodka) began to be widely consumed at a much later date.

Novy Rik  New Year was celebrated in Ukraine on various dates, but then the 1st of January came to be a universally accepted date (the Old Style calendar moves the New Year to January 14).

Shchedry vechir  Bountiful Evening is the New Year Eve. Those who went from house to house, greeting the hosts, were called shchedruvalnyky (it can be rendered as well-wishers), and the songs they sang were shchedrivky.

The food served at the Shchedry vechir dinner included all kinds of dishes, both with meat and meatless. In the times of old, people in the countryside had their Shchedry vechir dinner rather early in the evening and when shchedruvalnyky came knocking at their doors, some of the food and drink was shared with them, and gifts exchanged. It was considered best to see the New Year in on your sleep.

On January 1, social visits were exchanged, well-wishing continued, ample festive meals were consumed.

Vodokhreshche, or Baptism in Water (also Epiphany) was of a much less boisterous nature. On the day before Vodokhreshche, people went without food until dinner when they could have meatless dishes, borsch, varenyky, cabbage and fish. Kutya was also made and ritually eaten. Dinner could be eaten after the nightfall.

Tradition required that as much noise as possible was to be made after dinner  children and grown-ups repeatedly armed themselves with sticks and struck wooden fences, empty pots or anything else that could produce loud sounds (in later times, guns were fired). It was believed that all this racket would be conducive to future well-being, fertility of the land and of the cattle.

Didukh, which had been kept in the house since before Christmas, was taken out and burned to produce warm air  an invitation for the spring to come soon.

On the day of Vodokhreshche itself, the water in the lakes and rivers (if there were not any in the vicinity, then the wells would do) was blessed by priests. The blessed water was believed to possess healing properties. After it was blessed, it was taken in containers home and kept in front of the icons for the whole year, until next Vodokhreshche. Cattle and fowl were sprinkled with this water; it was given as medicine against deceases; the newlyborn were washed in it; the newlyweds were sprinkled with it, as well as the graves on the day of the funerals. Young girls washed their faces in the blessed water of the rivers and lakes, right in the holes cut in the ice.

In other words, the blessed Vodokhreshche water was a feature of life that followed one from birth to grave.

Vodokhreshche dinner was supposed to be meatless, but a variety of dishes was supposed to be served  the more dishes the better.


We hope that several recipes of some of the traditional dishes that were made for Svyatvechir, Christmas, New Year and Vodokhreshche, offered on the next pages, may help you get the feel, or rather the taste, of the Ukrainian traditional cuisine.

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