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Traditions That Define Ukrainian Identity

A family having dinner
In Ukraine, family members gather on Christmas Eve to have dinner together.

Ukraine is an Eastern European country with a sophisticated history and diverse culture. Over centuries, religion and ethnic practices have shaped the country we know today and have birthed many unique and interesting traditions.

The majority of Ukraine’s population are Christians who follow the doctrines of Eastern Orthodoxy. But long before Christianity was introduced, they had already been practicing pagan traditions. Over time, these pagan customs would be incorporated into the Orthodox practices we know today.

To have a better understanding of Ukrainian culture, let’s discover some traditions that define Ukrainian identity and make its culture unique and interesting.

Christmas

Ukrainians celebrate Christmas twice. Christmas is celebrated around the world on December 25. But Ukrainians also celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7, following the Orthodox calendar.

The two most common traditions, among many others, are done on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve Dinner

A traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Ukraine consists of 12 dishes representing the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ.

The highlight of the dinner is called kutia, a traditional Orthodox dish served during the Christmas season.

Other dishes served on Christmas Eve might include freshly baked bread, mushrooms, fish, potatoes, varenyky (Ukrainian half-moon-shaped dumplings), uzvar (a Ukrainian winter beverage), etc.

Sometimes, a coin is hidden inside the varenyky. Whoever gets a varenyky with a coin inside is meant to have good luck the entire following year.

Participants also sing Christmas songs at the table, commemorating the blessings they received while wishing good things to one another.

Christmas Carols

People around the world listen to and sing Christmas carols during the holiday season. In Ukraine, they call them kolyadkaemphasized text, the Slavic term for Christmas songs.

On Christmas Eve, children and some young adults wear their traditional clothes or costumes. While carrying a handcrafted star that symbolizes the star of Bethlehem, they then go to the houses of their friends, neighbors, or relatives to sing kolyadkas and wish their families happiness and prosperity. In return, they are given candies, chocolates, fruits, or money as tokens of appreciation.

Easter

While many parts of the world consider Christmas to be the major religious event of the year, Easter is more important for Ukrainians.

Their high regard toward the occasion is manifested in how they prepare for the holiday.

Family members fast seven days prior to Easter Sunday.

On Holy Thursday, they clean themselves, then their home. After that, they start preparing pysankas (decorated eggs) and paskas (traditional Ukrainian Easter bread).

Most Ukranians do not sleep the night before Easter. The whole family goes to church and participates in the vigil service.

They prepare a special basket before going to church on Easter to have it blessed by the priest. The basket contains the paskas and pysankas that they prepared days prior, and they also include cheese, ham, and sausages. Aside from the food items, they also put a willow branch and an embroidered towel called rushnyk.

From the church, the family members have breakfast together. Whatever food they have prepared for that day, they always have to start the celebration with the blessed paskas and the other blessed food items in the basket.

A set of decorated eggs
Decorated eggs are called pysankas in Ukraine.

Ivana Kupala

The celebration of Ivana Kupala started sometime during the pre-Christianization of Ukraine to honor the sun and mark the summer solstice. There, one can witness unusual and interesting rituals that are related to fire, water, and herbs.

Here are the most common:

Jumping over the Fire

According to this tradition, a couple who jumps over the Ivana Kupala fire while holding hands will have a long and happy relationship.

Friends, or even strangers, can also participate in this activity, which they believe brings them good luck and health.

Making Flower Wreaths and Fortune Telling

Unmarried girls traditionally make wildflower wreaths during Ivana Kupala. They set wreaths on the water surface to tell their fortune according to how the wreaths float. Those with wreaths that float well on the water surface will get married.

Searching for Fern Flower

During Ivana Kupala, it is said that fern flowers only appear for a short period of time. Whoever finds one will have supernatural abilities like healing people or seeing the future. In the early morning, women go to the forest to find the flowers.

Ukrainian Wedding Traditions

Families in Ukraine are tight-knit, so wedding traditions are kept and observed keenly.

The start of the Ukrainian wedding ceremony is marked by the rite of matchmaking. With this rite, the suitor’s matchmaker, more often his godmother, proposes marriage to the parents of the woman.

The woman’s camp sends an embroidered towel for a positive answer. Otherwise, the suitor gets a pumpkin instead. If the suitor gets the towel, they can proceed with the other rituals.

A ritual bread, usually a round loaf, is given to the groom and bride before the wedding. On the wedding day, the groom goes to the bride’s home, and they go to the church together.

After the wedding, they celebrate at the husband’s house. The modern Ukrainian wedding can last until the following day.

Interesting and Unique Culture

Ukrainian traditions are influenced by a variety of religions and ethnic groups.

It is amazing to note that Ukraine has unique and even peculiar customs. For example, they consider Easter more important than Christmas, which is a stark contrast to the majority of the world.

One can appreciate the culture better when visiting Ukraine. The country’s cultural enrichment continues to this day, so we can expect more interesting and unique traditions in the future.

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