Friday, 26 December 2014 00:00

Twelve dish suppers and talking animals: Christmas traditions in Ukraine and Poland

Written by Ana Maria Ducuta


Christmas Ukraine tree
Photo: Ivan Bandura; Licence: CC BY 2.0
This Christmas tree was going to be put up on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence square) during the wave of 
demonstrations in Kyiv back in December 2013


This round, E&M author Ana Maria Ducuta, a Romanian student, takes up the challenge and enriches our little series on Christmas traditions by looking at what happens in Poland and Ukraine. Between animals that may speak with human voices if they eat a traditional dish and weather forecasts that influence people's future, the two countries definitely have interesting traditions to read about.  



In Ukraine Christmas is celebrated on the 7 of January. The country, in fact, follows the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one. Although during the Soviet Union Christmas was not officially celebrated there, after gaining independence in 1991 Ukraine started to celebrate it once again. Now the period between 7 and 14 January is a festive week and many Ukrainian Christmas traditions, which are actually based on pre-Christian pagan customs, take place within that period. But Ukrainian Christmas rituals are also dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family and to the remembrance of ancestors.


Sviata vecherya (Holy Supper) is the central tradition of Christmas Eve. The dinner table has a few wisps of hay on the embroidered tablecloth as a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem: one for the ancestors of the family and the second for the living members. The table also has one extra place set for deceased family members, whose souls come on Christmas Eve. Kolach (Christmas bread) is placed at the centre of the table. Once all preparations are completed, the father offers family members a blessed piece of bread dipped in honey. Twelve courses follow because each course is dedicated to one of Christ's Apostles. According to ancient pagan belief, each course was for every full moon during the course of the year. When the first star appears on the evening sky, the Sviata vecherya may begin. A prayer is said and the father says the traditional Christmas greeting Khristos rodyvsya (Christ is born) which is answered by Slavite Yoho (Glorify him) The first course is always kutia and it is the main dish of the whole supper. Then comes borshsh (beetroot soup) with vushka (boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and onions), followed by varenyky. At the end of the dinner the family sings Christmas carols: the most common one is Boh Preduichny (God is eternal).


Christmas Poland Warsaw
Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland; Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0
Christmas market in the Polish capital Warsaw



Poland is a predominantely Catholic nation and Christmas is celebrated on 25 December. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and is a time of religious observance and prayer. Sharing of the oplatek, a thin wafer made of flour and water, is the most ancient and beloved Polish Christmas tradition: it is shared before the Wigilia, the Christmas Eve supper, when wishes for peace and prosperity are exchanged and even the pets and farm animals get a piece of oplatek. According to legend, if animals eat the wafer on Christmas Eve, they will be able to speak with human voices at midnight, but only those who are pure of spirit will be able to hear them. Christmas Eve is finished by going to church for a midnight mass service whilst the days after Christmas are often spent with family and friends.


According to legend, if animals eat the wafer on Christmas Eve they will be able to speak with human voices 


Fortune telling is quite popular at Christmas: everything that happens at Christmas, including the weather, has an impact on the following year. Straw is put under white tablecloth and girls predict their future by reading the straw. After supper, which typically consists of ham, some type of Polish sausage (keilbasa) and either roast duck, goose or hunter's stew, young women pull out blades of straw from beneath the tablecloth: a green one foretells marriage, a withered one means waiting, a yellow one means no marriage at all. If the straw is too short death won't come too late.


But there are many more less well-known Christmas traditions that take place in Poland. According to another, for instance, no one should be left alone at Christmas, so strangers are welcomed to the Christmas supper. In the morning, if the first person to visit is a man, it's believed to bring good luck, if the visitor is a woman, one might expect misfortune.


At Christmas time, so-called star boys go carolling from house to house carrying the szopka, a miniature puppet theatre that recreates the Nativity story. Small boxes that contain chalk, a gold ring, incense and a piece of amber are brought to the church to be blessed, in memory of the gifts of the Magi. What is rather surprising is that Santa Claus does not appear on Christmas Eve: he appears instead on 6 December, during St. Nicholas' Day, which  is a part of the Advent celebrations, confirming the fact that Advent celebrations are an integral part of Polish Christmas traditions.


Christmas Poland zopska
Photo: orangeandbrown; Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The szopka, a miniature puppet theatre that recreates the Nativity story. It is carried around by Polish children
when they go carolling from house to house 







Ana Maria Ducuta comes from Romania and is 24 years old. She is a PhD candidate in History, she loves writing, reading and drinking tea. She has recently published her first e-book of absurd theatre and she is interested in travelling and spirituality.   

Last modified on Friday, 26 December 2014 15:49

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