Not everyone celebrates Christmas in December. In Eastern Europe, Orthodox Christians look forward to a celebration as late as Jan. 7, when Christmas falls in the Julian calendar. Depending on the country, and even the region, Christmas traditions vary.
In Ukraine, some Christmas customs date back to the Neolithic Era and reflect the agricultural way of life of that time. After the introduction of Christianity, many of these customs were accepted by the Church, and adapted to Christian traditions.
The most important and colourful part of these traditions and festivities is on Christmas Eve, which revolves around the gathering of family, the commemoration of ancestors and the religious observation of Jesus Christ’s birth.
For the Christmas Eve supper, the table is strewn with a small handful of hay in memory of Christ’s birth in a manger and over it is spread the very best tablecloth adorned with richly decorated embroidery.
The central table decoration is what is a called a kolach. This is a circular bread symbolizing the the sun and eternity.
The rest of the Holy Supper consists of twelve meatless dishes that are all prepared with vegetable oil. The main dish, kutya, is served first and is cooked from whole wheat with honey and ground poppy seeds, which symbolizes the fertility of God’s nature. This is a ritual dish with ancient symbolic and agricultural meaning, and reflects family unity. Kutya also symbolizes peace, prosperity and good health.
The celebrations begin at dusk. Typically, the mother calls the children to see if the first star has appeared in the evening sky. The star is the first sign and a call to the Holy Supper. Next, the father comes into the house and offers his good wishes to his family.
From then on, the family gathers around the table and begins their meal. As they eat, carolers stop by and sing Christmas songs. After the singers are done, they collect donations from the father, thank the family and continue on their merry way, leaving the family to celebrate on their own.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because many North American Christmas traditions derive from the very festivities happening in Orthodox homes all over the world this month.
So next Christmas, think of these historic traditions, and remember that somewhere in the world there are people living by a different calendar, still waiting to celebrate.