CELEBRATE 2022 – Ilona Dovgan looked peaceful as she watched a video recording of members of her church’s choir serenading her family with a Ukrainian Christmas carol, complete with harmony and gently chiming bells.
Her expression reflected the joy and gratitude she felt recalling this memory of Christmases past, although if you talk to her for any length of time you come to believe that joy and gratitude are an integral part of Dovgan’s demeanor year-round, not just during the holidays.
When the choir members at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church finished their song, one proclaimed in Ukrainian, “Christ is born,” to which everyone responded, “Glorify him.”
Caroling is an integral part of the Christmas season for Ukrainians.
“If there is not caroling there is no Christmas. We start on Christmas Eve and go until mid-January,” Dovgan said.
Ukrainian communities begin their celebrations of the season on Nov. 28 with a 39-day Advent fast. This is the date on the Gregorian calendar adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in 1592, which most of the world uses today. However, Ukrainians use the older Julian calendar, putting the date at Nov. 15 on that calendar.
“We are not eating meat, and we don’t do much dairy and eggs,” Dovgan said. “Christmas Eve itself is a strict fast day.”
The fasting stems from an acknowledgment that the animals present in the stable when Jesus was born were there to honor Jesus. So out of respect for those animals, Ukrainians refrain from eating animal products.
Dovgan first came to the United States from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine in 2012 to join her husband, the Rev. Vasyl Dovgan, who was attending seminary at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary in New Jersey. The American celebration of Christmas surprised her by being just two days — Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
“For me it was shocking,” she said. “Why? It’s the whole point — you wait for that day and celebrate after. You want to keep that spirit.”
Christmas Eve falls on Jan. 6, and the celebration continues through Jan. 19. Christmas Eve dinner — which follows a thorough cleaning and preparation of the house, as well as a visit to the cemetery to light candles to remember those who have passed on — is simple and small, Dovgan said.
“We’re supposed to start our dinner with the first star,” she said. “I remember my grandma was rushing, ‘Let’s go, it’s already 3 p.m.’ ”
The first star symbolizes when Jesus was born.
One of the main dishes on the Christmas Eve table is kutya, made from poppy seeds ground with a mortar and pestle, wheat and nuts, usually walnuts because they grow abundantly in Ukraine.
“Some families use raisins, flower seeds, honey or sugar — any other flavors they may add,” Dovgan said.
Traditions will vary from region to region and village to village. In some places the kutya is very thin, resembling a soup. In others it is thicker and has the consistency of oatmeal.
“This is the main dish you have to try first,” she said. Before partaking, the family prays and lights a candle. They might put out an empty plate and glass to remember those not with them.
Another dish Ukrainians enjoy on Christmas Eve is vareniki, moon-shaped ravioli stuffed with potatoes, sauerkraut and sauteed onions or mushrooms, resembling the Polish pierogi. They are normally served with sour cream when eaten outside the Christmas season, but without sour cream on Christmas Eve because of the fast.
Mushroom soup is another dish Dovgan grew up with on her Christmas Eve table.
“Sometimes it can be just mushroom broth without anything else,” she said. “The mushrooms are supposed to be those that people picked from the woods, not the regular mushrooms. They would go to the woods when it was the season and save them for this day.”
There were also pampushky. “It’s like doughnuts with no hole and nothing inside,” Dovgan said. These might accompany the mushroom soup, or for some families, borscht.
Ukrainian homes will have a didukh, made from stalks of wheat, for Christmas Eve, perhaps on the table or in a corner of the room with holy icons. The didukh is a way of honoring the wheat.
“We’re giving thanks for the crops that we had,” Dovgan said. “Our land gives us so much. It’s a special place to grow the wheat that was given to us by God himself.”
The wheat takes on an even deeper symbolic meaning, as Ukrainians recently observed the 90th anniversary of Holodomor, the Great Famine that took place in Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union from 1932 to 1933, killing millions of Ukrainians.
“Can you imagine since then people will never throw out any food?” Dovgan asked. “The value of food is there, and it passed through the generations. Eat and drink right now and be full, and give thanks that you have everything because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
She compares the famine to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“I have goosebumps because history is repeating. Someone is trying to destroy us again, maybe in some different ways, but the wheat was in flames during the season and those farmers were desperately trying to save some crops.”
NOT ABOUT PRESENTS
While children may receive some small gifts under their pillows on St. Nicholas Day, Christmas morning in Ukraine is not about gifts.
“First thing in the morning we go to the church,” Dovgan said. “It’s a huge service, up to three hours.”
After church, family and friends gather for a feast with a host of various dishes.
“Some dishes are very traditional and some are new,” Dovgan said. “There are a lot of sweets.”
Caroling follows the meal. Groups go around their village or neighborhood from house to house, singing near a door or window.
“People are opening their house, and they may invite you inside or give you sweets or money” as thanks for proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ birth, Dovgan explained. Some may also present the “vertep,” which resembles a portable puppet theater housed in a box called a “shopka” that tells the nativity story. “They go from house to house showing their play and then caroling.”
Dovgan’s childhood Christmas Eves were characterized by quiet observances, a habit of her grandmother left over from the Soviet era.
“My grandma used to turn off the lights when we were sitting for the holy supper, and light just a little candle,” Dovgan said. “She was like, ‘Shhh, don’t yell. Be quiet.’ ”
At the time Dovgan did not understand why.
“One day she said that during the Soviet time, people would go from house to house and check whether they do follow religion, and they could get excluded from the party.”
Being party members was necessary for her grandparents to keep their jobs. Her grandfather was the main agronomist for the village and her grandmother was a zoologist, taking care of the animals on the farms. Despite the danger, her grandparents continued to practice their faith.
“They kept all the traditions quietly and they passed them from generation to generation,” Dovgan said. “It’s wonderful, I think.”
Today, Dovgan and her husband pass those traditions down to their own children, ages 9 and 6, as best they can.
“We are missing a lot of family members here, so when it comes to Christmas we want to fill that part, and we do invite other people — friends or parishioners so we can fulfill that joy,” she said. “It’s never just a family dinner. There has to be someone else, someone close to you who will share this day.”
This year Dovgan will be sharing the holiday and caroling via video chat with her father, who is fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.
“My dad sent me a picture of Easter bread and kielbasa that volunteers brought to them so that they could feel the spirit of the feasting,” Dovgan said. “I believe that with the effort of the volunteers, they definitely will have kutya on the table. Whatever they have, wherever they are, the most important thing is life.”