The celebration of Christmas in Ukraine is based on the Julian calendar which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar.
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Many families in the Ukraine celebrate Christmas Eve with a meat-free meal of twelve courses meant as a symbol of the 12 disciples of Jesus. Dishes include a sweet grain pudding known as kutia, beetroot soup called borsch, a braided bread known as kolach, as well as pidpenky which are mushrooms in gravy and fish.
The meal begins when the first star is sighted in the sky, something that children are usually asked to watch for, and an extra place is set at the table in honour of those who are departed. The table is also covered with two tablecloths – one for living members of the family and one for the departed members.
Churches and other public places are decorated with vertep, scenes from the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. They are lit with candles so that those who attend night service on Christmas Eve can see them.
Christmas Eve is also the night when people put up Christmas trees, known as novorichna jalynka. Some decorate the table with didukh, a sheaf of oats or white in a special shape which symbolises prosperity for the coming year. Saint Nicolas visits that night with gifts for the children as well. Some areas of the Ukraine have what are known as pysanky, which are Christmas eggs that are similar to Easter eggs.
In some villages, folk performances related to ancient pagan rituals are arranged on Christmas Day. People dress as monsters with pelts and horns, running through the village attempting to scare others. They then run to a specific location where they are symbolically defeated by the villagers.
Scarecrows are burned in a bonfire with people dancing around it, symbolising the fight of good and evil. Some families celebrate Christmas from January 7 through 14 as a festive week in which they visit the homes of friends and family.
When Ukraine was controlled by the Soviet Union, people were not permitted to celebrate Christmas. Instead, the holidays were effectively replaced with the New Year holiday. However, many Ukrainians continued to celebrate secretly, keeping their customs alive. When they gained independence in 1991, Christmas Day was made a public holiday.