In many parts of Ukraine, particularly in the country’s rural, pious west, you’ll find people creating so-called ‘vertep’, or nativity, scenes. The word ‘vertep’ derives from the Greek word for ‘cave’ and refers to the miniature stage in which the scenes take place. Like all nativity scenes, vertep tableaux depict little Jesus in the manger, Mary, the strangers offering their gifts, and the star of Bethlehem shining in the sky. The scenes are typically exhibited in public places, usually near or inside churches. At night candles shine within them, charmingly illuminating the little displays for people who attend mass on Christmas Eve. Vertep scenes derive, by the way, from the puppet theatre performances that thrilled audiences in Ukraine from the 16th to 18th centuries.
In Ukrainian, Christmas Eve is called ‘Sviaty Vechir’, or Holy Evening, or alternatively ‘Sviata Vecheria’, or Holy Supper. Traditionally the womenfolk of the house outdo themselves in cooking for the occasion. The host of the house spreads out fresh, fragment hay on which the gala banquet is placed. A traditional country-style Ukrainian table will feature a roast pig, sausage, jellied pigs feet, and blood pudding. Inside the pots arrayed on the table you’ll find kutya, a special Christmas pudding made from honey, nuts, and plums, and uzvar, a dried fruit compote. Occasionally you’ll find the pots covered with a traditional bread known as knish. You’ll also invariably find a pot containing borscht, the famous Ukrainian soup to which Westerners need no introduction. It includes potatoes, cabbage, beets, tomatoes, and beans and is served with bread and sour cream. Vareniki are another dish that probably need no introduction: the boiled (and sometimes fried) dough dumplings filled with cheese, meat, potatoes or fruit. The Christmas Eve meal is attended by a number of traditions. There must, for example, be either nine or 12 courses: no other number will do. Also, the table has to be adorned with wax candles. The host has to say a prayer to ward off evil spirits, and sometimes a table setting, along with some extra food, is left in honour of a departed ancestor or patriarch. It’s also said that the hostess should behave like a clucking chicken while she’s preparing the food. Why? To encourage the household hens to lay lots and lots of eggs.
Ukrainians like their Christmas trees, and every house has traditionally had one. In Western Ukraine, you’ll often find the table decorated with a so-called didukh – that is, a sheaf of oats or wheat formed into a special shape defined by four legs and a bunch of little bundles. The didukh symbolises prosperity in the coming year. A family member might also place wheat sheaves, rakes, and scythes in the corner of one of the house’s rooms as a sign that the past year has been agriculturally successful. After the meal has been consumed and everyone’s as full as a tick, the family stays around the table for fortune telling, which brings with it yet another whole rafter of appealing traditions. One superstition has it that if Christmas Eve is starry, the coming year will be a bountiful one. After the meal, the dishes are left on the table to be cleaned up the following day. The children go to visit with relatives and, hopefully, entertain them. It’s now that gifts are exchanged. One of the most charming Christmas traditions is known as koliadki and schedrivki, or caroling, which is a good way to walk off dinner in the bracing winter air. “Radujsia zemle, radujsia, syn Bozhyj narodyvsia,” people might sing: Be joyful, earth, be joyful, the Son of God is born. Or else there’s this one, rather more secular: “Dobryj vechir, sviaty vechir, dobrym liudiam na zdorovja” - Good evening, holy evening, health to you good people. Children and young men visit every house in the village, where they’re praised by residents who wish them health and happiness and reward them with something good to eat – so as not to end up the victims of a prank!