by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau
Celebrating in Ukraine
Today in Ukraine people are free to attend the church of their choice, they can carol in the streets, they can praise God as they wish. But ask Kyivans if the celebration of Christmas and the New Year has changed in the five and a half years since communism collapsed and the answer for the most part is "no."
And that goes for life in the villages, where age-old traditions were maintained, albeit secretly, during Soviet rule and thrive today.
Although there has been a religious resurgence, for city dwellers the big holiday is still the New Year. Unlike in the United States, it is a family holiday, at least until after midnight. Family members gather around the dinner table, exchange gifts and toast the New Year with champagne, usually a Ukrainian brand (it's much cheaper).
Homes are decorated with garland and streamers, and everybody wants a Christmas tree, although with the financial hardships in the country not everybody can afford one. After midnight people part, some for a quiet evening at home, some to a neighbor's apartment or to the city center to join with others carousing on Independence Square.
This year, as in years past, the square was the center of official celebrations. On one side of the Khreschatyk, a stage was erected and above it the words "Christ is Born" and "Happy New Year" in Ukrainian. In the days preceding the New Year, colorful spectacles were staged by various theater groups. A giant fireworks display was presented on December 29, the day the official state Christmas tree was lit across the Khreschatyk at the other end of the large square. At the base of the tree, which stood about four stories high, five-foot tall drawings of Christmas scenes were displayed.
There "Did Moroz" (Ukraine's version of Santa Claus) or, more precisely, about a dozen of them, wandered the square practicing the still novel "art" of capitalism by convincing kids and their parents to have photographs taken with them for a small charge of 5 hryvni. Also present in no small numbers were vendors hawking balloons and various trinkets.
It was all very festive and pleasant except for a minor detail: suspended across the way leading to the Christmas tree the greeting wishing people a happy new year was written in Russian.
The Khreschatyk itself was decorated with garland and banners wishing people well during the holidays. Music played from speakers on street lights - remnants of the Soviet system when political music was played during national holidays.
Inside the TsUM, the main government store, music also played and Christmas displays prompted people to purchase items as they did last-minute gift shopping. It was a far cry from Macy's during the holiday season, but Christmas was definitely in the air.
Another tradition continued through the years was the New Year's greeting, given immediately before the stroke of midnight on December 31. In the old days it was the head of the Communist Party speaking from Moscow; this year it was President Leonid Kuchma speaking from Kyiv. His short speech was followed by the playing of the national anthem exactly at midnight.
In the villages, age-old customs were continued, and this year the cold weather and snowfalls immediately before the holidays made for an especially joyful holiday. In western Ukraine, in the Ternopil and Lviv regions, knee-high snow brought out the sleighs and horses. On Christmas Eve, as people sat down to the traditional 12-course meal, including the traditional "kutia," sleigh bells and snow crunching beneath the trodding steps of horses could be heard outside.
Then came the "vertep," the traditional re-enactment of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, performed by high school students. The following day it was off to Christmas liturgy in a church bursting with the faithful, many of whom had to stand outside the building in near-zero weather. Then carolers visited homes as people sat down for the Christmas Day meal.
In the city and in the village, people told me that this is the first normal Christmas weather in several years, and in both places Chornobyl was blamed for the warm, snowless weather the country had experienced. But not this year. It was the Christmas your parents and grandparents had told you about.
In the village, people say that the big change is independence. They say that although life is still difficult, it has normalized somewhat. Villagers, generally, have not had a problem feeding themselves. Slaughter a cow, a pig, and there is food for the table.
One person told me that a different change had occurred, one that is difficult to pinpoint. "It is the spirit, the feeling that we now have, that we didn't have before," said Olha Ivantsiv, who has lived in the village of Verbiv, in the Ternopil Oblast, all her 68 years.
In the city, that feeling was more difficult to find because it is harder to ensure one's everyday needs. Food is expensive and workers' salaries are small - when they do receive them. A rather bitter, older lady walking down the Khreschatyk a day before Christmas Eve, who refused to give her name, told me that although people try to keep to traditions, no one can really afford to celebrate the holiday. "We do not celebrate our existence," she said, "We celebrate our survival."
But after what these people have lived through in the last decades, even that is worth celebrating.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 12, 1997, No. 2, Vol. LXV
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