Ukrainian Christmas Eve Meal is A Feast for the Senses As Well As The Tastebuds

Christmas around the world is a celebration of food and generosity, but in Ukraine, the celebration does not come until January 7 according to the ancient Julian calendar. While many Ukrainians in North America and Europe join in the holiday festivities on December 25th, a special religious emphasis is also marked thirteen days later, particularly on January 6th – Ukrainian Christmas Eve.

Many of the rites observed during a contemporary Ukrainian Christmas Eve meal are very ancient, dating back to pagan times and early integration of Christian rituals in their faith. To prepare for the meal, hay is placed on or under the dining table, representing the manger of the baby Jesus. The table is laid with the family’s finest embroidered tablecloths, one to represent the living members of the family, and one the dead. An extra place at the table is always set for the souls of deceased relatives. A Christmas bread, or kolach, made of three rings, is placed in the center of the table representing the Holy Trinity and eternity. A candle is placed in the center of the bread to symbolize Christ, the light of the world.

The meal begins once the children of the family sight the first star in the evening sky, symbolizing the star of Bethlehem and the beginning of the wise men’s journey to see the Christ child. The meal begins with a prayer and the traditional Christmas greeting “Khrystos rodyvsya!” (Christ is born), to which all respond “Slavite yoho!” (Let us praise him.)

The menu for the “holy supper,” or sviata vechera, of Christmas Eve does not contain any meat or dairy products. Rather, the meal is a feast of grains, fish, vegetables and fruits. Twelve dishes are served, representing the twelve apostles. Wheat, traditionally the heart and symbol of Ukraine, is the main component of the first course. Kutia, boiled kernels sweetened with honey and flavoured with poppy seeds or nuts, opens the meal. All members of the family must partake of a little kutia, which symbolizes prosperity for the coming year.

For the Ukrainian family, this sacred and festive meal can go on for hours, and celebrations continue long into the early hours of Christmas day. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Christmas eve meal, remember that all you savor connects centuries of proud tradition and history.