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  • Ukrainian Holidays

    10 Favorite Ukrainian Holidays
    UKRAINIAN MAGAZINE CHICAGO Julian Hayda

    Ukrainians don’t kid around when it comes to celebration. When a month goes by without a major holiday, something isn’t right. Ukrainians need their party fix. Ukraine’s signature holidays meet at the intersection of ancient Christian and Ukrainian folk-ethnic customs — many of which have their roots in the pagan beliefs common in Ukraine before Byzantine Christianity was widely introduced in the 10th century. But today’s Ukraine is an incredibly diverse place, religiously and ethnically — Hasidic Jews also have some longstanding and uniquely Ukrainian holidays, and, of course, there are plenty of civic holidays for all of Ukraine’s ethnicities and religious groups to rally around. Here is a list of Ukrainian Chicago’s ten favorite Ukrainian holidays.

    1. Kupalo
    The legend of Kupalo is so ancient that historians and anthropologists can’t really decide when it came to be. Originally a pre-Christian fertility and cleansing ritual celebrated near the summer solstice, Kupalo exalted the uncontrollable forces of nature: floodwaters, the harvest, the tide, and the weather.

    When Christianity was introduced to Rus’-Ukraine by Grand Prince Volodymyr in the 10th century, Kupalo and other pagan rituals were Christianized. Though Kupalo’s original emphases remained the same, it came to be associated with St. John the Baptist and Christian rites of purification. One of the hallmarks of Kupalo is an event when women throw fern and summer flower wreaths into large bodies of water. The person who dives in to retrieve a wreath is partnered with the woman who wove it. The couple has to complete tasks like jumping over a bonfire or spending a night in the forest to find a mythical fern flower for their budding relationship to blossom into marriage.

    2. Independence Day
    Independence day celebrates Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union on August 24th, 1991. While some Soviet-era holdovers have been associated with the holiday, like a large military parade in the center of Ukraine’s capital, it has come to mark the adoption of Ukrainian civic identity of all people living in Ukraine, and a common date that ethnic Ukrainians abroad can point to when their nation finally appeared on a map. Celebrations often include outdoor festivals and elaborate shows of contemporary Ukrainian music and dancing.

    3. Pascha
    Pascha, or Easter as it’s known in the West, is the year’s defining celebration for Ukrainian Christians. Preceded by a strict 40-day period of fasting from all meat and dairy products, and several nights of reflection in church, the boisterous singing of “Christ is Risen” is when Ukrainians know it’s time to cut loose. Blessed butter, hams, sausages, cheeses, eggs, go straight from people’s Easter baskets onto their breakfast tables after coming home from an all-night vigil around sunrise.
    The most recognizable element of Pascha is the pysanka, an intricately-painted egg steeped in Christian and pre-Christian symbolism. Another important element is the Paska, a cake-like sweetbread made with eggs, milk, and sometimes cheese, decorated with intricate braids and flowers made of dough or raisins.
    There are also many folk songs and dances related to Pascha called Hayivky or Vesnianky (literally grove or spring songs). These are often performed by young people near churches or in cemeteries and are intended to introduce young couples to one another, in addition to expressing joy in the new life of spring and Christ’s Resurrection.


    4. Pentecost
    In the traditional Ukrainian observation of this Christian feast, homes, offices, churches, cars, and other spaces are adorned with greenery and aromatic herbs symbolizing the Holy Spirit. This custom is why Ukrainians refer to the feasting as Green Holidays. Fifty days after Pascha, and ten days following the conclusion of Paschal celebrations, Ukrainian Pentecost celebrates the beginning of summer. In a more Christian sense, it also celebrates unity among all languages and ethnicities as per the Biblical account in which Christ’s Apostles were told to preach the Good News to all nations.
    On the days preceding Pentecost, Ukrainians visit their ancestors in the cemetery, tend to their gravestones, and often hold prayer services, offering intercession for their salvation.

    5. Rosh Hashanah
    Of course, Ukraine has been a center for the development of many ethnic and religious traditions, not the least of which is Judaism. One of the most visible Jewish branches is Hasidism, an ultra-Orthodox and mystical sect of Judaism known for conservative, dark dress. Hasidism, in fact, traces its origins to Ukraine.
    Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a major holiday for all Jews; and many of the world’s Hasidic Jews are obliged to make a pilgrimage to the gravesite of one of their movement’s founders in the Ukrainian city of Uman. Every September, as many as 30,000 Jews descend on Uman to pay their respects to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It’s not a somber celebration though — Jews spend the week dancing in the streets, feasting in tents and rejoicing. The city’s population grows by nearly 40 percent during the holiday — the effect is so extensive, that much of the signage is posted in Hebrew, and even the city’s commerce partially switches to the Israeli Shekel

    6. Ukrainian Unity Day
    Ukrainian Unity Day, celebrated every January 22nd, marks the historical act of unification between the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1919. The two states, which constituted Ukraine’s brief foray into independence after the collapse of the Russian Empire, did not last very long, but the effect of their unification remained for decades. The highly symbolic and administratively significant act that united Ukraine’s East and West reinforced a common identity among all Ukrainians — a sentiment which prevails to this day.
    The celebration of Ukrainian Unity Day in 1990, on the 71st anniversary of the Unity Act’s signing, is credited with inspiring Ukrainian independence the following year. Three hundred thousand Ukrainians linked arms to form a human chain connecting the cities of Kyiv and Lviv, some 300 miles apart.
    Today, Ukrainian Unity Day has been amended by Presidential decree to honor the participants of the Euromaidan revolution. As such, Ukrainians take the opportunity to also reflect on sacrifice, dignity, and human rights.
    The celebration of Ukrainian Unity Day in 1990, on the 71st anniversary of the Unity Act’s signing, is credited with inspiring Ukrainian independence the following year. 300,000 Ukrainians linked arms to form a human chain connecting the cities of Kyiv and Lviv, 300 miles apart. Today, Ukrainian Unity Day has been amended by Presidential decree to honor the participants of the Euromaidan revolution. As such, Ukrainians take the opportunity to also reflect on sacrifice, dignity, and human rights.

    7. Christmas
    For most Ukrainians, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, in accordance with the ancient Julian Calendar. Though some Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Ukrainian Greek-Catholics opt to celebrate according to the Western date of December 25th, the ethnic customs surrounding the holiday largely remain the same.
    Before issues in the calendar’s timing arose, the date of Christmas was intended to correlate with the winter solstice, and incorporated many Ukrainian pre-Christian customs in the celebration. The Christian symbolism around the solstice involves the looking forward to days getting longer, or light being born out of the darkness. A major hymn sung in church for Christmas refers to Christ as the “Sun of Righteousness,” which was born out of the stars to be a “Light of Wisdom.”
    Similarly to Pascha, Christmas is also preceded by a 40-day period of fasting. However, instead of the feast happening at the end of the fast, it is held during, on Christmas eve. Twelve meatless and dairy-less courses are served at the appearance of the first star in the sky. The number of courses corresponds to both the number of months in the year and the number of Jesus’ Apostles, and the star represents the star over Bethlehem.
    The meal is steeped with other symbolism too, like the empty plate which is kept out for the spirits of ancestors to celebrate alongside their living relatives. But, heaven forbid those spirits might be evil, otherwise they would be vanquished by the garlic hidden under the four corners of the table, symbolizing four corners of the Earth!
    Hay is also kept under the dinner table, a reminder of Christ’s birth in the manger and the dependence of Ukrainians on a good harvest. A special buckwheat porridge is also thrown on the ceiling to predict the coming year’s harvest — if it sticks, the year will be prosperous, if not, the homemakers should begin preparations for a difficult year.

    8. Malanka
    9. International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day
    10. Holy Protection, Ukrainian Defenders’ Day

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    10 Favorite Ukrainian Holidays

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