Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Growing up, my mom and dad split Christmas and Christmas Eve between the two sides of the family, even though we all celebrated just about every other holiday together. This is due to just how unique Ukrainian Christmas Eve is, at least in my eyes. So every Christmas Eve, my mom’s side of the family (including my aunt, uncle and cousins who live in Ohio coming every other year) would get together at either our house, Бабся and Дідо’s (Babsia and Dido’s; grandma and grandpa’s) house or my other aunt’s house, while on Christmas morning my nonnie would come to our house first and then all of us would go to my other aunt’s house for brunch and presents.

Honestly, I used to not like Christmas Eve. There were a lot of foods I didn’t like to eat when I was a kid and preteen, and a lot of what we did afterward was in Ukrainian, a language I did not speak. There were traditions that were boring and long in my eyes, but now I can appreciate them. So here I am to tell you what it’s like to celebrate Ukrainian Christmas Eve in my family!

We start first with some of the setup. Usually there should be a дідух (didukh) at the table, which is a sheaf of wheat that’s supposed to symbolize autumn harvest, but since we don’t have actual wheat, my aunt usually takes a decoration of one from our bathroom when it’s at our house to put on the shelf in the dining room. That always used to be hilarious to me and my sisters. According to tradition, all pets in the house are to be fed first, and the humans have to wait until we can see the first star in the night sky to begin eating.

My aunt was, and still is, very particular about these traditions, even though Бабся and just about everyone else in the house are okay with eating once we’re all hungry, especially on cloudy nights. She’s definitely the most strict and traditional of my mom her two sisters; her kids are the only ones of my immediate cousins to have both Ukrainian names and Ukrainian as their first language, whereas my Ohio cousins know Ukrainian I think as their second language, and as previously discussed, my sisters and I know only a word or two here and there. So it was always my aunt who keeps us rigid in these traditions, no matter how hungry us kids are.

The meal for Ukrainian Christmas Eve is traditionally vegetarian – I’ve even read somewhere vegan, though I’m not sure my family particularly adheres to that – and has twelve courses. What’s the most interesting to me, though, is that I can usually count only ten. I asked my mom, and she said that one of the courses could count as two or three depending on how many variations, but that also pushes us above twelve some years. This does not apply to my dad and Ohio uncle, who are usually allowed to get Subway beforehand since a lot of the foods don’t agree with their stomachs for various reasons.

Before eating, Дідо usually leads us in prayer, both in Ukrainian and English for my dad, my Ohio uncle, my sisters and I. Then comes the first course, everyone’s favorite (and I’m using that sarcastically): garlic.

Just. Straight. Garlic.

According to my aunt, we eat it to symbolize health in the coming year – fun looking back, because at 2019 Christmas Eve one of my younger cousins ate like 6 pieces of garlic and went on to breathe garlic breath in everyone’s faces, but at least he didn’t get COVID-19. To make it taste less, my sisters and I usually eat it with Колач (kolach), a type of bread that my aunt either makes or buys from a nearby Ukrainian market. One time when my Ohio cousins were over, one of them stuck a piece of garlic into a piece of Колач and put the Колач back on the plate. His mom ended up getting it!

After the garlic and Колач comes кутя (kutia), which I really used to hate but I actually like it a good bit now. Кутя is a sort of cold oatmeal, at least, I always consider it oatmeal. It has grains (I think we use barley), poppy seeds and a sort of honey “gravy,” so it’s really sweet and cold. Бабся makes it herself every year – Бабся and my aunt usually do a good chunk of the cooking, with the rest being bought from somewhere else.

After кутя is, I think, the Борщ (borshcht). Even if you aren’t Ukrainian, you might’ve heard of it: it’s beet soup. I’m not sure exactly what Бабся puts in hers, since she blends it all up so my sisters will actually eat it, but I’m pretty sure it also has cabbage and carrots and it is AMAZING. My sisters especially love it so much that I have to fight to get a bowl full when Бабся makes it on random days throughout the year. With the Борщ, we have Вушка (vushka), which is named because it looks like an ear, according to my aunt. It’s mushroom wrapped in dough, kind of like варе́ники (varenyky).

Speaking of – and this is where my memory starts faltering – we usually have at least two kinds of варе́ники: sourkraut and potato are staples, but we sometimes have blueberry too, which is my personal favorite. варе́ники can be compared to pierogis, but I think варе́ники is far superior because of the slightly crunchy dough and the fact that my aunt makes them homemade.

Let me do a quick count – that’s eight dishes, if we count the three kinds of варе́ники separately. Here comes the fun part of me completely missing the mark of twelve.

There are two kinds of fish – dishes nine and ten – which are pickled fish and just regular. I usually hate fish, and almost never ate it at Christmas Eve after one time I did and got sick afterward, but the last time my family was together, my aunt got this really good fish from a place a couple minutes away from my house, and it was so good I almost didn’t have room for more food. Almost. Also a note, my aunt and Дідо are the only ones who eat the pickled fish. Not even my little cousins will touch it.

Dish eleven is голубці (holubtsi), which is one of my favorite year-round Ukrainian foods. It’s cabbage stuffed with rice and sauce, and has meat on occasion when it’s not Christmas Eve. It’s usually made with onions, too, as is a lot of Ukrainian food, but we do without because my dad’s allergic. I love it very much, and my sisters and parents do, too, which is why Бабся always brings some over when she makes it.

Aaaaaand since I can’t think of anything else, dish twelve is gonna be the mushroom gravy we have for the варе́ники. There, we made it to twelve.

After dinner, while everyone else cleans up, my aunt tries leading my cousins and sisters an I in Ukrainian Christmas carols. She has the words printed out and everything, but there are two problems with that. One is that, even with the pronunciation guide, it can be hard for my sisters and I to determine what sounds each letter is supposed to make, since letters like u, y and e make different sounds than you would think depending on what Ukrainian letter they’re standing in for. That’s why I have a hard time writing out Ukrainian words in a romanized way. The other problem is that, even if we could read the words, there is no sheet music. We never went to Ukrainian school like my little cousins, so we don’t know the song. Even though the three of us are pretty decent sight-singers thanks to years of chorus, we can’t sight-sing if there’s no sheet music to follow along with. Instead, we try convincing my aunt to let us intersperse some Christmas songs we all know.

Once cleanup is done, we go into presents, which used to be a ridiculously long affair until my Ohio aunt found a way to cut down the time taken. Дідо used to label every present with a number and put a matching set of numbers in a bowl for everyone to pick out of, one by one. Whichever number was pulled was the next present opened, which often set the stage for one person opening a few gifts in a row and chaos unfolding once everyone is too distracted to pay close attention. Who knows how it’s going to go this year, one of the bigger gathering years.

I do think this is more fun now that I get to appreciate the food and tradition more, though even with my Duolingo streak of almost 600 days, I’m not good enough to even know what the Christmas carols are about. I can hardly understand Дідо and my aunt when they talk too fast or try talking to me in Ukrainian over the phone, but I’m slowly getting there. I’m nowhere near fluent, or even relatively conversational, but it’s fun to practice every day so I can pick out some of what my little cousins are saying when they speak Ukrainian.

So, yeah, that’s Christmas Eve in my family! Through some research, I came to find that the kinds of dishes served vary from family to family, though I did find a really good recipe I want to try sometime else. I hope you all enjoyed learning as much about Ukrainian Christmas Eve as my memory could provide! Happy holidays! Khrystos rodyvsya!

Nina Fichera

Geneseo '24

Nina Fichera is an avid writer and reader, and can often be found writing somewhere (usually in her room) with her trusty journal. She is working towards an English degree, with the hopes of becoming a Creative Writing professor.
Similar Reads👯‍♀️