CHRISTMAS, WHICH TAKES ITS NAME from Christ's Mass, was first celebrated on various dates from about 200 A.D. but was finally set on December 25 by Bishop Liberus of Rome in 354 A.D. The December date, which almost coincides with the winter solstice, became a popular festival of West Europe during the Middle Ages. But as late as the nineteenth century, Christmas celebration was suppressed in Scotland and New England because of some religious differences.

All Christian nations have traditions which have become a part of the Christmas season. For example, England has contributed the decorations of holly and mistletoe, carolling and gift giving.The Christmas tree is a medieval German tradition and the immortal carol "Silent Night" also comes from Germany. The United States first made Santa Claus popular in New York, popularized the Christmas card about 1846 and made the major contribution to commercializing Christmas.

When Ukraine under King Volodymyr (St. Vladimir) accepted Christianity from Byzantium in 988 A.D. many pagan traditions were in existence which were adapted by the Church to the new religion. Some of those traditions have survived a thousand years and now form a part of today s Christmas celebrations.

SVIATA VECHERA OR "HOLY SUPPER" is the central tradition of the beautiful Christmas Eve celebrations in Ukrainian homes. The dinner table sometimes has a few wisps of hay on the embroidered table cloth as a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem. Many Canadian and American families wear their Ukrainian embroidered shirts on this occasion.

When the children see the first Star in the eastern evening sky, which symbolizes the trek of the Three Wise Men, the Sviata Vechera may begin. In farming communities the head of the household now brings in a sheaf of wheat called the didukh which represents the importance of the ancient and rich wheat crops of Ukraine, the staff of life through the centuries. Didukh means literally "grandfather spirit" so it symbolizes the family's ancestors. In city homes a few stalks of golden wheat in a vase are often used to decorate the table.

A prayer is said and the father says the traditional Christmas greeting, "Khristos rodyvsya!" (Christ is born!) which is answered by the family with "Slavite Yoho!" (Let Us Glorify Him!) In some families the Old Slavic form Khristos razhdayetsya is used.

AT THE END OF THE SVIATA VECHERA the family often sings Kolyadky, Ukrainian Christmas Carols. In many communities the old Ukrainian tradition of carolling is carried on by groups of young people and members of organizations and churches calling at homes and collecting donations.

The favorite Ukrainian carol is Boh predvichny (God Eternal) which has a very beautiful melody and Iyrics. Some Ukrainian carols are unusual because they mention Ukraine while others are ancient pagan songs of a thousand years ago which have been converted into Christian carols.

CHRISTMAS IS A JOYOUS DAY which opens for Ukrainian
families with attendance at Church. Ukrainian Churches offer services starting before midnight on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning. Christmas supper, without Lenten restrictions, does not have as many traditions connected with it as Sviata Vechera. The old tradition in Ukraine of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas Day, December 19th, has generally been replaced by the Christmas date.

MALANKA OR SHCHEDRY VECHIR on January 13th according to the Julian calendar is celebrated as Ukrainian New Year's Eve in many cities. On this, the last night of the year, New Year's carols called Shchedrivky are sung. One of the most famous of these is the popular"Shchedryk" by Leontovich which is known in English as "The Carol of the Bells."

While Christmas is a religious event, Malanka is a secular, merry-making celebration. In some communities Ukrainian professional and businessmens' clubs or youth organizations sponsor a dress up Malanka Banquet and Ball.

The traditional Christmas customs of Ukraine add color and significance to the winter festival of Christmas, and Ukrainian Christmas on January 7th is usually a peaceful and quiet event. This celebration reminds us of the baby in a Bethlehem manger whose 1,975th birthday we celebrate. But whether Christmas is celebrated on December 25th or on January 7th the message is the same:

"Peace on Earth! Good will towards men!

SAINT NICHOLAS, one of the most popular saints honored by the Greek and the Latin churches was actually a real person who lived in the 4th century in Myra, Asia Minor, which is presently Demre in Turkey. Traditionally, he has been honored on December 6 by the Latin Church and on December 19 according to the churches, such as the Ukrainian, which follow the Julian Calendar.

In his youth Nicholas entered a monastery and later became an abbot and then a bishop. After suffering persecution and imprisonment, he was freed by a new emperor, Constantine. He died in 352 and his relics were preserved in Myra for seven centuries until some Italian merchants sent an expedition of three ships and 62 men to Myra and, through a ruse, carried off his remains. They were deposited in the church in Bari, Italy on the Adriatic Sea on May 9, 1087 where they have remained to this day.

Many traditions relating to Saint Nicholas as the special guardian of maidens, children, scholars, merchants and sailors, have come down to our day.

THERE IS A LEGEND that connects St. Nicholas with the tradition of giving presents secretly. There was a nobleman in Patana with three daughters but he was too poor to provide them with a dowry for marriage. He was almost on the point of abandoning them to a sinful life when Nicholas heard of his problem. That night he took a purse of gold and threw it in an open window. The nobleman used it for a dowry the next day as he did a second purse he found the next night. Curious about his benefactor, the third night he watched and caught Nicholas in the act but he was told not to reveal the Saint's identity or generosity. Ever since, St. Nicholas has been identified with the tradition of gift giving. His three purses of gold eventually became the three golden balls symbol of pawnbrokers.

St. Nicholas is the most popular saint in the Ukrainian church after St. Vladimir, as is shown by the fact that there have been more churches named after St. Nicholas than after any other saint. Some scholars believe that it was through the great popularity that the Saint enjoyed in Kievan Rus-Ukraine in medieval times that his popularity spread to western Europe, and particularly to Belgium and Holland.

OVER THE PAST 200 YEARS, as the traditions around Christmas have grown and the importance of this winter festival brightens the season, Saint Nicholas has been absorbed into the tradition. It was the Dutch settlers who brought the St. Nicholas customs across the ocean to New York. The whitebearded Saint Nicholas in a red bishop's costume was transformed into Santa Claus in the United States and Canada and eventually the tradition re-crossed the ocean to England.

WHY DO UKRAINIANS CELEBRATE Christmas on January 7th rather than December 25th? Many people wonder why the Ukrainian date is thirteen days later and only a few people are aware that it is related to a change from the calendar which was in use two thousand years ago.

Tradition plays a great part in the lives of people of Ukrainian origin and it is for this reason that they have continued to celebrate Christmas on the old date that would have been observed by all Christians.

The Roman calendar that had been in use since the eighth century B.C. originally started the year on March 1 and had 10 months as the names of the months themselves indicate, September (7), October (8), November (9) and December (10). Eventually two months were added, Januarius and Februarius, and the year was started on January. However, it was only 355 days long so it had over ten days error and the seasons and the calendar over the years continued to lose their correct relationship.


JULIUS CAESAR FINALLY in 46 B.C. had the Greek astronomer Sosigenes establish the length of the solar calendar at 365 and one quarter days (365.25). Every fourth year was to add one day to keep the quarter days accurate and this has now become our leap year with February 29. The Julian Calendar was introduced on January 1, 45 B.C. and the next year Caesar was honored by having the seventh month renamed in his honor as July. A later Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, corrected the leap year system in A.D. 8 and in his honor a month was renamed August.

But the Julian year of 365 days and 6 hours exceeds the true solar year of 365.2422 days or 365 days 5 hours 49 minutes and 46 seconds by the amount of 11 minutes 14 seconds. The difference is about 0.0078 of a day per year or about one day in 128 years. Over a period of 1,500 years the calendar was again getting out of step with the natural seasons by about ten days.

Christmas, which had been celebrated on many different dates was finally fixed on December 25th by Bishop Liberius of Rome.

In 354 A.D. he chose the date to replace a Roman pagan festival of sun-god worship with Christ's Mass, a Christian event.


FINALLY POPE GREGORY XIII in 1528 introduced changes to correct the error in the Julian Calendar. To restore the vernal or spring equinox to March 21st he eliminated the 10 days from March 11 to 21 in 1582 so the dates March 12 to 20 never existed in 1582, at least not in Roman Catholic countries. Some Protestant countries like England and Sweden adopted the new calendar only in 1752 so there was 11 days difference by then.

The Orthodox and Eastern rite churches such as the Ukrainian have maintained the Julian Calendar for ecclesiastical purposes into this century. The Ukrainians, numbering some 50 million in the world are the second largest nation following the Julian Calendar in their churches. The difference between the two Calendars placed Christmas on January 7th and, because of the size of the Ukrainian church the date has become widely known as "Ukrainian Christmas." However, there are other smaller Eastern-rite Orthodox national churches such as the Greek, Syrian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Byelorussian that follow the same calendar.

Historically the Julian Calendar is sometimes called Old Style (O.S.) and the Gregorian is called New Style (N.S.). All the Orthodox countries which preserved the Julian Calendar into this century had a 13 day lag. Thus a date would be written January 4/17, 1918, meaning the 4th in new style and 17th in the old style calendar.

Many Ukrainian families and many Ukrainian churches continue to observe the old traditional date of Ukrainian Christmas on January 7 despite the pressures of modern society to change. The later date appeals to many people since, after the commercialism of December 25th, it is possible to enjoy a quieter and more religious occasion. For those who leave their shopping for the last minute the big advantage in celebrating Ukrainian Christmas is that the big sales start - just in time for Christmas shopping. - A.G.

In Ukraine the first mention of St. Nicholas is related to the year 882 at the time of King Ihor of Rus when there was mention of a St. Nicholas Church on one of the hills of Kiev. When St. Vladimir, King of Rus-Ukraine in 988 proclaimed Christianity the religion of his realm it is said he had a special veneration for an ikon of St. Nicholas. When he had visited Constantinople he had seen and was impressed by an ikon of the mighty Byzantine Emperor bowing to the Saint. To this day St. Nicholas ikons may be found, usually on the left of the ikonostas wall of Ukrainian churches.

Among the talismans the Zaporozhian Cossacks would often take in their boats on the treacherous Black Sea was an ikon of St. Nicholas, or Sviaty Mykolai, as Ukrainians usually call him. The Hutsuls, mountaineers of western Ukraine named the four seasons of the year after saints. Winter honored St. Nicholas, Spring was St. George, Summer was St. Peter and Fall was St. Demetrius. Gift giving has been related to St. Nicholas in Ukraine for less than a century and a half. The Christmas Tree, originally a German tradition, first came into Ukraine about 1840 via Austrian influence.

Saint Nicholas is now a permanent part of Christmas, the season of peace and generosity among all peoples. So it's appropriate that the elements of our Christmas celebrations should have come from so many nations. Although the Ukrainian Saint Nicholas wears the dress of a bishop while the American Santa Claus is a jolly fellow in a white fur-trimmed suit of red, however, under both there is a heart that first beat some sixteen centuries ago in Myra. The generous spirit of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, lives on today.

Local Links:

Icon Return to the Ukrainian Traditions Page
Icon Return to the Culture and Genealogy Page
Icon Return to FORUM: A Ukrainian Review Page
Icon Return to InfoUkes Home Page

Document Information

Document URL:

Copyright © 1982 Andrew Gregorovich

Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No. 52 Fall 1982
Published by the Ukrainian Fraternal Association
440 Wyoming Ave., Scranton PA, 18503 USA
Telephone: (717) 342-0937

Copyright © 1997-2000 InfoUkes Inc.

since Dec 17 1997
InfoUkes Inc.
Suite 185, 3044 Bloor Street West
Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada M8X 2Y8
Tel: (416) 236-4865 Fax: (416) 766-5704

Originally Composed: Saturday November 1st 1997.
Date last modified: Friday February 4th 2000.