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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like Kupalo, Malanka has pre-Christian origins, but has take on deeply Christian symbolism. While originally the holiday emphasized the interplay between the merciful moon goddess, Mylanka, and mischievous earth-dwellers, today, it has become an extension of Christmas, the star of Bethlehem, and St. Mylania the Younger, a 5th century Christian known for her love and mercy.
Malanka happens to fall on New Year’s eve, and the customs associated with Malanka—caroling, pageants, dancing—are often synonymous with New Year celebrations. When the Russian government moved state affairs thirteen days back onto the internationally-accepted Gregorian calendar, many religious and folk holidays like Christmas remained on their own calendar. Suddenly, the celebration of the New Year was almost two weeks after the rest of the world celebrated the New Year. When the Soviet Union forced state-mandated atheism, the holiday was stripped of all folkloric or religious meaning, and became known as “Old New Year,” a name which sticks today.
In the Diaspora, Malanka is a chance for Ukrainians to dress up in their ball gowns and tuxedoes to celebrate a more formal iteration of the ancient feast at the hometown’s fanciest ballrooms. Many Ukrainian community organizations organize Malanka balls as fundraisers for everything from educational development to medical care in Ukraine. Sometimes, Malanka balls also include a presentation of Debutantes, young women, who are introduced into their community’s social circle in elaborately choreographed dances, escorted by young gentlemen.
9. International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day
International Women’s Day, marked on March 8th, is a national holiday in Ukraine. A holiday that celebrated American suffragette and labor union activism at the turn of the century, it became a major holiday in the Soviet Union as women were praised for their role in the Russian Revolution. As such, International Women’s Day is also a national holiday in other post-Soviet and Communist states. Though it’s still a day off in those countries, and the sentiment might be well-intentioned, many are resisting the celebrations’ Communist connotations. Some countries, like Ukraine, have amended it to more-closely resemble Western countries’ celebrations of Mother’s Day which are less political and more affectionate. Celebrations include visiting family, buying flowers, and honoring women and mothers in highly personal ways.
10. Holy Protection, Ukrainian Defenders’ Day
Holy Protection, called Pokrova in Ukrainian and otherwise known as the Intercession of the Mother of God, is a Christian holiday commemorating pagan Rus’-Ukrainians’ failed 10th century attack on Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire now known as Istanbul. It is believed that an apparition of Mary, the Mother of God, appeared over the city, extending her impermeable veil over all of the Christians to protect them from the Slavic invaders’ attacks. A few decades later, when the Christianity became the state religion in Rus’-Ukraine, people began to honor the event as a realization of the error in their pagan ways. The feast also celebrated a powerful medieval alliance between the kingdoms of Rus’-Ukraine and the Byzantine Empire.
As time went on, the Mother of God, as depicted in the 10th century protection of Constantinople, became seen as a protector of Christian warriors. The Ukrainian Cossacks made Pokrova their feast day on October 14th, and churches they built to commemorate victories over Muscovy, the Crimean Khanate, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were often dedicated to the Mother of God on this feast. Ukrainian militias and insurgencies in the 20th century also prayed for the Holy Protection.
In the folk iteration, Pokrova was a popular time for marriage, since the year’s harvest had all been accounted for and a feast could be had. Likewise, it was one of the last feasts that could be had before the beginning of the pre-Christmas fast. If snow would fall before the Feast of the Holy Protection, Ukrainians believed that they should not only expect a good harvest in the following year, but also a surge of marriage proposals and children being born.
Last year, the feast of the Holy Protection became a national holiday in Ukraine, and came to be referred to in civic circles as Ukrainian Defenders’ Day, which replaced and moved a former Soviet-era holiday in February honoring veterans. This came after many months of bloodshed in Ukraine’s Eastern regions of the Donbas, and became a new way of combining Ukrainian ethnic and civil holidays. Though it always celebrated bravery, chivalry, and honor, Pokrova is now a day to celebrate the centuries-long struggle for Ukrainian independence.
By Julian Hayda