Christmas fair in Lviv. © picture alliance /

Christmas in Lviv

The western Ukrainian metropolis Lviv looks back on a rich multicultural past. Still today many cultures and religions live here together. The majority of the people in Lviv profess to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic church, differently than in other parts of the country. This is subordinate to the Roman Catholic canon law, but follows the Byzantine rite in the liturgy and in spiritual practice.  The Ukrainian poet, translator and essayist Ostap Slyvynsky takes us on an imaginary journey to Lviv during Christmas time.

Interview by Karoline Gil

Karoline Gil: In Ukraine, according to the Julian calendar the first day of Christmas falls on the 7th of January. How does the city look like during that time?

Ostap Slyvynsky
: It’s very attractive exactly at that time and a popular destination for many tourists from the other parts of Ukraine. The Greek Catholic Church which is traditional for this region was totally banned during the communist period, and the families celebrated Christmas and Easter secretly at their homes which evidently contributed to the magic and vitality of these traditions: groups of younger and older people singing Christmas carols, special Christmas theaters called "vertep" moving from home to home with a Christmas star and bells, models of the Bethlehem manger with the Holy Family, angels and shepherds installed outdoors. A unique Ukrainian tradition is "didukh" – a ritual sheaf of hay, formerly put in the corner at home to bring health and prosperity.

Gil: How do Ukrainian Greek Catholics celebrate Christmas?

Slyvynsky: Christmas Eve is a time of magic: It’s very important for each family to be together that evening despite distances and obligations. The holy supper begins with prayer and forgiveness. Twelve dishes are prepared: borsht with mushrooms, dumplings, filled fish, and a special fast bread called "strutsla". No meat and spirits. The traditional dish is "kutya". It is prepared only for Christmas. Its basic ingredients are boiled wheat, poppy seeds, honey, and nuts. The first carol singers can also come on Christmas Eve – it’s allowed to celebrate after the first star appears. Ukrainian Christmas songs are very numerous and deeply Christian – unlike predominantly pagan songs ("shchedrivky") performed on the eve of Epiphany (the 19th of January). Christmas itself is the time of prayer and joy. People visit each other with carols and Christmas food. Christmas theaters are organized in the churches, public institutions, schools, and universities.

Gil: Can you remember special Christmas traditions from your childhood?

Slyvynsky: The traditions haven’t changed much since my childhood, which I find marvelous. My family was always religious and patriotic which in Western Ukraine in the Soviet times meant almost the same. With one significant difference: the Morning Prayer took place at home, not in the church as it is now. We can celebrate our religious holidays openly since 1989–90.

Gil: Lviv has always been a multicultural city. After the beginning of the war in 2014 Ukrainians from Donbass-region or Crimea had to leave their homes and fled also to your hometown. Are they changing traditional Western-Ukrainian celebrations?

Slyvynsky: A significant part of them are Crimean Tatars who are mostly Muslims. Islam is a new element in the cultural landscape of Lviv. Still their number is not enough big to be particularly influential. The city community accepted them and actually nothing predicts any religious conflicts or misunderstandings.

Ostap Slyvynsky was born in Lviv in 1978. He is a writer, translator and literary critic. He studied Bulgarian language and literature at Lviv University and authored several books of poetry. In 1997 he was awarded the B. I. Antonych Literary Prize (Ukraine), in 2009 – Hubert Burda Literary Award (Germany), in 2013 – the Prize of Lesia and Petro Kovaliv Fund (USA). Slyvynsky’s poetry and essays were translated into 14 languages. 

Karoline Gil is a cultural scientist and head of section Integration and Media at ifa.