In every country and home, Christmas tastes different. What tastes, dishes, and culinary traditions distinguish our Ukrainian Christmas?
Preparations for the festive dinner began long before the holiday. Most dishes of traditional Ukrainian cuisine require a lot of work and time. At least it was so in the past because today, thanks to the free market and competition, many restaurants and supermarkets offer ready-made sets of festive dishes and attributes for customers. And this is also part of our modern traditions and holiday culture, as well as for many residents of developed countries, where cultural heritage has continued in commerce. At the same time, many Ukrainian families know much about home gardening and animal husbandry. This knowledge and experience help many of us to survive this war and ensure delicious homemade dishes are on the holiday table. But let's return to Ukrainian Christmas traditions and our culinary code.
Ceramic watering bowl, decorated with engobe painting on a white background. Ivano-Frankivsk region, Kosiv, beginning 20th century
The iconic Christmas dishes for the festive Ukrainian table are uzvar, kutia, bread, meat dishes, and pickled vegetables. With the rising of the first star in the sky on the night of December 24-25 (January 6-7), fasting ends, meaning there should be meat and fermented dishes on the table. Traditionally, before Christmas in Ukraine, a pig was slaughtered: bacon was salted, sausages were stuffed (meat sausages twisted with a snail) and baked blood sausages, aspic jellies were cooked, and hams were baked and smoked. Some meat dishes were eaten during the Christmas holidays, and some baked sausages and meat were covered with salo and stored until Easter. In some regions, meat and salo were smoked, and it was also easily preserved until Easter.
Decorative plate, ceramic. Ivano-Frankivsk Region, Kosiv. The end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century.
Therefore, traditional Ukrainian Christmas tastes consist of the aromas of baked, smoked meat and homemade biscuits: bread, cakes, pies, knishs, karachuns (specific ceremonial bread). For Christmas, festive ceremonial bread had to be baked, which was used in part of the rituals associated with the cult of ancestors. They also baked pies (with apples, beans and poppy seeds, cabbage, peas, dried plums, and pears) and pies with stuffing for the table and treats for guests, carolers. It was customary to go to the guests with bread - to bring dinner to the godparents. Therefore, traditional Ukrainian Christmas tastes consist of the aromas of baked, smoked meat and homemade biscuits: bread, cakes, pies, knishs, karachuns (specific ceremonial bread).
For Christmas, festive ceremonial bread had to be baked, which was used in part of the rituals associated with the cult of ancestors. They also baked pies (with apples, beans and poppy seeds, cabbage, peas, dried plums, and pears) and pies with stuffing for the table and treats for guests, carolers. It was customary to go to the guests with bread - to bring dinner to the godparents.
Baklaga, ceramic, Ivano-Frankivsk region, Kosiv district, the village of Kuty, early 20th century
Ukrainian Christmas also has a taste of uzvar (a thick and sweet drink made from dried apples, pears, plums, and cherries) and kutia, without which it is difficult to imagine Christmas dinner today. In different regions, dishes varied, but kutia and uzvar were on any Ukrainian table (except, perhaps, in Transcarpathia: here, uzvar was not cooked). Honey gingerbread and poppy seed cakes, vyvyvantsi (rolls) with poppy seeds, or with grated boiled fruit from uzvar were also cooked. And also verguny or pampukhy.
Kumanets ceramic, Poltava region, Zinkiv district, Opishnya, beginning of the 20th century
Kutia is a ceremonial grain dish that was supposed to be cooked in a new pot. Mostly, kutia is cooked from barley or wheat. Then grated poppy seeds are added, and the whole dish is seasoned with honey and nuts. In the Hutsul region, dziobavka - wheat with honey - is prepared for Christmas. Barley kutia is still common in Polissya. In some places, kutia is brewed with uzvar. Such liquid kutia was popular in the Poltava region. There is a tradition of cooking kutia from rice. Steamed raisins, dried pitted cherries, and pieces of prunes are added to kutia.
Wooden makitra, decorated with carvings, Ivano-Frankivsk region, second half of the 19th century. Cutting, hollowing, carpentry techniques, carving. Collection of Ivan Honchar Museum.
Ceramic makitra with lid, Kyiv region, Obukhiv, 19th century. Clay, irrigation, engobes; potter's wheel, painting. Collection of Ivan Honchar Museum.
Pickles balance the tastes of Christmas. Over time, sauerkraut, cucumbers, apples, tomatoes, mushrooms, and watermelons were supplemented with canned vegetables and salads of zucchini, peppers, and eggplants. Pickles or homemade preserves are ideal for meat dishes. The required number of dishes for the Holy Evening is 12. In Polissia, in the Carpathians, vegetable, mushroom, and fish dishes prevail. In the Kyiv region, in the South, in Slobozhanshchyna, many dishes are prepared from flour – pancakes, dumplings, and pies.
Therefore, homemade bread, ritual grain dish (kutia), sausages and roasted meat, and sweet and fragrant uzvar are our culinary code of this holiday. It is complemented by hot dishes: borscht, cabbage soup, depending on the region.
Ceramic bowl, Poltava region, Zinkiv district, the village of Misʹki Mlyny, beginning of the 20th century. Clay, irrigation, engobes; potter's wheel, painting. Collection of Ivan Honchar Museum.
White bowl, decorated with "combs", Kyiv region, Obukhiv. The beginning of the XX century. Clay, irrigation, engobes; potter's wheel, underwater painting by the Angobas. Collection of Ivan Honchar Museum.
Myska, Khmelnytskyi region, Dunayevetsky district, the village of Smotrych, 1920-30s. Clay; underwater painting by the Angobas. Collection of Ivan Honchar Museum.
At Christmas, each guest from the family was presented with gingerbread "Panyanka", they were distributed to children on Christmas Eve and Shchedrivka.
Before the Christmas holidays, every house baked gingerbread in the shape of maidens, horsemen, roosters, and boots and horsemen. All of them have a common name – "panyanka".
Gingerbreads were baked, smeared with beetroot juice and hot painted with symbolic ornaments. They could be up to 50 cm in size, and you could eat such a "candy" for three days.
Sometimes they were stored until the summer, and before consumption they were soaked in milk. Festively painted gingerbreads stood in a circle on the stove and created a unique decor of the space.
In recent decades, new dishes have been added to the classic dishes of the Christmas table: stewed potatoes with mushrooms or meat, meatballs, and cutlets, baked pancakes with beef, vinaigrette, and salads with mayonnaise, baked chicken, and many other dishes. However, they only complement the traditional ones. Traditional dishes have important symbolic meaning for us. They make the special atmosphere of the holiday, which in the Ukrainian tradition has a specific dimension of time and space. It is when all family members, both living and deceased, those who have not yet been born, and those who are not with us now, gather at the table. And the dishes only allow us to feel this moment and serve as an element of transition when we eat the first spoonfuls of kutia and feel unity with the whole family, with our previous and future generations.
Didukh by Olha Sakhno, tablecloth by Alla and Volodymyr Markaryan, handkerchiefs by Olga Kostyuchenko