Saint Volodymyr le Grand b
Ukrainian Orthodoxy
Orthodoxie ukrainienne

Ukrainian Svyat-Vechir:
Of Traditions and Spirit

Dr. Alexander Roman

The Eve of the Nativity of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, is celebrated variously by different religious and cultural traditions.

We are all heirs to some shared group tradition.  We also create and develop our own ways of highlighting special events.  

So when we say "Svyat Vechir," we have in mind a series of things, including culinary delights, that identify a particular way of celebrating the Birth of Christ.  The same is true of "Reveillon" or "Vigilia" or "Hogmanay."

At the same time, there is no monolithic concept of "Ukrainian Christmas."  Regional traditions impact its celebration, even across several generations of Ukrainians born and living in North America.  

It is inevitable that mainstream and other cultural practices can and do blend in to create unique celebrations that often vary not only from parish to parish, but also from house to house!

The Ukrainian celebration of Christ's Nativity is really a spiritual attitude that the traditions should, ideally, help develop within our hearts.   This is why preparation in advance is necessary to help put ourselves within the true Christ-centered nature of this holy day.

The first way to prepare is, of course, the spiritual way.

As we wait for the Birth of Christ, the Church increases Her readings from the Prophets of the Old Testament who foretold His Coming.

It is important for us to find some time, in the midst of busy year-end work schedules and last minute shopping, to enter into the spirituality of waiting that marks the prophetic vision.

Doubling our reading of the Psalms is also a good way of adorning the living tree of our souls with the beauty of the Christmas Light . . .

Frequent and thoughtful reflection on the Jesus Prayer will truly activate our spiritual awareness as we use the "Epiclesis of Jesus Christ" and call down His saving Grace on our hearts.

Frequent attendance at the Divine Liturgy and Communion is another excellent way to deepen our union and relationship with Christ. 

Reading of the Church Services helps to focus our inner attention on what it is that we will be celebrating on the Feast of the Nativity.  Russell Sawchyn's accessible links in this regard on this website cannot be commended too highly!

In fact, everything that we do to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity, and everything that we see around us, even the commercial aspects of Christmas, can be transformed into a meditation on Christ and His Light which He brings us as His great Gift to us.

There are many ways in which we may enhance mainstream cultural traditions with those reflecting our own.

What about decorating the Christmas tree with small Icons on ribbons?  The Icons could represent the Nativity, the Baptism in the Jordan, St Nicholas, the Mother of God, St Stephen, St John the Baptist and other themes of the Nativity season.

Special Pysanky or decorate eggs with Christmas themes (or even snowflakes) could be created and adapted for use at this time.

An Icon of the Nativity should be placed next to the Christmas tree as a "Vertep" or Nativity Scene.  Use of Ukrainian embroidery should punctuate everything, of course!

Many of the traditions associated with "Svyat-Vechir" are of pre-Christian origin that were "baptized" and reinterpreted following AD988, the year of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus'-Ukraine.

The "kutya" was always considered to be the "food of Heaven."  It was kutya or "kollivo" or a mixture of boiled wheat that was eaten by Christians in honour of special holidays like Namedays. 

For funerals or periods of fasting, no poppy-seed is added.  The "mak" or poppy-seed is blessed on the Feast of the Makabees, owing to a play on the name, in August.

The "drink of Heaven" or a compote made of 12 fruits is also served.  All the (ideally 12) dishes are in fact meatless, something that was also done in pre-Christian times as a kind of sacrifice.  

The number "12" bears strong Christian significance owing to the number of the Apostles.  It actually reflects the 12 months of the year spent in Christ, the "year of the Lord" and the 12 tribes of the New Israel which is the Body of Christ of which we are members. 

The "didukh" or wheat-sheaf is a sacred object during the Feast of the Nativity.  Like the kernel that dies in the ground before it sprouts, the wheat-sheaf represents our Resurrection from the dead through Christ Who became our life-giving Wheat in the Bread of Holy Communion.  

The double table cloth and the special place set aside for our reposed relatives and friends is not meant to be something that is sad.  

These celebrate and proclaim our Eternal Life in Christ and His Salvation so that even those who have died in Him join us as one Family during the celebration of the awesome Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ our God.

The Kolach or triple-braided bread that is placed on the table also heralds the arrival of the Bread of Life Who revealed to us the Holy Trinity.

The sharing of the honeyed bread with everyone before the meal celebrates the both the Bread of Life and the sweetness of the Yoke of Christ.  Indeed, we are truly brought into the land of milk and honey through Christ Who blesses us from the manger.

Svyat Vechir is truly mystical in that time is held still.  This is why the Nativity greeting is always in the present, ongoing tense:  "Christ is (being) Born!"  

The modern Ukrainian translation of "Khrystos Rodyvsia" or "Christ was Born" is theologically incorrect.  It is perhaps better to maintain the form closer to the Church Slavonic "Khrystos Rozhdayetsia!"

During the Svyat Vechir, it is always good to keep secular conversation to a minimum.  How many times do we hear people complain about their jobs and the pressures of daily life. 

And yet, when they come to the Svyat Vechir celebration, that is all anyone seems to want to talk about - that and the stock market!  Let us not profane this holy eve with such nonsense.  Let's keep our work behind the closed door of our offices and learn to relax and keep festival in the Lord.

The singing of kolyady or carols is an important part of the spiritual celebration of Christmas.  One good way of getting everyone to join in is to have a small hymn-book present beside each placement setting at the table.

Beginning prayers should always include the veneration of a small Icon of the Nativity which could be passed around for everyone to reverence with a holy kiss.  This Icon could then be placed near the Kolach.

Placing hay on the table under the cloth and underneath the table with carpenter's tools also helps us to take our thoughts to the manger in Bethlehem of long ago and the carpenter's shop. 

Even the Christmas pine tree could serve as a reminder of the Cross as, according to tradition, the Cross was made up of three types of wood, the pine, the cedar and the cypress (Isaiah 60:13).

The Svyat Vechir is not a "quaint" custom, but an important celebration of our Home Church.  We begin at home and continue at the Cathedral with our Bishop or Metropolitan as a Liturgical Assembly.  

All is one in Christ Who, as the carol sings, "unites Earth to Heaven."  All is bathed in light, love and hope.  Happiness and fulfillment are liberated from the crassness of the mundane as our spirits soar toward Christ among us.

We wish all our readers and visitors a Happy and Blessed Nativity and New Year.  Khrystos Rozhdayetsia - Christ is Born!  Let us glorify Him!

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