The day’s light had long faded and a rumble of hunger was making itself known from deep within me. Still, the time to eat wasn’t here quite yet. We waited for the first visible star in the night sky, a symbol to start the humble Holy Evening feast. My task, one I performed so eagerly, was to run to the window and look out for the star; I returned to the windowsill again and again while the women in the family chopped, fried, and mixed dishes in the kitchen.
In Ukraine, following the Julian calendar, the 6th of January marks Christmas Eve, or what we call Святий Bечір (Svyaty Vechir, Holy Evening) and it’s the last day of what should be a forty day fast.
My hometown is situated in the Western part of the country, further away from the Russian border, which made the preservation of language, traditions, and cuisine easier under Soviet rule. My family wasn’t what you would call particularly religious, as Soviet Ukraine limited its expression on ideological grounds. And even after the country’s independence from the USSR in 1991, the main draw of religious celebrations was always family and community. Though we seldom went to church, religious elements and rituals always permeated the Christmas and Easter seasons. Any excuse for an elaborate feast.
The table on each Holy Evening was laid with twelve different dishes, after Jesus’ twelve disciples, whether anyone fasted or not. The star I eagerly waited for as a child symbolised the birth of Jesus, giving us permission to sit and break the fast, with the ritual imparting a welcome element of timekeeping and anticipation for the whole family. Fasting was likewise made nearly impossible by the preceding New Year’s Eve, perhaps the most raucous of all the Soviet celebrations, with copious amounts of far too sweet ‘champagne’. Children, the elderly, and the sick were excluded from fasting too—lucky for a young and always hungry girl. Instead, my family chose to eat lightly or to abstain from food on the day itself while preparing for dinner.
To mark the last day of the fast, all the dishes eaten on Holy Evening are made without meat, eggs, and dairy, instead using vegetables and grains, sometimes fish, to create the feast. Every family has their own traditions and the twelve dishes vary, though there are a few mainstays of the Свята Bечеря (Svyata Vecherya, Holy Dinner).
The indisputable star of every Holy Dinner is кутя (kutya). To all unfamiliar with it, envision a type of sweetened porridge, made with boiled wheat, ground poppy seeds, and made sweet with honey. My family always adds walnuts too; others opt for dried apricots or raisins.
It’s a labour-intensive dish. Poppy seeds must be gently simmered before grinding in a large, wooden pestle and mortar-type vessel, until each seed bursts to release its milky centre. The dish symbolises abundance and prosperity and the fast is broken with a taste of it first; kutya is passed around the table and everyone has a spoonful, while the rest is saved for dessert.
Cooking for the Holy Evening and Christmas day was often at least a week-long affair. Two styles of dishes were being made; one spare and lean, destined for the table still observing a fast, the second rich and indulgent to mark the fast’s end on the following day. One set of dishes used minimal oil; the other had so much butter added that I recall one cake, baked by my great-grandmother, needed two people to transport from one room to the next.
There’s a quiet elegance to the Holy Evening menu and the minimal, unadorned ways that vegetables, grains, and flour are used to create delicious, symbolic dishes. Typically, you would find two or three types of вареники (varenyky, dumplings) on the table with different fillings, like mashed potatoes or sauerkraut. Then the was a lean version of борщ (borshch), cooked without meat, creating a consommé-style broth, deeply purple in colour, adorned with вушка (vushka ‘little ears’ dumplings) packed with minced mushrooms.
Potatoes feature again, this time on their own merit, served with amber fried onions; pickled mushrooms sit alongside a dish of sauerkraut and boiled wheat. A simple yeasted dough is turned into three types of пампушки (pampushky, doughnuts), featuring mushrooms, a paste of poppy seeds, and homemade jam. Finally, most tables feature узвар (uzvar), an infused drink made from dried fruits, like apples or pears. It’s gently sweet, with only minimal additional sugar, and the dried fruit lending a tart yet earthy freshness to the drink.
For years my family and I embraced English traditions, enjoying pulling apart the crackers and reading out terrible jokes; arguing over how to cook sprouts (always roasted!), and experimenting with the best time to open presents. For my mum and me, doing less cooking, and definitely not starting a week in advance, was very welcome too. Recently something changed. Here and there, we all started asking after certain dishes, craving a presence of Ukrainian traditions on our London table. Last Christmas, we made kutya and passed it around the table before starting our lunch. I’ll be making it again this year.
Want to make one of Zhenya's wonderful recipes from her Ukrainian traditions? She's written up her recipe for Drunken Cherry Cake and it's the perfect celebration cake!