Farming, a core part of Ukrainian culture and customs, goes back long before Christianity was brought to the region by Vladimir the Great in 988. All farming, especially growing grains, is revered in the culture. Even the Ukrainian flag reflects those ties to the land. The top half of the flag is blue and the bottom half is yellow, representing vast plains of ripe grains stretching to the horizon under an open sky. These ancient traditions easily incorporated into Orthodox Church tradition.
Christmas Eve in Ukraine is celebrated on January 6th in accordance with the Gregorian calendar. The day is spent preparing the home for the celebration of the birth of Christ. The house is cleaned and sheaves of wheat and rye called didukh are placed under icons of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The table is covered with a white tablecloth with a handful of hay hidden beneath (gathered from the first day of the summer's harvest) along with some garlic cloves to bring good health to the family over the coming year. On that table is the Holy Supper (Svyata Vechera), a Lenten meal consisting of 12 courses, one for each Apostle. One extra place setting is laid out to allow the spirits of the ancestors to also enjoy the feast along with the living.
The meaning behind the celebration
Kutya celebrates the richness of the land and the preceding year's harvest. It is only served at Ukrainian religious ceremonies of the greatest importance. While traditionally made with whole wheat berries, it can also be made with any number of other cooked whole grains, such as spelt, farro, or kamut.
Let the feast begin!
Holy Supper (Sviata Vecheria), the main Christmas meal, is eaten on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, the people fast all day but may begin the day by drinking holy water that has been blessed at the church.
The meal cannot begin until the first star appears in the sky. People go outside in the afternoon at twilight to try to spot it. This star represents the journey of the Wise Men to find Jesus at his birth. Now Christmas has officially begun.
The meal normally features 12 dishes representing Jesus' 12 disciples. Traditionally, the dishes don't include any meat, eggs or milk. The main dish is often kutya, a type of sweet porridge made from wheat. Other dishes can include sauerkraut, mushrooms, pyrizhk (cabbage buns), borsch (beet soup), pierogi, holopchi (cabbage rolls made without meat), whitefish and kolach, a special Christmas bread.
The room where Sviata Vecheria is eaten usually displays a didukh decoration made from a sheaf of wheat symbolizing the large wheat fields in Ukraine. The word literally means grandfather spirit and represents the memories of ancestors. The didukh may also be displayed in a vase.
After the meal, people sing carols (koliadky) around the table or go caroling in the streets, sometimes carrying brightly-colored stars on poles. The popular Ukrainian Christmas carol, Shchedryk, is the source of the tune for the English language Carol of the Bells.
The significance of kutya
Kutya (or kutyia) is a ceremonial grain dish with sweet gravy traditionally served in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia during the Christmas Feast of Jordan holiday season and as part of a funeral feast.
In the Ukraine, kutya is an essential dish at the Ukrainian Christmas Eve supper thought to have been eaten since pre-historic times. The main ingredients used to make the traditional dish are wheatberries, poppy seeds, and honey. At times, walnuts, dried fruit and raisins are added as well. Kutya is a Lenten dish and no milk or egg products can be used during that time.
As a part of a Ukrainian Christmas Eve Supper, kutya is used in a number of rituals performed on the night. It is the first to be tasted of the twelve dishes served for Sviata Vecheria. Everyone present must have at least a spoonful. Historically, the head of the household used kutya to foretell whether the upcoming year's harvest would be plentiful and to bargain with the forces of nature for good weather.
A dish of boiled grains (usually wheat berries) mixed with honey, nuts, spices, and a few other ingredients is traditional in other countries as well, such as Bulgaria (kolivo), Greece (koliva), Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan where it is called ameh, masslouk and snuniye, respectively.
In the Ukrainian language, Happy/Merry Christmas is Веселого Різдва, Veseloho Rizdva (Merry Christmas) or Khrystos Rozhdayetsia (Christ is Born). Click to discover Happy/Merry Christmas in more languages.
(Above: Romani gypsy children I met near Kiev, Ukraine. The Romani people originated in northern India and arrived in Midwest Asia and Europe around 1,000 years ago. Below: Slavic Ukrainian children in Kiev. Photos are mine.)
½ cup dry wheat berries (or other whole grain)
4+ cups water
3/4 cup ground poppy seeds
2/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
Place wheat berries and water in a pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until the wheat is very tender (at least 3 hours). Be sure there is at least an inch of water covering the wheat berries at all times. A crock-pot set on low heat works very well for this.
Toast slivered almonds on a baking sheet at 350° for 3-5 minutes until light golden brown.
Drain the cooked wheat, reserving ½ cup of the cooking liquid. Add honey to the reserved liquid and stir well.
Mix all ingredients together. Bake uncovered at 325° for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes. Top with a dusting of ground cinnamon to taste. May be served either hot or cold.
(Credits: Przykuta [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]; https://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/ukraine.shtml; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-06/children-celebrate-christmas-in-ukraine/8165598; http://euromaidanpress.com/2017/01/18/january-18-hungry-kutya-or-second-holy-night-traditions-and-customs/)