Why Ukrainian Families are Uprooting Traditions and Moving Christmas; Plus a Recipe for Kutia

Ukranian Christmas

Christmas on Sophia Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, 2022. This year, many Ukrainian families are moving their Christmas celebrations from the January 7 Orthodox date to Dec. 25 – a measure Ukraine's parliament officially adopted. Photo: Viacheslav Tykhanskyi/Getty Images

Ukraine has done the unthinkable. Twice. First, they have withstood the military onslaught of Russia. Second, they have moved Christmas.

In July, after more than a year of defending their country from invasion, Ukraine’s parliament voted to officially move the holiday of Christmas to Dec. 25. This shifts the country’s celebrations from Jan. 7, to create further distance from the Russian Orthodox Church, the head of which, Patriarch Kirill, has endorsed Vladimir Putin’s war.

Like 1.3 million Canadians, my wife’s family is Ukrainian. Her parents, Gord and Olga, are both the children of Ukrainian immigrants. They speak regularly with family just outside of Lviv. Most years, they celebrate Ukrainian Christmas with a dinner in January (no presents) and “English Christmas” in December.

So it was as an act of solidarity that Olga proposed moving Sviatvechir (Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner), with its 12 meatless dishes, to Dec. 24. This was not the first time the hegemony of Christmas tradition has been challenged in our family. In fact, arguing about Christmas traditions is itself a Christmas tradition. And I think it follows a familiar pattern in most families.

As kids, our parents call the holiday shots (so we think, if they successfully shielded us from the squabbles they were having with their parents). When we grow up and move out, our parents want us to come home for important holidays. And we do, at first to make them happy, later because adulthood is scary and we miss the structure of our childhood. 

In our late 20s, we get big egos and start suggesting changes – both to the menu and the regime – because haven’t our parents been in charge long enough? When we no longer live in student apartments shared with roommates, we begin the debate over whose home we’re going to, on what night, at what time, and what we’re eating. Each generation recycles the same referendum: the value of tradition versus the practical benefits of modernization.

All our families have likely debated some, if not all of these questions: Why not a potluck? Can it be vegan? Can it be central Texas barbecue? Isn’t a capon a better-sized bird for our family? What if we all volunteered at a shelter? Can we not exchange presents this year? Do we need to make so much food? Can’t we eat earlier? Or later? 

None of these arguments moves the needle as much as the birth of the first grandchild. 

Babies are the ultimate get out of jail free card, and are the most valuable leverage in negotiating holiday plans. Put your hand up if you’ve used the baby’s bedtime routine as the reason why Christmas can’t be at your parents’ this year, or why you can’t go to Aunt Janet’s brunch because that’s naptime. It works. Until someone else in the family has a baby, negating the new parents’ power as a voting bloc.

My wife Victoria and I have been together for nine years. And it seems like an annual tradition for her family, like many, to discuss not cooking a turkey. Like many families, there are too few of us to eat a 15-pound (7-kg) bird. Victoria’s sister is a vegetarian. And much as we all love this meal – the succulence of Olga’s turkey being second to none – there’s a hunger for something else. (There was that first pandemic Christmas, where we ate northern Chinese noodles during a Zoom call with family.) Someone will suggest we smoke a brisket, make fresh pasta or get take-out. But each year, the lack of political will for change results in inertia and the gravity of tradition pulls us back toward the familiar.

However, when a real game changer enters the scene, even Christmas traditions are up for negotiation.

This year, when Olga brought up the idea of siding with the home country and ditching the turkey dinner, there were zero objections. No one said “maybe” or “we can think about it” or prevaricated in any way. In the span of one minute, the turkey, potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and all the rest were voted out of office. 

I suspect that the desire for changing tradition was there for a long time. It just needed a reason for the family to get behind it.

Having said that, I don’t know how much everyone truly wants a meal of kutia (wheat berries, honey and walnuts), holubtsi (cabbage rolls), perishky (small buns stuffed with sauerkraut) and borscht. Except me. Personally, I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and learn some Ukrainian dishes, if Olga will let me cook more than my usual contribution of gravy. 

But separate from the specific foods, everyone seems eager to embrace this, both as an act of standing alongside Ukraine, and as an opportunity to teach our daughter Scarlett about her culture. Her current diet consists mostly of toast, peanut butter and apple slices. I don’t know how open she is going to be to herring, jellied fish or stewed cabbage. But I love the idea of exposing her to all of it.

I’ve already seen the impact.

At home, we play a game where mom and dad roll her up tightly in a blanket and say we’re making her into a burrito. This week, we were playing and she said, “Roll me into a holubtsi.” It was just a few days after Baba and Dido made their batch of 100 holopchi. 

That’s the soft power of culinary diplomacy right there.



Kutia bowl. Photo: Sofia Popovych/Getty Images


This porridge of wheat and poppy seeds is sweetened with honey and fortified with nuts. Olga’s kutia recipe is adapted from one on the food blog Claudia’s Cookbook. I have additionally made a few adjustments myself.

Usually the first dish of 12 eaten during the meal, some folks follow the tradition of throwing a spoonful up at the ceiling. Folklore dictates that if the grains stick to the ceiling, next year there should be swarms of bees and newborn cows. And the number of poppy seeds on the ceiling indicate how many eggs each chicken will lay the next year. Gord and Olga will not be throwing food at the ceiling. 


1 cup wheat berries (also known as wheat kernels)

Pinch of salt

1 cup chopped pecans

2 tbsp honey

6 tbsp poppyseeds


Preheat the oven to 250 . Using an oven-proof pan, toast wheatberries for one hour. Soak in cold water overnight. Transfer to a pot. Cover in water with a pinch of salt. Bring to boil. Lower to simmer for 3-4 hours, until the kernels open, adding more water as needed. This should produce 3 cups of cooked wheatberries.

Strain wheatberries. Mix with pecans and honey. Using a mortar and pestle, crush poppyseeds and fold into kutia. Serve warm. Makes four cups.



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