Customs and Traditions of the Ukraine: Religion, Food, Occupations, Art, and Holidays

Customs and Traditions of the Ukraine: Religion, Food, Occupations, Art, and Holidays
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Occupation and Division Adds to the Culture of the Ukraine

A considerably new country in terms of independence, the Ukraine has roots back to the ninth century. After centuries of occupation and land division, the nation now stands as the largest contiguous country on the European continent. Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and the former Soviet Union have at one time occupied the nation and divided its borders. Not until the dissolution of the Soviet Union did the large, Slavic country regain control to become her own entity.

In 1991, the Ukraine established herself as an independent, unitary state. The country is subdivided into 24 oblasts or provinces. Three other cities outside of these provinces hold special status. Kiev is the Ukraine’s largest city and the nation’s capital. Crimea is an autonomous republic, and Sevastopol is under leasing agreement with the Russian Republic.

Ukrainian Religion Changes With Occupations From Other Lands

Ukranian Church in Lviv

The conquerors of the country bestowed their own language and religion upon the Ukrainians. Before administration under the Polish Crown in the fourteenth century, the Ukraine was mainly a Slavic country with ties to the Byzantine Orthodox Church.

After the Polish Crown invaded the Ukraine, most of her citizens turned to Catholicism. After much turmoil, annexation and infiltration, the Ukraine was devoured by the Soviet Union. Under Soviet domination, many of the old peasantry customs were stripped from the country. The atheist philosophy became dominant and the Ukrainian language, Catholicism and Orthodoxy went underground.

After a horrific depression that took over 10 million lives, the Ukrainian people tried to resurge as a nation. During World War II, the people of the Ukraine were again repressed by the Soviet Union.

After one of the most horrendous events in modern history, the partial nuclear melt-down at Chernobyl’s Nuclear Plant (1986), the Ukrainians held desperately for a democratized Ukraine. The first coup failed, yet with unyielding endurance and persistence, the nation survived and declared independence on August 24. 1991.

Independence Brings a Revival of Old Traditions, Celebrations and Customs

Ukranian Dancers

With the resurrection of nationalism, the Ukrainian people went back to their roots to find commonality in language, culture, religion and family traditions. With the new Ukraine came old Ukrainian customs and culture.

Christian holidays, lost during Soviet dominance, found their rightful place in the hearts of the Ukrainian people. Christmas, Christian holy days, weddings, baptisms and funerals were once again allowed to be celebrated in the Ukraine. The chains of communism were released and the foundations of an ancient, peasant-based culture re-emerged.

Along with industrialization, a return to the earth and peasantry has added to the culture of the Ukraine. Amidst robust, Westernized cities, the Ukrainians now enjoy forestry, farming and cultivation of their land. Once a military strong-hold for the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians have reclaimed their past as they move into the future.

Religion in the Modern Ukraine

Central to Ukrainian Culture, the new nation incorporates many religions once deemed unacceptable. The revival of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam harmonize in this land. Once unable to practice theology, the division of church and state has allowed this tapestry of religions to co-exist without government control.

The most popular religions are those of the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The historic creeds, languages and rituals of the two dominant religions have influenced the culture of the country. Many ancient Pagan beliefs were adopted by the emerging churches in their earliest existence. In the Ukraine, some Pagan practices and rituals are still performed under the guise of the more acceptable Christian religions.

Holidays and Celebrations in the Ukraine

Ukrainian Tubist

New Year’s Day is celebrated by children and adults alike in the Ukraine. Similar to Christmas Eve, presents are placed under the New Year Tree on January 1. The night before, a presidential speech is generally broadcast. Then, at midnight, the merriment begins as champagne flows. Fireworks light the sky as a new year begins and the past drifts into memory. Writing a wish for the New Year on parchment and placing it in a champagne flute is a tradition that has carried for generations. The drink and parchment are consumed in anticipation that the wish will come true.

Father Frost (Did Moroz) and his granddaughter “Sniguron’ka,” or Snow Girl, are folk heroes of this most festive holiday. Father Frost is said to hand out sweets and presents to the children, much like Santa Claus of the west.

Orthodox Christmas, January 7th is celebrated with pageantry, feasts, traditional songs, and traditional dress. Hopes of prosperity for the coming year are celebrated in carnival-type costumes along with the singing of the “Kolyaduvannya” and “Schedruvannya.” When one is presented with the vocal styling of these traditional ditties, reciprocate with sweets, food or drink is appreciated. For those that perform and those that reward, tradition states that prosperity and good wishes will follow.

International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8. The origins of the festival are based on the fight for women’s working rights on March 8, 1897. The demand for ten-hour working days, clean arenas to produce, and equal pay with men were achieved on this historic date.

Once a political holiday with parades, speeches and demonstrations; International Women’s day has become more fanciful and personal. Gifts of flowers, candy and food are given to mothers and other women important in the family. The political holiday is now more reminiscent of Mother’s Day, celebrated in the United States.

Orthodox Easter is celebrated in April or May, dependent on the calendar and the ending of Lent. As with the Catholic tradition of Easter, the holiday celebrates the resurrection of Christ. Painted eggs, mostly red for the blood of Christ, are an important element in the custom. Participants spend the entire night at church services. Easter bread and wine are also allowed on this most precious celebration in Christian theology. All food and wine are sprinkled with Holy Water as a blessing for fortune, good health and prosperity.

Holy Trinity Day is celebrated fifty days after Easter. While Christian in nature, the practice actually comes from the Judaic celebration of the Feast of the Harvest. Attendants of the festival visit the tombs and graves of their relatives, leaving food at the stones. This combination of birth (harvest) and death, reminds the Ukrainians of the cycle of life.

Independence Day is celebrated on August 24 in memory of the decline of ancient Ukraine and the meteoric rise of the nation as it is today. Independence day is the largest state holiday, declaring the sovereignty of the Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Much as the United States celebrates the Fourth of July with fireworks, music and parades, so do the Ukrainians.

Ivan Kupajla Day, July 6 is celebrated in honor of the “God of the Sun” or Dahzbog. Kupajla is the name given to the celebration of dark forces consumed by the strong summer sun. Kupajla is the “God of Fertility.” In a country dependent upon agriculture and self-sustaining farming, this celebration has deep-seeded significance in Pagan philosophy. Traditional ceremonies include gathering of medical herbs. These flora are used not only in folk medicine but also to ward off evil spirits. On Kupala’s night, bonfires are lit to keep witches and evil spirits from casting doom on the harvest.

Traditional Ukrainian Cuisine

Ukrainian Cuisine

Ukrainian dishes are Slavic in nature. Dependent on the fertile soil, much of the traditional dishes are potato based and utilize other tubers. Borscht, a beloved staple, is a beet-based soup. Hearty and delicious with the vibrant red-violet color of the tuber, borscht is found at most traditional ceremonies and at the family table.

Peasant cooking continues to be a palette pleaser in the rural Ukraine. Most of the animal is digested in order not to waste. Larded liver, Dushenia with kidneys, cabbage stuffed entrails are all elements of Ukrainian cuisine. Fat or lard is used in many dishes along with dairy. The seasoning of the dishes is elementary, allowing the natural flavors of curing, smoking and pickling to come through.

Traditional sweet bread, cookies and pastries grace all Ukrainian celebration tables. Jams and preserves, along with sugar and lard, make heavy bites of sweet confection.

Ukrainian Folk Art

Ukrainian Eggs

Festive wood carvings and delicate embroidery make everyday objects transform into artistic treasures. Wooden dishes and bowls are elegantly carved by hand, creating visions of beauty and practicality. Wood carving is an established art form in this heavily wooded land.

Ukrainian Eggs are known around the world for their magnificent artistry. Some have been sold at auction for thousands of dollars. With Pagan and Christian folklore, the eggs represent fertility, birth, and resurgence of strength. The yolk and white are blown through a microscopic hole at the bottom of the egg. Dyes from vegetables and herbs are used to create primitive and ecclesiastical designs. The vibrant colors depict peasantry life and Christian ideals.

Embroidery and bead work embellish native costumes, decorative throws and pillows, and are highly sought-after commercial works of art. The embroidery is so small and delicate that it is difficult to distinguish between the threads of the artisan and that of the fabric beneath. Each pattern tells a story, whether it is influenced by Byzantine, Slavic, Pagan or Christian cultures.

The New and the Old Co-Exist in the Ukraine

The Ukraine has survived and thrived under occupation, domination and, finally, its own liberation. While succumbing to stronger empires, the people of the Ukraine have managed to recreate the past while incorporating the present. Western ideals infiltrate the dominant Slavic, peasant life-style of the Ukrainian culture. Once a military powerhouse for the Soviet Union, the peace-loving people of the Ukraine strive to maintain the riches of the past while looking to the future.


Ukrainian Travel Advisor,

Countries and Their Cultures,

Food of Ukraine,

Holidays in Ukraine,

Image Credit: Golden Monastery (Ternopil Region, Ukraine) by Jurij Skobenko under CC BY 2.0

Image Credit: Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Lviv by Jurij Skobenko under CC BY 2.0

Image Credit: Ukrainian Dancers 1 by rfduck under CC BY 2.0

Image Credit: Ukrainian Woman Tubist from Berezhany City by MariyaZ under CC BY 2.0

Image Credit: Yummy Potato Pancakes with Porcini Mushrooms from Ukranian Carpathians by MariyaZ under CC BY 2.0

Image Credit: Pysanka by Stu_Spivack under CC BY 2.0