In ancient Ukrainian tradition, a proper celebration of Christmas and New Year required serious symbolic preparations. Always, in time of harvest, people would make a Didukh, using stems of different grains (rye, wheat, oats etc.) and pick out some soft fragrant hay. One was supposed to complete all work around the household before Christmas Eve.
Usually, getting ready for the holidays, people thoroughly cleaned their homes, painted flowers on the fireplace, laid the table with new or freshly washed table runners. It was customary to at least try and get new nice clothes for all family members and buy new dishes.
Everyone was involved in the Chrismas preparations, everyone from the eldest to the youngest had responsibilities of their own. Grandmothers would make new pillows and teach the young ones to sing carols. Young unmarried men and girls would get together to sing carols, make special costumes and rehearse Nativity scenes, called ‘Vertep’.
On Christmas Eve - January 6 (the day often known as ‘Vilia’) families would wake up before dawn to perform a special ritual - cook God’s food - kutya and uzvar. To do this, one was supposed to stack wood in the furnace, a particular way, and light it with "live fire" (rubbing wood against wood or steel). Later on, of course, people started using matches instead. To make kutya one used some previously prepared wheat – crushed and soaked, as well as "untouched" water – water brought from the well before sunrise, which then people considered was blessed in the night by the gods of sun. The same applied to ‘knysh’ – it was supposed to be baked before dawn. A knysh is a ritual Christmas bread – made like any other kind of bread, it was considered the food of ancestral spirits. Once these special dishes were made, the lady of the house would move on to cooking the remaining of the 12 traditional dishes traditionally found on the Christmas table.
It was rather importamt for God’s food (kutya, uzvar) to be cooked before sunrise. The cooked wheat was topped with some honey, walnuts, poppy seeds and raisins (wheat was considered a symbol of eternal life, and honey - the eternal happiness of the saints in heaven). Var aka uzvar is a kind of stewed fruit juice made of dried fruit (apples, pears, plums, cherries).
Once God’s food and knysh were ready, the eldest family member would welcome the first rays of the sun, opening the doors to the house, barns, stables and even the gates, because it was believed that together with the sun on this day the God of harvest also came down to earth, bringing those welcoming him prosperity and wealth. Families would also use a ‘magic potion’ – poppy seeds – ‘showering’ all their animals to deter evil spirits and making sure that everything was ready for the Holy Night. And only then the official festivities, called ‘sviatky’ began. The father would take the eldest boy in the house by the hand and enter the barn, carrying some ‘untouched’ water and three rye ears. There they would find the pre-prepared Didukh and 12 small bundles of hay. These were sprinkled-blessed with water as a way to ask God for good harvest in the year to come.
Afterwards the Didukh and hay were carried to the house where the hostess greeted them with the knysh and a lit candle. Then the Didukh was placed at the centre of the table, the hay used to cover the table and floor.
According to traditional Ukrainian beliefs Didukh was sort of the gathering place for all the ancestors, the spirits of the house, and the good spirits of Lada. Christmas Eve was believed to be a very special time because that was the night not only the spirits brought in with the Didukh, but also the gods of harvest and protectors of domestic animals would join families and be hosted by them. One could consider it a sort of barter, because the siripirts provided protection and good fortune in return.
People were strictly forbidden from doing any work except for taking care of farm animals as long as the Didukh was set on the table. Not only Christmas Eve was considered holy, but all the days through January 13th. Everyone was only expected to celebrate and have fun on these days.
The place of the Didukh in the house was called "Paradise" because it was belived to be the dwelling place of the souls of ancestors and patrons of the family and the house.
Once some hay was laid on the table, it was covered with a runner for the good spirits, with some herbs or garlic placed on each corner, and the another cloth for the people. The central dishes were solemnly brought in. Kutya with the knysh placed on top, for the spirits to feast on, and beside it – uzvar, covered with palianytsia – another ritual bread for people, and a candle stuck in it. Afterwards everyone patiently awaited nightfall. It was customary to fast on this day so everyone eagerly waited for the festive supper to start.
Getting ready for Christmas supper everyone would wear their best clothes and waited to see the first start, which symbolically marked the birth of baby Jesus. Walking outside the house the children would watch the night sky and once they saw the first star, they would rush back inside to let everyone know the long-awaited good news. And this moment marked the beginning of the Holy supper.