No matter how young or old you are, even the tiniest wishful hope of finding yourself in a fairy tale is always an exuberant experience. During Christmas time, most European cities turn precisely into a magical fairy-tale, full of captivating and gleaming lights in all bright colors. The sacred winter holiday is of particular importance, thanks to its warmth and coziness, its traditions and special family gatherings.
The magical town of Lviv in Ukraine makes an extra special contribution to the winter holiday experience. This festive town is a national treasure. According to research conducted by one of the Ukrainian TV channels, Lviv was identified as one of the most attractive Ukrainian cities during the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
The Christmas holiday in Lviv begins with various festivities and glorifications combined with fabulous entertainment, fortune-reading myths, and of course, the giving of gifts ceremony. Beginning on December 1st, when Orthodox and Greek Catholics honor Romans in accordance with the church calendar, and up until January 19th, Epiphany, one can find a good occasion to enjoy life and have fun every single day. People call this lengthy chain of Christmas holiday celebrations “From Rome to Jordan.”
Most of the ceremonies performed during Christmas time cannot leave anyone indifferent. The original beliefs come from the ancient times, and have been preserved mostly in the small villages, particularly the costume performance about the Messiah’s birth and singing Christmas Carols. At the same time, a more urban version that pictorially depicts Christ’s birth in a Bethlehem cave is called shopka. Shopka was borrowed from town people. The largest urban shopka in Lviv is erected annually in front of the city council, in the heart of the medieval city, and it is always original, a mix of traditional and contemporary, and thus attracts lots of attention. Some of the most important shopka characters are lambs. For a number of years, the walls of St. Andrew’s Cathedral have been set up as really small shopka barn with live lambs. The lambs grow before the city visitors’ and residents’ eyes and they are, of course, the children’s favorites.
The feeling of the festive Christmas atmosphere sets upon the city with the installation of the true Christmas and the New Year symbol—the city’s famous Christmas tree that is brought from the Carpathians, especially grown for this occasion. But the decorations are the most important part of the Christmas tree! For the past few years, the tendency has been to decorate the main Christmas tree with lions’ head ornaments, and other different ornaments, specially crafted and painted in the town of Yavoriv. Based on the national tradition, yellow, green, and red colors have been used for these decorations since ancient times. Bright and life-assuring angels, bells, and other typical Christmas attributes adorn the statuesque blue-green beauty. They also create a wonderful combination with the grand and solemn Opera and Ballet Theatre, since the Christmas tree is set up right in front of the theater square.This gorgeous Christmas tree is a main urban element, and its tradition was borrowed from the Roman Catholics. In villages, a didukh was set up before Christmas in the most honorable place of the household. Didukh is the last harvested sheaf of wheat, flax, rye, or other grains, woven into a very nice solid stack. Nowadays, it is set up on one of the city’s squares and decorated with colorful ribbons. The tallest traditional ornaments of guardian angels stand at four meters high.
Not only didukhs, but also so-called “spiders” are woven especially for Christmas holiday. According to the legend, a real spider web blocks the entrance to the cave where Jesus was born preventing Herod’s soldiers from finding the Holy Family. This is why up until now, every year before Christmas women weave straws in light openwork geometric decorations for the holiday. These simple faceted structures are hung from the ceiling beam, and with the movement of air, they do their festive dance, as they are said to bring peace and prosperity to the household.
The Christmas fair begins with the erection of the city’s Christmas tree on December 19th (St. Nicholas Day), which is the children’s favorite holiday. The city’s streets and squares display stands with various fun items and souvenirs. You can warm up with mulled wine and a holiday inspired feast and traditional holiday dishes served in wooden huts. Up until January 7th, most of the dishes are made of lean ingredients, but shortly after the Christmas day, you can indulge in homemade sausage and pirogues with various stuffing, and everything else your soul desires. You can experience the magic of the city, sample anything you desire and indulge in rich holiday traditions.
And it’s definitely a must to try kutia, which is an integral dish at the holiday table. In Halytchyna, kutia was always made with wheat and poppy seeds, honey, raisins, and nuts. Frying pampukhy (donuts) is also important. They are one of the twelve dishes that, according to the Christmas tradition, one must taste on Christmas Eve. This leads us to the City Pampukh Festival in Lviv, where hostesses compete in baking these amazing specialties: all different varieties with rose jam, poppy seeds, apple spread, sprinkling them abundantly with powdered sugar. Women in Halytchyna make these delicious goodies in large quantities, and all the guests enjoy devouring them as much as their heart desires.
On January 7th all the authentic Lviv residents come out only in the afternoon, as their guests join them for the second round at the holiday table. Christmas has always been considered a family holiday, and for that purpose, the entire family gets together and celebrates. In Lviv, family gatherings often continue not only around the table, but also attending various concerts, plays, and of course gathering together for caroling.
The ascent of the extremely bright octagonal star over Bethlehem heralded the birth of the Saviour. This is why a large, beautifully decorated herald star, traditionally called zvizda, is an important element of Christmas caroling and the native plays. Galician craftsmen spend an entire year preparing for the Star Parade, trying to outdo each other, both aesthetically and technically. A star must be seen over a solemn procession, spinning like a windmill, and it must be created according to all the canons. Masters show off their skills at the special parade through the central streets of the city, during the festival of “Lighting the Christmas Star.”
Winter fun, caroling, delicious foods, and even workshops on creating Christmas stars continue the holiday traditions and activities at the park of folk architecture and everyday life of the “Shevchenko’s Grove.” Thus, without leaving the city, guests experience true Christmas magic, as everyone waits for miracles to happen, and their most dear wishes to come true, and of course for the Christmas and New Year’s gifts, destiny readings, and friends and family gatherings. Children receive their gifts on St. Nicholas Day, since he is the patron Saint of children.
Christmas in Galicia is never limited to a one-day celebration. During this time, diverse groups of people unite according to profession, social status, or income, and organize different holiday parties and grand balls. Nowadays, there’s even a Viennese ball tradition, which creates a glamorous and festive atmosphere of solemnity and aristocratic festivities borrowed from the past.
Christmas is not a holiday without Christmas carols. Caroling is done in many different ways, and can be enjoyed all around the town. With each additional holiday, the number of ceremonial songs grows and becomes more and more fun. Each region has its own original caroling tradition and all different folk singing groups enjoy caroling for the entire month during another city festival, called “The Grand Carol.”
Another holiday tradition related to the native celebrations falls on the night of January 14th, on Malanka, “Lead the goat.” Leading the goat is usually a fun pastime for young people with various games, events, and flirtation. However, even the modern tradition echoes the authentic ancient rituals.
The Christmas whirlpool of celebrations ends with swimming in the icy waters of the river on Epiphany, and after that particular end of festivities people slowly return to their everyday lives. The holidays in the city combine Eastern and Western traditions, creating a true fairytale for everyone to enjoy.
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