Archeparchy of Winnipeg

Holy Supper Christmas Eve

Question: For someone not raised in a Byzantine Church, can someone explain the tradition of the holy supper for me. Thanks…”

The supper on Holy Night differs from other evening meals, having twelve Lenten dishes, symbolic of the twelve Apostles who gathered at the Last Supper. The dishes are prepared with a vegetable shortening or cooking oil, omitting all animal fat, milk and milk products because Christmas is preceded by a period of fast which ends on Christmas Day after midnight or morning church service. The day of the Christmas Eve is a strict fast in commemoration of the hardships endured by Mother Mary en route to Bethlehem.

Everyone has some variations of Svyatij Vechir (Holy Supper) and we are no different.

We put straw under the tablecloth and the table. A sheaf of wheat (didukh) is tied with a bright rushnik (embroidered towel) and placed on the table by the father or senoir male present at the beginning of the dinner.

It is the custom that twelve various dishes are served to remind us of the 12 Apostles. No meat products and in some areas no dairy products are permitted.

The order at our house of the dishes is, prosphora (blessed at the Vigil) first with honey, then kutya, then all of the other dishes (12 total, all meatless and dairy-free) fish, varenyky, kapusta, wine, toasts, etc.
We leave one place empty in remembrance of those departed before us, but also because an angel might show up disguised as a beggar…

We also bake three loaves of bread (kolach) and place them one on top the other, with a candle in the middle. This is a rich bread similar to paska. The candle is lit on the bread at the meal blessing and stays lit until the end of the dinner. Since this bread is made with eggs, usually quite a few eggs, we don’t break it at the Holy Supper but later after the Great Compline/Vigil service.

We also have some other smaller traditions, like flinging the Kutya on the ceiling to see who will have good luck (drives my poor wife crazy smile ), walking around the house three times with the kutya singing the Christmas troparion, giving some extra feed, straw, and a bit of kutya to all the livestock after the dinner (boiled wheat with honey – they love it! smile And after all God rested with them at His birth), etc.

At our house the gifts to the kids are given on St. Nicholas Day, not Christmas Day. On Christmas the gift is Christ himself. We go to Divine Liturgy, afterwards go caroling, have parties with friends, etc. all in the spirit of the Winter Pascha which is unfolding before us.
The Holy Supper is special meal that marks the beginning of the Christmas Celebration. There are many symbols and customs that accompany this meal and they are as varied as the villages they come from.

Hospitality to those in need:

One tradition which bears mentioning (and maintaining) is that if there were any family members who because of age or sickness could not attend the meal, the children were expected to take the meal to them. This was especially true for grand-parents, God-parents, aunts, uncles, etc. We should make sure that no one in our parishes spends this evening alone. If we know of someone who has no family, or is away from home, etc., according to our tradition we should either invite them to our homes or take them food from the table immediately after the meal. We should do everything possible to see that all the seniors of our parishes, whether living at home or in nursing homes, are remembered on this night. This is the evening when Mary and Joseph were given hospitality in a cave – we have a holy obligation to extend hospitality to anyone who might be alone.

Another version:

In my family, we scatter straw under the table to remember the poverty of the Holy Family, that the manger was covered with straw. Everyone sits at the table and all must have shoes or slippers on, no one is to be barefooted. Only the poor go barefooted and we are rich because we are celebrating the birth of the Savior.

The youngest member of the household looks out the window for the First Star. When it is spotted the meal can begin.

We start with a toast of wine, then comes a meatless soup made from a rue of flour and water, mushrooms and sauerkraut juice. Next come the peas, they symbolize a plentyful year to come; bread smeared with honey and garlic, this being the staff of life with all that is happy and sorrowful in life. We also have stewed prunes with pitts, each person at the table must eat a pair so that everyone will be there the next year.

We then have pirohi, fish (usually sardines and tuna, we have the tuna because when my Baba was living, the sardines had too much salt in them for her diet, we’ve been using tuna ever since).

There are also fresh fruits, mixed nuts, candies, cookies and pastries.

Once the meal is started, no one leaves the table until the meal is completed. We also set an empty place at the table and crack the front door and leave a candle burning in the front window in case the Holy Family wanders by; they know by these signs that they will not be turned away from our home.

In some homes, there is a chain that is wrapped around the table legs so that the bounty that is found on the table at this meal will remain with the family during the coming New Year.

Anhelyna, the 12-dishes meal is what my Polish friends celebrate. You will also find many Italian and Sicilian families celebrating the 12-fishes meal on Christmas Eve where each family makes a meal and there are 12 dishes made from different kinds of fish.

One more version:

Christmas Eve – January 6th

Among the Ukrainians, the most beloved of all festivities is Christmas which covers a cycle of important fest days, centering around family and agricultural modes of life, is very colourful, being the most important part of Christmas. Its main feature is the evening meal called “Holy Supper” (Svyata Vechera) in literal translation. According to custom, all members of the family should be that night for a family reunion.

The supper on Holy Night differs from other evening meals, having twelve Lenten dishes, symbolic of the twelve Apostles who gathered at the Last Supper. The dishes are prepared with a vegetable shortening or cooking oil, omitting all animal fat, milk and milk products because Christmas is preceded by a period of fast which ends on Christmas Day after midnight or morning church service. The day of the Christmas Eve is a strict fast in commemoration of the hardships endured by Mother Mary en route to Bethlehem.

The table, set to according to time-honoured custom, is first strewn with a small handful of fine hay in memory of the Christ Child in a manger, and over it is spread the very best tablecloth adorned with native embroidery. Bread (kalach), symbolizing prosperity, constitutes the central table decoration. Three round, braided loaves are placed one on top of the other with a candle inserted into the top load, and the bottom loaf encircled with tiny twigs of evergreen. Candles on both sides of the loaves complete the table decoration. If a member of the familhy has died during the year, a place is set for him in the believe that the spirit of the deceased unites with the family on that magic Holy Night. A lighted candle is always placed in the window as an invitation to any homeless stranger, or perchance a lost soul, to join the family in celebrating the birth of Christ.

Prior to the evening meal a spoonful of each dish is mixed into the feed of the domestic animals, because animals were the first creatures to behold the new-born Christ. The first star in the eastern sky announces the time for the commencement of the meal. It is the children’s duty to watch for the star. Each member of the family, dressed in holiday attire, awaits the customary ritual opening. This is done by the master of the household who brings a sheaf of what called “did” or “didukh” (grandfather), a symbol of gathering of the clan, and greets his family with traditional salutations, expressing joy that God has favoured them with good health and general well-being. The sheaf is placed in the corner of the dining room, and remains there until New Year when it is taken out and burned. In the cities this tradition has been modified, and the sheaf is replaced with a few stalks of wheat which are placed in a vase, or they may be used as a table decoration.

Members of the family and servants gather around the table. The meal begins with the Lord’s prayer and then a thanksgiving grace appropriate to the occasion. The first and indispensable dish is kutya, a preparation of cooked wheat dressed with honey, ground poppy seed, and sometimes chopped nuts. This ritual dish, of a very ancient origin, has survived hundreds of generations without losing its importance in the Christmas festivity. it starts the meal in a ceremonial manner. The head of the family raises the first spoonful of the kutya, invoking God’s grace, and greets the family with the traditional Christmas greet: “Khrystos Rodyvsya” (Christ is born), to which they all reply in unison: “Slavim Yoho!” (Let us glorify Him). Following this ritual everyone must partake of the kutya, if only but a spoonful. The exact meaning of kutya has been lost. However scholars of the folklore generally believe that originally it symbolized the spiritual clan unity of all living and deceased members. Agricultural prosperity may have been a secondary symbol.

Kutya may be followed with an appetizer of pickled herrings or pickled mushrooms, or with a serving of borsch, after which comes one or more preparations of fish and various other traditional dishes, ending with a dessert of stewed dried fruit, or fruit varenyky, and the Christmas pastries and nuts. Everyone must have at least a small serving of each dish.


While many of the Ukrainian Christmas Eve customs are of a solemn nature, the custom of caroling is joyful and merry. Ukrainian Christmas songs or carols have their origins in antiquity, as do many other traditions practiced at Christmas time. There are two main groups of Christmas songs in Ukraine: the koliadky, whose name is probably derived from the Latin “calendae” meaning the first day of the month and which are sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; the second group of Christmas songs is calledshchedrivky, which is a derivation from the word meaning generous. The latter are sung during the Feast of the Epiphany.

Both koliadky and shchedrivky have pagan elements in them, but many have been Christianized. For example, one pagan carol tells of a landowner who is awakened by a swallow and told to make preparations, because three guests are coming to his house: the sun, the moon and the rain. In the Christianized version the three guests become Jesus Christ, St. Nicholas and St. George. The very popular Ukrainian carol in the United states, “Carol of the Bells”, in its originality is a shchedrivkaand tells of a swallow (herald of Spring) that has come to a landowner’s house and asks him to come out and see how rich he is, how many calves he has, and so on.

The themes of Ukrainian Christmas songs vary. Many, of course, deal with the birth of Christ and that occasion’s joyful celebrations, and many of them have apocryphal elements. Another group of carols contain purely pagan mythological elements. Still another group deals with Ukrainian history of the 9-12 centuries, mostly with the heroic episodes in the lives of some of the princes that were favorite among the people. One of the largest groups of carols are glorification songs – glorifying the landowner, the farmer, his wife, his sons, his daughters, every member of the family. These songs glorify their work as well as their personal traits.

Caroling required extensive preparation. Each group had a leader. One member dressed as a goat. Another as a bag carrier, the collector of all the gifts people would give them. Yet another carried a six-pointed star attached to a long stick with a light in its center, which symbolized the Star of Bethlehem. In some places the people even had musical instruments, such as the violin, tsymbaly (dulcimer), or the trembita (a wooden pipe about 8-10 feet long, used in the Carpathian mountains by the Hutsuls).

Caroling was not a simple singing of Christmas songs; it was more of a folk opera. The carolers first had to ask for permission to sing. If the answer was yes, they entered the house and sang carols for each member of the family, even for the smallest child. Sometimes they even performed slow ritualistic dances. They also had to present a short humorous skit involving the goat. The custom of the goat accompanying the carolers has its origin in the pagan times when the goat represented the god of fertility. The skit showed the goat dying and then being brought back to life. This also symbolized the death of Winter and the birth of Spring. The caroling always ended with short well-wishing poems, appropriately selected for each home.

Koliadky and shchedrivky are the oldest groups of Ukrainian folk songs. They are sung by Ukrainians at Christmas time throughout the world.

Vertep – Cristmas puppet theater

A venerable form of Ukrainian puppet theater, regarded as distinct from the Polish szopka, the Belarusian betleika, and the Russian petrushka. The origins of the name vertep may be related to the verb vertitysia ‘to whirl,’ as do rays about a star. The vertep performance is a standardized enactment of the Nativity with merry interludes depicting secular life, in the style of an intermede. There are 10 to 40 vertep characters, typically among them a sacristan, angels, shepherds, Herod, three kings, Satan, Death, Russian soldiers, gypsies, a Pole, a Jew, a peasant couple, and various animals. All the hand puppets are usually operated by one person, the vertepnyk. The vertep is also the two-level stage in the form of a building in which the performance takes place, the religious part on the upper level and the secular part on the lower.

Vertep performances date back to the late 16th century. They reached their height in popularity in the second half of the 18th century. Many students from the Kyivan Mohyla Academy contributed to the development of vertep puppet theater; its two-part performance was in part a reflection of the academy’s style of theatrical productions. Itinerant precentors were also responsible for popularizingvertepy. In time the specifications as to vertep stage architecture; the number, character, and construction of the puppets; and costumes, music, and scripts became well defined. The foremost village vertepy were in Sokyryntsi, Baturyn, and Mizhhiria. The secular part in vertep performances often contained references to contemporaneous events; a Zaporozhian Cossack puppet, for example, appeared during the reign of Catherine II.

Vertep theater declined in the mid-19th century. It has retained a symbolic significance, as in the miniature Nativity scene displayed in Ukrainian homes during the Christmas season and in the Christmas carolers dressed up as vertep characters. In the 20th century vertep theater has been revived as a zhyvyi ‘live’ vertep, with live actors faithfully re-creating the traditional village vertepy.



  Karen Pirrelli Ryan wrote @

I was brought up Byzantine, but we called ourselves Russians.

  nam wrote @

Perhaps you were called Rusyny, not to be confused with Russians. Rusyny comes from Kyivan-Rus kingdom.

  Dn Gerosimus (Gerry Sondergaard) wrote @

The best overall explanations I have seen either in the Greek Catholic or Orthodox peoples.May Gods special blessing of this holy season bring joy, love, family togetherness and Gods peace to all of you.

  Tusia wrote @

May I suggest you read the new book “First Star I See Tonight: Ukrainian Christmas Traditions” by Orysia Tracz (Winnipeg: Mazepa Publications, 2015).

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