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How does a Ukrainian Christmas differ from a British one? Host families and their guests are about to find out

Millions were forced to flee Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Those who sought shelter in the UK will forgo a Ukrainian Christmas with loved ones, spending it with people who up until a few months ago were complete strangers

Last year they were celebrating their Ukrainian Christmas as normal, with no knowledge of the turmoil to come. So how are displaced Ukrainians coping, and what will their festive season look like?

Tatiana Pizniak lived in Sumy in north-eastern Ukraine her whole life. The morning of February 24 left her and her whole city in shock. Tatiana couldn’t believe she was witnessing war in the 21st century. 

“I got a phone call with the short message: ‘Tanks are bombing. War!’ Suddenly, all the terrible stories of my grandmother about war and famine flashed in my memory.”

That day, missile strikes were launched across Ukraine. “No one will be able to convey what the people of Ukraine have experienced and are experiencing,” Tatiana says. “Sitting with my sick mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer, under artillery shelling and rocket attacks… I prayed to God to help me, my mother and my family.”

Tatiana, an Associate Professor at Sumy National University, filled out the forms required to find a sponsor in the UK, but with everything going on forgot about her application until she received an email one day saying a sponsor had been found: Steph in Bristol.

“I only wrote a few words to Steph and received a letter that I will always remember. Being 2,500 kilometres away, she invited me to her place and she was worried whether I would be comfortable. I just wanted to hug her and say: Steph, I don’t care if your house is big or small, beautiful or not. You are opening your home and your heart to me.”

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There are many similar stories. 

Victoria Zavalnuk, 22, from Ivano-Frankivsk, was preparing to study a Master’s degree in Ukraine. Her plans had to change. With her family, Victoria travelled to the village of Latton in Wiltshire to stay with Richard and Nesta Hawes. She felt like she had arrived in an English period drama. “At first I couldn’t stop enjoying my reality,” Victoria says, “but I kept having flashbacks. Suddenly the pleasure was replaced by sadness. You think about the boys in the trenches at war, and then you don’t understand what to do now, how to plan for the future.”

In August her family returned to Ukraine, but Victoria decided to stay. “It was a turning point for me. I knew from now on I belong to myself, and only I decide what to do with my life. Thankfully, I found a job in a hotel, so I have money for my needs.”

In someone else’s home, there might be some rules to follow. But Victoria didn’t face any difficulties. “Richard and I talked a lot during the first month I was here, so we got to know [each other’s] life stories well. Now we are like a family. Seeing how they supported me through this period and treated me like a daughter… nowadays, I jokingly call them ‘host mum’ and ‘host dad’. From the very beginning they had this inner motivation to help and most of all, whatever happens, to not judge.”

To stay in our city was too risky for our lives, and I had to think about my kids first

Tetiana Tarasovska

Unfortunately, not all stories are positive. Tetiana Tarasovska, a 44-year-old wedding and reportage photographer from Kharkiv, arrived in England with her daughter Polina, 19, and son Illya, 17.  “We sent our documents as soon as this programme for Ukrainians was open,” she says. “To stay in our city was too risky for our lives, and I had to think about my kids first.

“Ten days later our visas were ready. We arrived at our first host in Coates, near Cirencester. Nothing went well from the beginning. We just couldn’t understand each other. I asked a foodbank to help us with food. We thought it would be helpful, so there’s no need for them to spend their money on us. But the lady yelled at me, saying she didn’t want her neighbours to think she can’t provide us with the basics.

“The final decision to move out was after the husband shouted at my son. I understood that I couldn’t stay there. We packed our stuff and the local council helped us to move to another host family. Through connections, we found Nesta and Richard, so now we are here.”

Yes, Tetiana, Polina and Illya moved into the same home where Victoria was already a guest. Richard, a 76-year-old retired businessman and owner of a couple of butcher shops in the area, and his 71-year-old wife Nesta, a housewife, were among the thousands affected by the tragedy in Ukraine.

Richard and Nesta Hawes are looking forward to Christmas
Richard Hawes and Nesta Hawes. Photo: Tetiana Tarasovska

“When different circumstances come, you ask yourself: ‘Jesus, what would you do under these circumstances?’” Richard says. “To refer to this situation in Ukraine: ‘Jesus, what would you do if there is a war, and I have a big house?’ I assume He would say: ‘Well, fill it with the people who have lost their homes.’”

With Christmas coming, the household started to discuss celebration plans together. Victoria is curious about what Christmas in England will be like. “I watched the movies in my childhood, but it’s so exciting for me to feel everything on my own,” she says.

Nesta explains the Christmas traditions which are important to her. “The sign of Christmas beginning for me is listening to Carols from King’s College at three o’clock on Christmas Eve. This was the tradition within my family, so I still keep it every year. There’s the midnight service in Cirencester, in St. John the Baptist Church. The whole church starts in darkness with candles, and the lights will slowly go up. It is a really magical and exciting moment. This year you can join us.”

Polina had plans at home, destroyed by the war. But she is trying to make the best of things, considering being in Britain a good opportunity to improve her language, start university and have better prospects when she returns home.

Ukraine is never far from the family’s thoughts. Tetiana says: “I had to evacuate with my children to Britain. But my husband and father are still in Kharkiv. My mother died during the war. I am very grateful to Richard and Nesta.”

She shares fond memories of familiar Ukrainian Christmases.

“For both nations, Christmas is a family day, a time spent with relatives. But of course, the style is a lot different. This holiday is celebrated in our country after the New Year, on January 7. In Ukrainian villages, it is very common to see a sheaf of wheat stalks in the house, which symbolises virtue.

“Deeply religious people fast to cleanse their bodies and souls. On January 6, Ukrainians celebrate Christmas Eve with their families. They set the table, where there must be 12 lean dishes, which symbolise the 12 apostles or 12 months. Dishes prepared for Christmas Eve that I cook every year include: kutya, uzvar (a dried fruit drink), cabbage rolls, pickled mushrooms, beans, pancakes, herring in oil with onion, stewed cabbage with mushroom, a pickled cucumber salad or cabbage and onions, pirozhki with cabbage, pears and doughnuts.

“As you see, all 12 meals are without meat. The main dish on our table is kutya. It’s boiled wheat with honey, poppy seeds, nuts and raisins. In old times on Christmas Eve people only ate this dish, but on the next day the fast is finished so you could eat everything you want. 

Richard, Polina, Nesta and Victoria
From left: Richard, Polina, Nesta and Victoria get in the festive spirit. Photo: Tetiana Tarasovska

“Kutya is most often brought by godchildren. It’s believed that if kutya is brought into the house the year will be happy and the owners will be well-fed and rich.

“In the same evening, teenagers go from house to house singing carols. People gladly invite them in, because it is believed that the more carollers who come, the more wealth there will be in the family. There is also a tradition of fortune-telling on Christmas Eve. Girls do fortune-telling to find out about their future groom. If you want to get married soon, you have to pay particular attention to your dreams from January 6 to 7. It is believed that they can predict the future.”

The future remains uncertain, but the newly formed almost-family connections are helping people get through the winter. Tatiana Pizniak was invited by Steph to spend Christmas with her family. 

“We always have interesting topics to talk about,” Tatiana says. “Steph prepared English desserts for me, and I cooked Ukrainian borscht and pampushki. She talks about the traditions, lifestyle and preferences of the British and I talk about Ukrainian customs and culture. This year will be sad and fun at the same time,” she adds. “You don’t expect at 48 to change your career and become nobody in a new country. 

“Christmas for me is the greatest family holiday. I love the comfort and enjoy a winter evening with the crackling of the fire in the chimney and the flickering of Christmas candles. I will not get to spend it with most of my family, but I will experience the history and traditions of another country and share customs and beliefs of mine. Because when the war ends, I want to invite Steph to my native city and show her around.”

Ukrainian journalist Olena Skachko, who was born in Kyiv and now lives in London, spoke to fellow refugees for this piece. She says: “I am starting a whole new life and pursuing my dream of working as a journalist. I hope that way I can play my part in rebuilding my country.”

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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