Christmas in the Republic of Moldova and in Ukraine – How it is Celebrated there Today?

Fieβ-Schaible, Erika and Fieβ Heinz. "Christmas in the Republic of Moldova and in Ukraine – How it is Celebrated there Today?" Mitteilungsblatt, January 2011, 20-22.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

With all the trips that have been taken to the former Bessarabia, it is astonishing how little we know of the Christmas customs of the people living there now. After the end of the Soviet Union, religious traditions began to grow in significance again. Enough of an occasion for us to do some research on the subject. The Internet was very helpful, but also the information we received from Mrs. Corina Schneider. She grew up in Romania, asked her father many questions, and researched Internet Romanian-language web pages.

Much of what we learned during our research seems strange to us. The faithful of the Orthodox Churches revere their icons, in church and in their homes. A photo herein [entitled “A modern Romanian icon”] may help to make this clear. The various Orthodox Churches (Ukrainian-Orthodox, Russian-Orthodox, and Romanian-Orthodox, among others) all have their own traditions and customs.

One significant difference between Ukraine and Moldova is the fact that for the Russian-Orthodox and Ukrainian-Orthodox faithful, the Julian calendar still applies for religious life. For example, in Russia and in Ukraine, the New year is celebrated on 01/01, but Christmas, if one uses the state-approved Gregorian calendar, occurs as late as January 7, that is, the state-recognized New Year comes first, and a week later comes the church-observed Christmas. And because the faithful adhere to the old calendar, the “Old New Year” takes place yet another week later. 

Not so in the Republic of Moldova. There, the state and the church basically use the Gregorian calendar as we do [in Germany] – therefore Christmas is celebrated on December 25 and 26.

Christmas Customs in Ukraine

In Russia and Ukraine, the New Year does not merely occur chronologically before [observed] Christmas, but for the less religious or less church-minded people it is also the most significant [seasonal] feast by far. For them there is no Christmas tree, but a New Year’s tree instead, under which, on New Year’s Day, the children find gifts from “Väterchen Frost (Little Father Frost),” who is accompanied by the lovely snegurochka (“Snow Maiden”). Gifts on the [observed] Christmas feast will therefore be significantly lesser. On television and in public and in public – particularly in the cities – New Year’s is the Big Event. People meet with friends and acquaintances, they go out and enjoy the festive days off with fun activities. For the urban youth in particular, New Year’s Day and the days after are just one grand party.

The traditional religious Christmas feast on January 6 and 7 is mostly for family and relatives.

For the faithful population the time of fasting ends with Christmas Eve, and the food on that day is like that of the rest of fasting time. In imitation to the stable of Christmas, the floor of the home is covered with some hay, and at the ends of the festive table garlic and nuts are placed under the tablecloth as symbols of togetherness and health. A sheaf of wheat (diduch) is carried inside as an offering. By the time all twelve different fast-time foods (the number of Apostles) are dished up, the eldest blesses the kutya (a sweet concoction of cooked wheat kernels, raisins and honey), and with the first spoonful he then opens the festive evening meal, which consists of various types of vareniki (pockets of dough with different fillings), borsht, fish, a variety of salads, etc.

Entertainment for the evening consists of the singing of Christmas songs and often of playing children’s games. After the dinner clean-up, the bowl of kutya and a number of spoons are left on the table, because the souls of the dead, too, should be able to partake of the festive meal.

On the first day of Christmas, there is attendance at Mass, which may last as long as four hours. The subsequent sumptuous noon meal marks the end of fasting. People enjoy various meat dishes and all sorts of goodies, and alcoholic drinks are now permitted again. The afternoon and evening is marked by visits from “star singer” groups, singing of Christmas songs, and reenactments of the Christmas story in the large family circle. Particularly on the second day of Christmas, “star signer” groups with their large Christmas star and a bell come to the homes, where they are rewarded with money and sweets for their expressions of good wishes and performance of songs.

Christmas Customs in the Republic of Moldova

In Moldova, preparations for the Christmas feast start on November 15, the time when the fasting season begins. The Christmas savarin cake [a round yeast cake] and braided yeast bun are already being baked. A special day is St. Ignat (Ignatius) Day (December 20, a day of sacrificing. On this day pigs are traditionally slaughtered, and the meat and sausages from them will be eaten after the end of fasting time, that is, on the first day of Christmas. One peculiarity consists in that the pigs are not scalded, and the bristles are burned off instead. Outside of the slaughtering of pigs nothing else must be done that day. Anyone who does not hold to this will take ill and go into convulsions (muscle spasms) the way the slaughtered pigs do. On St, Ignatius day, swine’s blood is to be used to paint a cross on children’s foreheads so that they may thrive and be healthy. And there are other such superstitious customs.

On St. Ignatius, the women are to bake special cakes called “carpele Domnului Hirstos” [Romanian, for “The Cloths of the Lord Jesus”), which on Christmas Eve will be eaten with honey and crushed nuts.

As early as December 23rd, the colindatori (groups of men, women and children, dressed in traditional winter garb and even sheepskins, would start going from house to house and, during that remaining time of fasting, express well-rehearsed sayings of blessing and encouragement. Their purpose was to drive the devil away and to effect a cleansing. It would have been counted as a major sin not to invite them into the home and to reward them with sweets and coins.

Before the festive dinner on Christmas Eve, the pastor, usually accompanied by the village teacher, comes to the homes to bless the numerous festive dishes set out on the table and under the holy icon. With his blessing, he also proclaims the birth of Christ. During this ceremony, incense is lit in a kettle outside. As his own reward, the pastor will find coins hidden under one corner of the table cloth, and in addition he is given two yeast cakes (colaci) and some wine. After the pastor departs, sweeping is done from the inside to the outside, so as to make the house free of flees and other pests over the coming year.

The tannenbaum (Christmas tree) stands in the best room – that is, following the end of the Soviet Union and the accompanying ban of Father Frost by the Romanians and Moldovans – and by now the Mos Cracium (akin to our Santa Claus) will once again deposit the gifts for the children.

Following the midnight Mass leading to the 25th of December, the time of fasting finally ends, And on the first day of Christmas the family circle celebrates by partaking of a sumptuous meal. This includes dishes that should certainly be familiar to Bessarabian Germans, such as sour cabbage rolls with mamelik (mamaliga, or corn meal mush), red-beet-salad with peas, sausages and fried pork meat that had been slaughtered on St, Ignatius day, strudels, and many others, plus the yeast cake and other sweet dishes – and, naturally, wine and a lot of zuika (plum schnaps).

The afternoon was reserved for visiting the elder folks and relatives a bit farther away, and for bringing them gifts.

Now and during subsequent days, “star singers” wander through the village, just as they had done long before. They carry a large star with an iconic image of Maria and child Jesus. In general, subsequent to Soviet times, according to Corina Schneider, a renewed return to Christian traditions has taken hold, especially in the villages.

A modern Romanian icon; image from Wikipedia
Star Singers from Ukraine; photo:

Coline girls with the traditional yeast cake (symbolizing the sun); photo: Internet

Sarmale (sour cabbage rolls; photo from Wikipedia)

Burning pigs’ bristles; photo: gttep://galerie.liternet.rp/albume/dlazar_cracium04/iarna-craciun01_20121_std.siezed.jpg

The dinner opens with kutya; image from Wikipedia
Father Frost; an image from Wikipedia. In earlier times the archaic figure of Father Frost symbolized winter; today it is marketed to excess and is barely distinguishable from the American Santa Claus
“Star Singers” in Romania, ca. 1840; photo from Wikipedia

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller