Christmas is a time for family, for being at home and enjoying all the comforts that come with it.
But for countless people across Ireland and the world, the festive season will not be spent with their nearest and dearest as many are homeless or displaced by war and living in shelter or temporary accommodation.
Nina Mishchenko can relate to this as having arrived in Ireland from Ukraine in March of this year, she and her 12-year-old son Andrii went from living in a “beautiful area of Kyiv with lots of greenery and lakes” to the Citywest Hotel in Dublin where all the rooms are occupied by other Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Ireland for their own safety.
And while there are some similarities between how the two countries celebrate the festive season, this year, she will not be experiencing anything like the usual seasonal cheer.
“The festive season at home usually begins with European Christmas on December 24th and we celebrate for almost a month as we have our own Orthodox Christmas on January 6th,” she says. “In the central squares of Kyiv we have Christmas fairs, with a skating rink and traditional food. And there you can listen to musicians who sing traditional Ukrainian Christmas songs — it is a mix of European and Ukrainian traditions.
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“Similar to the Irish, Ukrainians like to gather at the same table for family holidays — for European Christmas, we prepare meat, fish or salad, bake a cake and call our relatives to congratulate them. But the traditional Ukrainian Christmas is different. There is a special Christmas porridge called kutya which symbolizes a sacrifice to God, because wheat with honey is a sacred part of the holy supper. And although many no longer remember the meaning of this dish, most Ukrainians cook it for Christmas — then after dinner with the family, it is customary to bring dinner to the godparents.
“Previously, they took kutya and other dishes and went to visit for several hours, but then they always returned home to celebrate Christmas morning with their family, also visiting grandparents, or other relatives. In general, we love to share food, although probably because Ukrainians love to cook but you cannot eat it all.”
Sharing food with friends and loved ones is universal but for thousands of Ukrainians in Ireland this Christmas, this simple pleasure will be denied.
“We are now living in the hotel so we can’t cook,” says Nina, who worked as an ecosystem development and community director before the war. “But I hope that the Ukrainian chef will prepare something traditional for us so that people feel the spirit of Christmas. I will tell my son that it will be good to see how it is celebrated here — back home, we like to sing with children preparing special songs and poems which they entertain neighbours with as they go from house to house. I hope that some of the mothers [in the hotel] will organise carols and we will sing them a little.
“Christmas this year will be a sad holiday for many Ukrainians. Traditionally, we gather with our families, but many have lost loved ones in the war and most of the husbands, relatives and friends are now 3,000km from Ireland, some serving in the army to ensure victory for all of us. So at each table people will remember those who left and those who are now far away.
“But I am sure that the Ukrainians [in Ireland] will not give up and will definitely come up with something to have many dishes for the table.”
Although Nina has not lost any loved ones in the war, both of her parents died during the Covid-19 pandemic and she (along with her sister who is also living in Ireland) will honour their memory during the festive season.
Volunteering with Ukrainian Action in Ireland, Nina assists fellow refugees with communication and helps them to settle into their new lodgings and deal with any problems caused by language barriers.
And she says the Ukrainian community is indebted to the Irish people for helping them in their time of need. So while they will do their utmost to make their Christmas here as special as possible, most would love to share their traditions with us.
“We may appear sad or unsmiling, but remember that we are all very traumatised by the war,” she says. “We are in constant stress for our loved ones, especially now that Russia is destroying our energy infrastructure and many of our families and friends are living for hours without light, water and heat. Many Ukrainians have lost everything and have relatives in the occupied territories who cannot leave to get to a safe place. But we are very grateful to the Irish for the help and support they have given us — we really appreciate it.
“And if you want to please Ukrainians at Christmas, just ask them about their loved ones or to sing traditional Christmas songs — this reminds us of the home where we all dream to return.”