St. Nicholas, Sviatyij Mykolai, comes to Ukraine on December 19th in the Orthodox Julian calendar. The night is often called “Magic Night” or just St. Nicholas Day. It is seen as a universal children’s festival.
It is a happy day with visiting and sleigh rides. Schools have plays telling Nicholas stories and the saint visits local churches. Dressed as a Byzantine bishop, the good saint is often accompanied by angels. He quizzes children on their catechism before giving gifts. St. Nicholas Day is the main day for gift-giving, though gifts are also becoming associated with Christmas Day. Today many Ukrainian churches have St. Nicholas celebrations to help children understand that the holy man Nicholas came long before Santa Claus.
Gifts, placed by St. Nicholas under the pillow or in boots during the night of December 18, are usually sweets—gingerbread, chocolate, candies, fruit, marshmallows—and toys, games, books, a warm scarf or gloves. Adults may also receive a surprise in the morning of the 19th.
In Lviv one hundred and fifty volunteers prepare gifts for thousands of less fortunate children across Ukraine through the St. Nicholas Travels Around Ukraine campaign. The effort, organized by the Ukrainian Catholic University along with other organizations, collects gifts, then selects and packages them for delivery on Mykolaya, December 19. The program began in 2000.
St. Nicholas is the focus of seasonal charity in Kiev. The “Help St. Nicholas—Make a Child’s Dream Come True” provides fifteen locations to collect toys, warm clothing, and books for children who are orphaned, in hospital, or from low-income families. Beginning on St. Nicholas Day, December 19th, the good saint has a house in Taras Shevchenko Park where children may attend free theatrical shows and receive a gift from St. Nicholas. The Great Lavra Bell Tower in Kiev is the site of St. Nicholas official residence. He personally greets guests every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from December 1st through December; he is also present on the 19th. Children of fallen soldiers are particularly welcomed on December 17th as part of the large-scale all-Ukrainian project Ukrainian People/ Ukrainian Kids.
The United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, with St. Nicholas’ help, delivered gifts to 1,240 children—children of refugees, children without permanent shelter, children of soldiers who died or were wounded, and children of servicemen and contractors who are away from home. They received sweets, hygiene products, socks, gloves, and clothing. The military and civilian administration, department of education and the Red Cross assisted St. Nicholas with deliveries. St/ Nicholas also remembered sixty elderly folks who had fought for Ukraine and been exiled and are now in poor health. They received everything to make Christmas Eve dinner.
St. Nicholas Day is one of the most joyous and beloved holidays. Children everywhere wait impatiently for the arrival of St. Nicholas and for the gifts which he brings. How wonderful when their dreams can come true! Our sincere thanks to our benefactors for their understanding and support.
St. Nicholas history in Ukraine goes back to the 10th and 11th centuries. In churches, his icons are prominently placed on the iconostas, usually next to Jesus, the Mother of God, or the patron saint of the church. His icons were found also in nearly every home. In the mountains of western Ukraine where the Hutzels named the four seasons of the year after saints, winter honors St. Nicholas.
Ukrainian folk tradition recognizes two Saint Nicholas figures: “cold Nicholas” and “warm Nicholas.”
Cold Nicholas, the familiar winter saint, is believed to bring the first snow by shaking his beard. In Western Ukraine, accompanied by angel and devil figures, he is celebrated with gift-giving as described above. As the patron saint of spinning, yarns and thread were brought to church to “add to his beard.”
Celebrated in the spring, warm Nicholas, patron saint of farming, is said to walk the land to dry overly wet areas and dampen the dry. On the festival horses begin grazing in the fields, sheep are sheared, and buckwheat sowed. In port areas the festival focuses on Nicholas as patron saint of the seas. Cossacks, like the Greeks, take St. Nicholas icons when sailing the treacherous Black Sea.
Nearly 100 children take part in the Holy Fire St. Nicholas Day procession in Kiev. The procession of St. Nicholas helpers, includes, besides children, teenagers, and volunteers from social service centers. They walk the streets of central Kiev, carrying the Holy Fire that was brought from Bethlehem. The Holy Fire is the “light of peace” is passed to civil organizations and volunteers, and will be taken to other Ukrainian cities. At the final destination the main Kievan Christmas tree is lighted at 8 pm.
In his annual statement wishing Ukrainian children a happy St. Nicholas Day, Ukrainian President Yushchenko, said, “Let God guard you and give you happiness, joy and hope. Let his divine blessing follow you in your life.” He continued, “Ukrainians have [venerated] Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of children since olden days. He makes us believe our most cherished dreams will come true one day, endows our hearts with kind feelings and inspires us to do good.”*
The President also takes part in the charity, “Sing a Song to St. Nicholas,” on 19 December. He wished that “on this festive day, not a single Ukrainian family or child was forgotten by St. Nicholas.” He gave holiday gifts and book certificates to the children.
The Hutsulschyna National Park is home to the Manor of St. Nicholas, the site of a St. Nicholas festival attended by over 14,000 visitors in one day. People come from Khmelnytskyi, Lviv, Temopil, Chernivtsi, Kyiv and beyond. The festival includes exhibitions of cheese horses, wool blankets and woodworking. Competitions of Christmas costumes, fairy tale characters, vocal, dance, instrumental and folk art groups award winners with certificates and gifts. All entrants are given sweet treats.
During the season children from families with more than four children come to sing songs, recite poems and receive sweet gifts from St. Nicholas. That way St. Nicholas remembers all children.
Letters to St. Nicholas come to the Manor—each receives a response from the saint. Assistants from the park and the Yabluniv Youth Arts Center help with the work. When there is need, charities are contacted so no child is left out. In 2003 25,000 letters were received from children.
There are two awards given for The Order of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Ukraine. One, given by Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate, is awarded for “services to revive spirituality in Ukraine and strengthening the local Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” It has been bestowed on the director of a children’s hospital, the head of state forest services, and charity fund leaders, among others.
The second Order of St. Nicholas is awarded for “spreading good across the world.” The Order is the highest award of the Foundation of International Awards registered in Ukraine, Sweden and Italy under UN auspices. Recipients have included Mother Theresa, Christiaan Barnard, and Pope John Paul II.
Who will be the primary gift-giver in Ukraine? Traditional Svaty Mykolay or Ded Moroz, introduced during the Soviet-era? It is said that Svaty Mikolay began to recover in the early 2000s.
St. Nicholas Day on the Frontline — Luhansk Region, Ukraine
From UATV: Volunteers have sent pastries, children’s drawings and handmade dolls to Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas. They worked all night to prepare the gifts for St Nicholas Day.
St. Nicholas Is On His Way …
more about St. Nicholas and Ukrainian Tradition
Why does St. Nicholas give presents to children?
a Ukrainian reflection
In other sections
Ukrainian St. Nicholas Song
St. Nicholas in Ukrainian Tradition for teachers
Recovering St. Nicholas in Ukraine
Who will be the primary gift-giver?
Rescuing St. Nicholas from Santa in Ukraine
St. Nicholas Monuments in Ukraine
Statues and images in public places
* UNIAN News Agency, December 19, 2006
Ukrainian Radio, December 19, 2008: “This bright and joyful holiday is the first holiday coming to us as a good winter fairy-tale announcing the approaching of Christmas and New Year. It gives us confidence that our lifelong dreams will come true, it also gives us hope and love, and inspires us to good deeds and mercy towards others,” reads the statement posted on the official website of the head of state. Yushchenko said that Ukrainians like Saint Nicholas as a wise patron and mentor always helping all kind-hearted people. “His kindness and love to Ukrainian children is especially praised,” reads the statement. On this festive day, the president wished all Ukrainian families peace, consent and prosperity.