Easter in Ukraine—what could be better? This holiday’s symbols are of course, Ukrainian eggs, but Ukrainian Easter traditions extend to food and other customs and rituals. These significant aspects of Easter are a mark of strong cultural heritage. Some of these ways to celebrate the spring season even predate Christianity.
If you’re curious about Easter in Ukraine, now is your chance to discover what this holiday is all about. It’s important to note that traditions may differ between regions, between branches of religion, and even between families.
Furthermore, though some traditions are well-loved, others are practiced only as a nod to the past or not at all anymore by most people—though they’re still a part of the cultural consciousness that lies behind the modern iteration of Ukrainian Easter.
Nevertheless, the following Ukrainian Easter traditions can be used as a guide to Easter traditions in Ukraine that are practiced or remembered as a part of this holiday.
Palm Sunday or Willow Sunday
Easter week kicks off with Palm Sunday, the week before Easter Sunday. On this day, Ukrainians have traditionally used pussy willow branches—just like in the Baltic Easter tradition—as a way to bestow health and luck upon a person. The gentle switching of one person by another is a tradition with deep pagan roots. It’s no wonder this day is also known as Willow Sunday (Verbna nedilia) in Ukraine.
When they switch family or friends with pussy willow branches, people are supposed to chant: “Be as tall as the willow, as healthy as the water, and as rich as the earth.”
Other beliefs were traditionally associated with the pussy willow as a symbol of health and springtime. Farmers gave their cows a switch with the branches to bestow the pussy willow’s good fortune on them, and sometimes family members planted the branches in the ground in the hopes that they would grow.
As in the Polish Easter custom, families sometimes display pussy willow branches around the house. For people who have them, they may place the willow cuttings around religious images as a way to connect their stand-in symbolism as palm leaves to other Christian imagery.
Traditionally, people spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Easter Week in preparation for the holidays that follow.
Holy Thursday or Passion Thursday
Holy Thursday (Velykyi Chetver or Strasty Khrysta) is another day for preparation. Cleanliness is important throughout Easter week, with cleaning culminating on Thursday. Households also bake bread (Easter paska) to eat in the following days.
Several customs are associated with Holy Thursday in Ukraine:
- Bathing before dawn to ensure good health
- Cleaning the house from top to bottom
- Fasting from animal products
- Going to church
Good Friday in Ukraine is seen as a day for quiet reflection of, again, fasting from animal products. This day should not be a day of work.
Holy Friday often sees a procession and veneration of the Holy Shroud, representing the cloth that Christ was buried in after he was taken from the cross.
Easter Saturday, in some regions of Ukraine, is a day for getting the Easter basket blessed (in other regions, the basket is blessed Easter morning).
The Ukrainian Easter basket is a carefully prepared, complex gathering of symbolic foods to be enjoyed with the Easter meal. You’ll notice that the Easter basket celebrates seasonal foods—in the past, the 40 days of fasting for Lent were necessary because food stores were low for the winter. Come spring, however, fresh greens, meat, and dairy products were once again on the menu.
If you’ve read about Polish Easter traditions, you’ll notice some similarities between Polish and Ukrainian Easter baskets. They typically include:
- Paska: A columnar sweet bread, rounded on top, that represents Christ as the bread of Christians
- Sausage: The generosity of God
- Ham, Lamb, or Veal: Joy and abundance
- Horseradish (sometimes with beets): The red of the beets recalls Christ’s blood, while the horseradish is symbolic of the Passion of Christ
- Butter, sometimes shaped into a lamb: Goodness
- Salt: Duty
- Cheese: Moderation
- Boiled eggs: Resurrection
- Bacon: God’s mercy
People occasionally include a votive candle, to be lit at the church service. Greenery, in addition to making the basket more attractive, symbolizes eternal life. People may cover their basket with a beautifully embroidered cloth, sometimes with traditional Ukrainian designs.
You’ll find similar folk designs on Ukrainian Easter eggs, which are also likely to make it into these baskets!
After the early-morning church service, Ukrainians begin their Easter feast. What begins with a breakfast or brunch with items from the Easter basket spans the whole day. Of the many delicious foods served for Easter in Ukraine, the following are some of the most popular:
- Cabbage rolls (holubtsi)
- Dumplings (pyrohy, varenyky)
- Sorrel (shchavel) soup
- Poppyseed roll
- Cheesecake (syrnyk)
More must be said about paska, the Easter bread found in Ukrainian Easter baskets. This bread has a long history surrounded by beliefs and superstitions, and even its baking was surrounded by ritual.
Though paska can be iced, it was traditionally (and still is, sometimes) decorated with special symbols. The three-pronged (fire, air, water) tryhver symbol as well as a cross are common. Today, the cross it represents Christ’s cross, but in pre-Christian Ukraine, it denoted the four seasons or north, south, east, and west. Whirls and twists are also popular decorations for the paska.
Ukrainian Easter Eggs
The best-known symbol of Easter in Ukraine is undoubtedly decorated eggs. Plain, colored eggs are called kryshanky. As in the Latvian Easter tradition, the original plain dyed eggs were colored using natural dyes garnered from natural materials, such as onion skins.
Ukrainian eggs decorated with geographic shapes, lines, animals, and representations of the natural world are called pisanky. These bright, symbolic eggs are given their patterns by artists using age-old techniques. The eggs are called pisanky for a reason—the name derives from the Ukrainian word “to write.” The idea is that artists “write” on the eggs.
To do this, they use a tool called a kiska. The kiska as a reservoir for melted wax that then flows through the nib of the kiska like ink through a pen. The wax is used to draw lines and other patterns on the egg.
Then, when the egg is dipped in dye, the shell underneath the wax remains white (or whatever color the egg was previously dyed). This “wax-resist” method has been perfected by expert Ukrainian egg artists over generations.
You’ll find these beautiful examples of Ukrainian folk art at Easter markets, folk fairs, or souvenir shops dedicated to folk art. Of course, many pisanky artists are also online, showcasing and selling their work to a broader public.
Uses for Ukrainian Eggs
Easter in Ukraine has traditionally seen many uses for decorated eggs, both as a part of superstitions and as a part of enjoying the holiday.
Easter eggs may have been placed on graves, given as gifts, or bestowed upon the less fortunate.
They were also used in games, such as egg-rolling games, where players rolled the eggs between themselves to see which one withstood this effort without cracking. Egg-cracking, on the other hand, like in the Easter traditions of other countries, saw two players cracking their eggs together end to end to see whose egg came out without damage.
Celebrations of Easter in Ukraine
It’s probably no surprise, with Ukraine placing such high emphasis on Easter as a holiday, that festivals have traditionally been held to showcase Ukrainian Easter crafts and customs to the public—including visitors who may be curious about Easter in Ukraine.
For example, the Shevchenkivsky Gai Open-Air Museum hosts a folk festival that demonstrates Ukrainian Easter traditions, with traditional songs serving as entertainment and favorite Easter foods available to be sampled.
In Kyiv, huge painted eggs are displayed as a part of the Pysanky Festival. Furthermore, Kyiv’s Easter Fair is a Ukrainian Easter market where anyone and everyone can stock up on easter-related items.
Of course, smaller cities may also have their own Easter markets or Easter festivals where local customs, folk entertainment, and pysanky are on show.
A Note about Religion Regarding Easter in Ukraine
The date for Easter in Ukraine follows the Orthodox Church calendar. The majority of believers in Ukraine associate themselves with Orthodox Christianity, which follows the Julian calendar. That means dates for Easter in Ukraine are different than followers of Roman Catholicism or other Western branches of Christianity.
Therefore, Easter in Ukraine is celebrated later than Easter in Western European nations.